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Don’t Let the Numbers Get You Down

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SAIC’s #3 ranking not reflective of artistic drive, enrollment

by Chrissy Turpin

Every year, U.S. News and World Report releases its graduate school rankings, based on student evaluations and specific data surveys compiled and submitted by the educational institutions themselves.

After the most recent cycle of evaluations, nominations and voting (conducted in 2008, and published in April of this year), the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) again came out in the top three. The school’s exact ranking? Third.

Illus. by Colin Grimm

Illus. by Colin Grimm

Top positions went to rival schools, with the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) ranking first and the Yale University School of Art as runner-up. In an ongoing battle for first place, in recent years all three schools have shifted in and out of the top spot.

In 1997, SAIC was ranked number one in the U.S. News rankings, and has been consistently ranked in the top three ever since, according to the School’s website, www.saic.edu. In a 2007 edition of the U.S. News rankings, conducted from a 2003 survey, all three schools were tied for top M.F.A. programs, with SAIC ranking first in Photography.

For its current Master of Fine Arts program rankings, U.S. News relied solely on the results of a peer assessment survey — including information culled from faculty and staff, as well as administration. This survey is comprised of responses from two academics and/or deans from each of the top 220 M.F.A. programs in art and design.

“The specialty fine arts rankings are based solely on ratings by educators at peer schools. [Respondents] were asked to nominate up to ten programs noted for their excellence in each specialty. Those that received the most nominations are listed,” explains U.S. News writer Robert Morse in “Fine Arts Ranking Methodology” on the publication’s website.

School representatives rated the academic quality of programs, ranking them on a scale of one to five (marginal to outstanding, respectively). Scores for each school were totaled and divided by the number of evaluators.

However, the ranking number itself is not the issue; top three is still top three. Whether or not SAIC remains an impressive figure among art and design schools across the country is of greater concern.

Outside of peer recognition, what makes an art school impressive to begin with? Top quality programs? Distinguished faculty and alumni? A history of cutting-edge theory and artistic practice? SAIC already has all of this, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by other institutions.

“This school has been around for over 150 years. In the course of that time, it has been a part of the changes in thinking about art and thinking about design,” says outgoing President “Duke” Wellington Reiter in a video entitled “Why SAIC?” on the “President’s Welcome” page of the SAIC website.

He continues, “This really is a place that trains leaders in the arts. One of the great things about SAIC is that it takes a broad view of the impact of the arts on an entire population.”

The SAIC graduate program, arguably more professionally focused than other programs nationwide, allows students to specialize in a specific area, and still explore other ideas with faculty members who are accomplished artists and dedicated teachers.

“The faculty is just excellent,” said Dean of Faculty Lisa Wainwright in an interview with F Newsmagazine. “Colleagues choose colleagues, so our committees for hiring are made up of faculty and there is a tremendous amount of screening.

“It’s not just about hiring superstars in the art world,” she continued, “but good teachers. We’re not simply a research institution, nor are we simply a teaching institution. We really prize both pieces, so our faculty are excellent in the classroom and excellent professionally. It’s all about the faculty.”

When number three means being third in the line of 220 M.F.A. programs, then there are only two schools holding you back. When those two schools have been attempting to snatch the top spot from you for several years running, being number three can feel a little defeating.

Especially when, by all other standards of excellence beyond these rankings, SAIC continues to be successful. In 2002, Columbia University’s National Arts Journalism Survey named SAIC the “most influential art school in the United States.” SAIC was rated first by 20 critics in the survey; 12 critics chose Yale, and 11 chose RISD.

Northwestern University’s Cecile Vannucci noted in a February 2010 report that the School has experienced an increase in attendance every year since 2003 with a three percent increase between Fall 2008 and Fall 2009.

And, according to Rose Milkowski, Vice-President of Enrollment Management at SAIC, actual graduate applications have increased by thirty-nine percent in the last two years. For the 2010-2011 school year, application submissions have already surpassed the 2,706 applications received for 2009-2010, with new ones being submitted every day.

SAIC’s graduate program has a retention rate of at least 90 percent every year. With rising admissions numbers comes rising financial gain, certainly impressive in an economical crisis.

Wainwright emphasized that there are no changes in policy, programs, or marketing strategy in response to the U.S. News rankings, which she says are more like a popularity contest than an actual indicator of quality because they are “just not predictable.”

The two most competitive programs at SAIC appear to be Photography and Painting, each ranked second behind Yale by U.S. News in 2009. SAIC is also ranked second for its Fiber Arts program, with Cranbrook Academy of Art ranking first and top school overall, RISD ranked fifth. Yale does not have a Fiber Arts program.

Like the rest of society, the art world in general has changed.With a failing economy, and academic and technological competition from other countries, the art world has had to alter itself to become a more marketable, attainable, and relatable field.

“There’s a shift away from an emphasis on theory, from privileging theory; making a craft is [being] pushed forward again. [Former Dean of Faculty] Carol Becker worried about the artist as public intellectual — that might have something to do with [our current] ranking,” Wainright said. She continued, “The art world changed and this became, ‘how has the school changed?’ We have changed. We are very much committed to craft.”

Taking a closer look at the point levels determining the “top three” rankings, there’s only a difference of one tenths of a point between each of the top three schools, and a two tenths of a point difference between SAIC and the fourth ranked school, Cranbrook Academy of Art, in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan — an indication that while third, SAIC is still considered by the art school world to maintain aggressively competitive and innovative practices.

In a tough economy and an even tougher job market, it seems obvious students want the best education they can get. SAIC appears to be thriving academically and artistically, despite numbers that may suggest that we are not number one.

This testimony to the success of M.F.A. programs at SAIC suggests students here find a strength in the school that other institutions perhaps miss: a freedom to practice and explore their art with one of the greatest art collections and inspirations merely footsteps away.

So why should a student attend SAIC? Wainwright is clear: SAIC is top-notch, regardless of the numbers. “We rock. The faculty rocks, the city rocks, the facilities rock, your colleagues rock — it’s a mind-blowing place. I love the energy here,” she said.

“There’s a commitment to a variety of professions and yet everyone feels like we’re on the same team. Everybody ends up at the same opening. The engagement, the people are truly passionate and obsessed, and I love that. You feel it as soon as you walk in the door.”

One Response to Don’t Let the Numbers Get You Down

  1. […] However, the reality seems somewhat different. SAIC is a reputable art institution, named “the most influential art school” by the National Arts Journalism Program. The quality of its Master of Arts (MA) programs’ […]

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