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High Noon at the School of the Art Institute?

There's a new president in town and he may be headed for a showdown over the school's future.

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When "Duke" Wellington Reiter rode into town last August, to take the reins at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, some of the locals got a little nervous. A Harvard-trained architect, and also an artist, Reiter had spent five years as dean of Arizona State University's college of design, in Phoenix, where he'd made a name for himself by lassoing a big pile of money and clearing away a speck of history to build an urban campus (or what passes for urban in those parts). Surveying the SAIC spread, with its herd of 2,900 students roaming through six scattered buildings and 1,200 classes, with no majors or letter grades to brand them, he might've been thinking something along the lines of "Whoa." The scent of change was in the air.

Six months later, in an economy turned dire, Reiter sent a letter to the entire SAIC community, inviting them to a meeting March 19, to discuss the need to "recalibrate our offerings and procedures in response to a host of external conditions."

Reiter warned of a future in which there'll be "more scrutiny of the cost/benefit ratio of an education in the arts," and more competition—especially from "for-profit options that can focus with laser-like precision on a segment of the market and serve them extremely well." In this "financial exigency," he wrote, we need to "focus on our strengths" and "streamline our administrative procedures." With deficits projected for the next two years, he added, budget cuts of about 5 percent will be required.

Reading this, some old hands wondered whether the projected financial crunch will become an excuse for altering the distinctive character of the school, which is known for its broad curriculum and its proud aversion to anything as restrictive and reductive as majors and grades.

Last week, both the school's communications and publications directors got streamlined out of their jobs. Reiter brought the beginnings of his own posse with him, installing Sherrie Medina, former coordinator of strategic initiatives for ASU's college of design, in the newly created position of associate vice president of communications and strategic planning. He's also initiated a search for a provost, adding a layer of administration the SAIC's done without up to now. Until the job's filled, Reiter's having a consultant "focus on the efficiency of our operations and what we can do to align our needs with economic realities"—which will give him more time to focus on his main tasks of being the school's public face and raising money. A search will also be conducted next year for a new dean of faculty to replace Carol Becker, who left in 2007 to become dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University.

Meanwhile, Reiter's observations that it would be more efficient and cost-effective to offer fewer classes and institute something like majors have created tension in a workforce heavy on holdovers from the 18-year, two-stint tenure of the previous president, Tony Jones. During the Jones era, the school ran up a debt that still stands at $140 million—mostly the result of a real estate-buying binge. The budget, now close to $100 million, had recently been balanced by a growing student body (the hefty annual tuition—up to about $35,000, exclusive of room and board—contributes more than 70 percent of the school's operating funds). But now enrollment's topping out: the physical plant is just about at capacity and demand may be in decline. Although applications are at an all-time high for the school—which regularly appears at the top of U.S. News and World Report's art school rankings—enrollment this year fell short of goals by about 70 students in the fall, more in the spring.

And the SAIC's aggressive international recruiting makes it sensitive to global fluctuations. South Korea, for example, is now the source of more than 10 percent of the student body, but the Korean won recently lost about half its value. The SAIC has projected zero enrollment growth for next year, and Reiter says he'll be thrilled if it's not worse than that.

Salaries and hiring have already been frozen and the faculty senate has been working with administrators on a list of potential cuts that includes postponed promotions for some of the school's huge contingent of part-time faculty, modest increases in class size, and mothballing some programs. Also up for discussion: a possible cut in the number of credits needed for a BA or BFA, ostensibly while holding tuition steady.

Reiter has noted that ASU's design school has about the same number of students as the SAIC, but offers just a quarter of the programs and classes. In a phone interview last week, he put it this way: "I'm not in favor of reducing everything by a little bit. At a certain point you have to put your current way of doing business aside and say, 'How would we do it to save considerably more money, and so that everything we presented was first-rate?' You can keep all of your programs intact, but in such a diminished format that it's not good for the school—or, you could say, 'We're the best in these areas, and we just can't do it all. And the high-performing units, the high-flying faculty that give us our number one, two, or three rating, those things we have to build upon and make sure they stay great.' I'm sure for some it might be unsettling, but I'm upbeat about this."

But acting dean of faculty Lisa Wainwright says, "I'm in favor of making small cuts rather than lopping off programs." The SAIC's breadth of offerings and open curriculum "defines who we are as an art school," she says, and "differentiates us. We're not a vocational school. We do independent experimental media. It's a humanist education."

Reiter's first six months have "been a real challenge," Wainwright admits. "But that's always true with anybody new. He's definitely more of a business guy than we're used to, but we need some of that. Has he played it perfectly? I would say no.... But can we make it work? Absolutely. He has a vision for how to move the school forward, and he'll do that in consultation with the faculty."

Anders Nereim, director of the SAIC's master of architecture program, says Reiter "comes, with a reputation for great urban design initiatives and thinking outside the box, to a school that has been around 150 years. The school is protean, the school is unique, the school has a culture unlike any other, and it's very hard to get a fix on it.... The question [is], Will he be able to see the School of the Art Institute? Will he find the things to love in it? Because you have to see, you have to know, and you have to love the School of the Art Institute in order to lead it."

Other faculty I talked with say they'll be attending the March 19 meeting to learn more, looking to see whether Reiter maintains what they regard as the core ideology of the school. Late last year, a small group of them formed the SAIC's first-ever chapter of the American Association of University Professors—as close as the law allows full-time faculty at private colleges to come to a union. And on March 18 the faculty are holding their own symposium: "Change in Higher Education," with speakers including author Marc Bousquet (How the University Works) and union official Jamie Owen Daniel.v

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