Art School's Canvas of Success and Controversy

Savannah College of Art and Design aims to give students a palette of skills

A crumbling power station and an armory building with turrets are not usually considered sought-after real estate. But to Richard and Paula Rowan, proprietors of one of the largest fine arts schools in the country, they are the stuff of which a campus is made.

The Rowans, ambitious educators from Atlanta, launched the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) almost 20 years ago. Today, the campus includes the armory, power station, and 45 other buildings, many that have been restored.

They chose Savannah, Ga., they say, because it is a "beautiful, old city with tremendous potential." Richard Rowan, who worked on many of the early building restorations, says, "We wanted to be the largest, best, and least expensive art school in the country."

Many students say the school provides a good, reasonably priced education. Residents often praise it for helping to revitalize Georgia's oldest city. But along with this success has come a Michelangelo-sized controversy over the Rowans' administrative style and what some charge is an approach that curtails academic freedom.

An aggressive marketing program and an entrepreneurial approach have helped SCAD grow from a single building and 71 students to its 47-building campus and enrollment of 4,000, including students from every state and 67 countries. Mr. Rowan, the school's president, expects to have between 6,000 to 7,000 students within the next five years.

Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, describes the school as "a living laboratory." The private college, which occupies 1 million square feet of space in the historic district, has received several awards for historic preservation and will sponsor the National Trust's 1998 National Preservation Conference.

Revitalizing the city

Many Savannahians feel that no one, with the possible exception of John Berendt, author of the bestselling "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," has contributed as much as the school has to the urban renewal of the coastal city.

"Even though SCAD is a young institution, it's been a major economic generator for the city and region," says Peter Armato, executive director of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority. "It's created new jobs and a variety of spin-off industries."

Students use state-of-the-art equipment and instruction focuses on building the knowledge and skills necessary to compete in today's job market. Even students in the painting department take an introductory course in computers to earn about digital imaging tools.

"SCAD has beautiful studio spaces and the latest facilities," says John Farkas, vice president of development and public affairs for the Atlanta College of Art.

While SCAD offers 17 majors and several masters programs, it focuses on highly marketable skills like computer art - now the largest major on campus - graphic arts, and industrial design. "We don't buy into the old starving artist idea," says Rowan. "We pride ourselves on our placement success."

Controversial team

Despite their contributions, the college's president and his wife, who serves as the provost, have been a controversial team. Critics feel the school is operating more like a tightly held family business than a nonprofit institution of higher education. The couple, known for their strained relationship with the media, are reluctant to discuss the problems that dog them.

While the school is still relatively small, the Rowans reportedly earn a combined income of more than $600,000, making them among the most highly paid educators in the country. Several family members, including Paula Rowan's parents, sister, and brother-in-law are on the staff.

In the past, several members of the board, faculty, and students have felt that the Rowans were heavy-handed administrators. Author Pat Conroy, a former trustee and long-time critic, resigned from the board, saying the directors had no real duties or authority. "An iron curtain stretches across that campus," he says.

Faculty, who are hired on an annual basis and are not tenured, have also spoken out about the lack of representation and the lack of academic freedom. In 1993, the American Association of University Professors voted to censure the college for ousting, without due process, faculty who supported the move for a student government.

The school has had high faculty turnover and is still on the censure list, says Jordan Kurland, associate general secretary for the AAUP.

But the school also has many supporters. Savannah preservationist Lee Adler, a SCAD booster, says, "The college brings in between $300 to $500 million a year - it's been a godsend for the city - the Rowans are worth every nickel they get."

"I don't care how much the Rowans are making," says Warren Grubb, a recent graduate with a degree in computer art. Mr. Grubb, now working with an Atlanta multimedia production company, says, "I got a good education at a reasonable price."

Darrell Naylor-Johnson, a SCAD graduate and a six-year faculty member says, "I've never had any problems with academic freedom on this campus. I write my own syllabus and teach what I want to teach."

The college has also been embroiled in several multimillion-dollar lawsuits.

Two suits were settled out of court. But a $12.4 million action brought by students prevented from registering after they called for a student government in 1992 is pending. The students are determined to see the case go to trial.

Nancy Weber, executive vice president, notes that legal disputes are to be expected on today's campuses. "Colleges have a lot of litigation - we live in a litigious world," she says.

As SCAD approaches its 20th anniversary, Rowan plans to add programs in the performing arts. He also expects to increase the number of Hispanic, Asian, and European students as well as the number of buildings and faculty. With characteristic optimism, he says, "I'm more interested in what's going to be than what was. I like to look to the future."

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