The Savannah College of Art and Design: It Started as a Dream
The Savannah College of Art and Design — SCAD — offers more degree programs and specializations than any other art and design university and is equipped to prepare talented students for professional creative careers.
The Savannah College of Art and Design was founded in 1978 in southeast Georgia by Richard G. Rowan, Paula Wallace, May L. Poetter and Paul E. Poetter with the objective of delivering specialized arts education and effective career preparation for students from throughout the United States and abroad. SCAD president Paula Wallace, one of the longest-serving women presidents in the history of U.S. higher education, honoured Dolce with an exclusive interview, where she discussed the origins of the university and its commitment to its students, known as the Bees.
Q: How did your childhood help develop your desire to become an educator and bestow the gift of knowledge upon others?
A: I’ve loved learning, discovery and the acquisition of new knowledge from the very beginning. My parents set me loose in a sea of books! Early mornings I read as I reclined on our front porch. Late at night, under the covers, I devoured stories by the glow of a flashlight. Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White and The Black Stallion series by Walter Farley were first loves. I leafed through tattered paperbacks till the covers fell off! My literary orbit expanded to subsume other books and other stories — like A Wrinkle in Time — transporting me to far- off lands and providing insight into the deepest mysteries of the human heart and mind. The wonderment of reading sparked a lifelong love of learning and filled my soul with an outpouring that I knew I had to share with others. My parents gave me other gifts as well. My mother was a teacher, and I inherited my predilections and passion for education from her. As a language arts educator in the Atlanta Public Schools, she was so engaged, circulating among her students in a dialogue to learn what they each needed as individuals. She always told me “A teacher on her feet is worth two in the seat” — meaning that walking the classroom and kneeling down next to the student who needs extra help is the real way to reach someone. I have hewed to this principle all my life, even in my incredibly busy work as SCAD president. On any given day, you’ll find me participating in classes and making studio visits with our students. I don’t really sit down unless I’m doing Pilates, and that’s pretty active, too! I’m a high-energy person who’s called to stay busy.
Q: What inspired you to create SCAD?
A: My career in education truly began when I first taught piano lessons in high school. I loved sitting right alongside my students, nurturing, guiding, watching (and hearing!) them shine. Though I seriously considered a career in classical piano, I ultimately chose education. I’ve always been fascinated by the science of learning and the psychology of positive reinforcement. After college, I began teaching elementary school in the Atlanta Public Schools, following in my mother’s footsteps. Learners that age burble with inventive curiosity. They haven’t yet had it drummed into them that there are “wrong” answers, so they experiment and probe for solutions. So why teach them in one uniform, stultifying way? Instead of delivering dusty chalkboard lectures, I whisked them away on field trips — to museums for history, to the botanical gardens for biology, to city hall for civics. I had them write and stage plays about concepts learned in class. We made films with original scores. The fun was the learning. In those early years, I saw the potential of creative approaches to education. The leap from elementary school to SCAD was intuitive. Why not apply experiential learning at the college level? I’d never seen myself as a university founder, but why not? My parents taught me to dream. I founded SCAD to help students harness their natural creativity and apply it to problem-solving, to invent solutions, to discover the fulfilling lifelong careers they want. That’s where SCAD was born. SCAD also addressed a specific need for an elite art and design college in the South. None existed at the time, and it seemed unfair for my neighbours’ children to be forced to travel great distances for the specialized education they sought. (Now students are attracted to SCAD from all 50 states — and 108 countries!) I wanted to create the world’s first university for creative careers. Today, creators are revered in our society. No one begrudges them the right to make a living. But in 1978, remember, the notion of the nobly starving artist was quite in vogue. SCAD was at the forefront of eradicating that tired stereotype. Students have always been the focus of SCAD. Back in the 1970s, universities catered to faculty, providing soft landing spots for them to research, to publish. SCAD would instead hire teachers to teach, and we would focus on the needs of our Bees (the SCAD mascot!) above all. What would help our students get the most out of their undergrad experience? Credentialed professors in the classroom, not grad student teachers! No classes on Fridays, so students could focus in the studio and receive one-on-one instruction from their professors. Field trips for every class. Travel! Instead of semesters, SCAD adopted the quarter system — proven to increase learning outcomes. SCAD stood out from traditional higher education from the very beginning.
Q: You sold your Volkswagen to create SCAD in 1978. How did that happen?
A: Remember when the Blues Brothers traded their car for a microphone? Well, I traded my car for a university! I adored that car. My beloved banana- yellow VW3 Beetle! When I founded SCAD, I was in my late 20s and had way more dreams than capital. We needed to raise cash to make SCAD a reality, so I sold my beloved car. As they say, to achieve great things you have to be willing to sacrifice that which you most love. And boy, I loved that car. (In happy homage, SCAD now has a small fleet of VW Beetles wrapped distinctively in alumni art to shuttle guests around campus!) To fund SCAD, my sweet, devoted parents sold their home to help pay for SCAD’s first building, the former armoury in downtown Savannah now known as Poetter Hall. They also traded their leisurely retirement for volunteer labour — all to help me realize my dream of creating a university for creatives. Clearly, a lot of love went into rehabilitating Poetter Hall and all the other SCAD buildings that came after it. SCAD has forged a global reputation for our expertise in heritage conservation and adaptive reuse. More than 100 of our buildings are historic.
Q: As someone who has dedicated her life to all facets of education from public schools to post- secondary education, what is your greatest concern for students today? What are some of the hurdles they must overcome?
A: Today’s SCAD students are members of gen-Z. They’ve seen quite a lot of history in their lives! More than anything, they long for safety, security, care, and a rewarding lifelong career. It’s no secret that gen-Z is more comfortable talking about anxiety and depression. That’s what I mean by “care” here. They’re far more honest about their own mental wellness needs. Plus, having come of age during the Great Recession of 2008 (when many saw their parents lose their homes and livelihoods) and the recent pandemic — well, these students are hyper-aware of global realities. They want recession- proof, pandemic-proof careers! They want to be future-proof. They’re as passionate about finding lifelong careers and establishing economic stability as the Greatest Generation. SCAD looks after our students’ emotional well-being with myriad thoughtful programs like SCADcares, which offers a type of one-on-one care that doesn’t exist, to my knowledge, anywhere else in higher education. SCADcares provides individual concierge support and personal attention to students, alumni, families and communities — for any reason. Also, our Bee Well initiative focuses on the three pillars of wellness — emotional, physical and social — to ensure that students take a comprehensive look at their health. The built environment is a core tenet of wellness at SCAD. We provide our students with the most breathtaking, joyful built environment in all of higher education to give them the incentive to stay on campus and in class, where they can receive all the intellectual and emotional support they need. Universities have a responsibility to act somewhat in loco parentis, to truly take care of the students in their charge. Gen-Z students and their parents want personal attention; they want students to be cared for, loved, and prepared for their professions. SCAD takes this responsibility very seriously.
Q: Do you feel that the high-school education system can better nurture students’ artistic passion and skill sets?
A: High schools do a fine job with students — that’s where students generalize. College is where they need to specialize. My concern is other colleges that insist students should keep generalizing! The university of yesteryear is flawed, faltering, and failing students, as the precipitous decline in liberal arts enrolment illustrates. Half of all college grads feel unprepared for their postgraduate careers. If universities aren’t preparing graduates for their professional lives, who will? The problem here is that conventional universities don’t change. They have too much invested in outmoded traditions to seriously address what families and employers want and need. When Mark Strassmann of CBS Evening News came to campus recently for a story on American innovation and asked me how often SCAD updates our curriculum, my answer surprised him. “Every year,” I said. Well- researched, intentional and continual evolution of SCAD degree programs, with promising careers in mind, is but one reason why SCAD enrolment continues to break records. Where others prize tradition, SCAD leans into the future. That’s why we intentionally seek out STEM students in high schools, in addition to students who have a natural love for the fine and performing arts. Just about everything we teach at SCAD involves science, technology and quantitative thinking: architecture, visual effects, sound design, social marketing and strategy, the business of luxury and fashion marketing, you name it. At SCAD, we welcome students who might not have a traditional fine arts background, focusing as much on demonstrated problem-solving and analytical thinking as on portfolios. High school is the time to generalize. College is the time to specialize.
Q: What inspired you to open a SCAD campus abroad, in Lacoste, France?
A: I could do an entire interview on SCAD Lacoste and what it means to me and to our students! One reason I created the Lacoste location is because research proves that employers prefer candidates who’ve travelled widely — a key factor in developing independence and curiosity. How did it happen? Well, the Lacoste School of the Arts called me in 2001, on the brink of closure. Aware of SCAD’s international renown for heritage conservation, they wanted to gift us their 18 Lacoste properties, knowing SCAD could breathe new life into them. The buildings were crumbling but the first time I surveyed the wondrous Luberon Valley from Lacoste’s hilltop, I saw all the possibilities that Lacoste could offer our students — the light, the air, the inspiration. Today, SCAD Lacoste comprises 66 properties — including the most spectacular and inspired residence halls and studios in all of international higher education — and we’ve hosted thousands of students, alumni and guests over the last two decades. Many graduates tell me their experience at SCAD Lacoste is their most cherished memory.
Q: For those who intend to apply to SCAD in the years to come, what are some of the qualities that SCAD looks for in a prospective student?
A: Unquenchable curiosity, a gift for invention, a strong work ethic, and a compelling instinct to make the world a better place. SCAD is the world’s preeminent entrepreneurship university. We prepare the business leaders of tomorrow, which is why I created SCADpro, a high-performance boutique business and research consultancy that provides fast, smart, bottom-line business results for hundreds of global clients. Under the guidance of our expert faculty, SCADpro students solve creative challenges for Fortune 100 clients in finance, health care, hospitality, entertainment, technology, automotive, e-commerce, and more: BMW, Volvo, Gulfstream, Chanel, Delta, Coca-Cola, Google, Fidelity Investments, Movado, Hermès, FilmHedge, the Mayo Clinic, MGM Resorts — how much time do you have? I could go all day — Disney, Amazon, Mercedes-Benz, Deloitte. The list is long! And of course there’s SCAD SERVE, our in-house consultancy that specifically partners with other NGOs and community welfare groups, just like SCADpro partners with businesses, to invent and innovate. For example, just this year SCAD students collaborated with Deloitte to use quantum computing to optimize space launches and to address problems endemic to homelessness. SCAD seeks students who want to change the world!
“I AM PROUD TO KNOW THAT, WITH OUR 99 PER CENT EMPLOYMENT RATE FOR SCAD GRADS, ALL OF US AT SCAD TRULY HAVE CAUSE TO CELEBRATE.”
Q: What memory brings a smile every time you think about it?
A: My favourite is not a single memory but a cascade of similar memories that follow one after the other, like waves gently lapping at the shore: the smiling faces at SCAD Commencement, thousands of them, happy grads, parents, siblings, grandparents all full-to-bursting with pride over their newly crowned graduates’ accomplishments. I can literally see the realization of dreams coming true in real time, over and over again. The accumulation of all of those triumphant shouts and hugs and fist bumps, that’s why I do what I do. That’s what all of the hard work and long nights — for me and for the grads — are all about. And I am proud to know that with our 99 per cent employment rate for SCAD grads, all of us at SCAD truly have cause to celebrate.
Q: What is your definition of a leader?
A: Earlier, I spoke about my daily hands-on engagement with students, alumni and faculty members on the proverbial factory floor of SCAD. That’s a leader. I loathe the word “manage.” Management is passive! True leaders are never complacent. Leaders act. Leaders take the high road. Leaders carefully consider consequences. Leaders walk. Leaders move. Leaders listen. Leaders ask questions and seek answers. Leaders make well-founded decisions with empathy and intuition. For example, while observing SCAD industrial design classes a few years ago (where students create products like boats, cars, tableware, toys, medical devices, and more), I noticed, in almost every class, that several students had chosen to design concepts for new athletic shoes. This got me thinking. My team and I did research about the demand for athletic shoes and before long, SCAD launched the first-ever sneaker-design minor. All because I got out of the office and walked the floor in sneaks of my own! This fall, we launch an MA and MFA in sneaker design. SCAD designers already dominate this $80-billion-dollar-a-year business. We’re in it to win it.
Q: What does la dolce vita mean to you?
A: It means living your dream every day in concert with others. I live a sweet life because I’m fortunate enough to help our Bees discover and live their own best lives. What could be sweeter than honey?