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An Interview with Walter Massey

SAIC President steps down and talks his legacy, challenges, and Beyoncé



illustration by Ryan Blocker

Walter Massey is in the last days of his tenure as president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Massey first sat down with F Newsmagazine when he arrived in 2010. He talked then about his background in the sciences and what he felt that experience would bring to a school of art and design. (Massey is an accomplished physicist.) He spoke with F again and discussed topics ranging from his legacy, the recent part-time faculty discussion around unionization, and his thoughts on Kanye West and Beyoncé.

What was one of your biggest challenges as president and how did you address that?

I’ve been in a number of institutions, you know from my bio. But never one that focused on art and design. And so I had to learn this world. And the thing that made it easy to do was that the school has such a welcoming environment. So I thought I would be viewed with a little suspicion from both students and faculty not for being of their world, and I was not. It was easy for me to learn this world. And some things are very similar. The world of science especially at its most creative end is similar in many aspects to the creative world that artists and designers live in.

There are many issues facing higher education, including prohibitively high tuition and student debt. Can you provide a little insight into how you have thought about these questions of reducing the barriers to access at an institution like SAIC?

First of all, [we are] trying to make sure we contain our cost in areas that are not directly related to the academic and quality of life experience of the students. Secondly, we have put a great deal of effort in trying to generate more scholarship funds for students, especially students who come from economic backgrounds that make it very difficult to afford a school like this. And we focus a great deal on Chicago. Last year in fact, we raised about $3.2 million in scholarships just for Chicago area students, and I feel very proud about that. We also increased the amount money available for scholarships overall by about 40 percent over the last five years — from $27 million to over $38 million. And we’re in the middle of a capital campaign to raise money for scholarships.

One of the highest priorities is need-based scholarships for undergrads and merit-based scholarships for graduate students. The other thing we’ve done which I feel very proud of is that we reduced the cost of an SAIC degree by 5 percent, reduced the number of credit hours from 132 to 126That’s about a $9000 reduction in the total cost of education, and we continue to look for other ways to moderate costs.

We recently published a story about the part-time faculty moves to unionize. Do you have any thoughts or insights into the administration’s relationship with the the faculty and the part-time faculty in particular?

I think we have a very, very good relationship between the administration and the faculty here. And if you don’t take my word for it, speak to the leaders of the faculty. AIC is in a much better position than many places. We take the term “shared governance” very seriously. We have a faculty senate elected by the faculty, not appointed by the administration. Part-time faculty have representation on the faculty senate as they do on all senate committees. Not every place that I know of includes their part-time faculty instructors in the governance of the institutions. That’s good and I feel we have a great relationship. Starting a little over a year ago, we have looked at the compensation and benefits and work patterns for our part-time faculty: adjuncts, and lecturers. And we put in a multi-year planwhich we started this year, that calls for increases in their compensation for teaching. It calls for changes in other workplace activities . The provost and dean of the faculty are in regular dialogue with the leaders of the part-time faculty to address some of their legitimate issues. I’m sure there are areas of disagreement but it’s above board. It’s transparent. It’s civil. And it’s collegial.

How have you thought about leadership transition? Is there anything you have encouraged Elissa Tenny to focus on as you move out of your role as president?

If not the single most thing of which I’m proud but certainly at the top is the way we have managed the transition from myself to Elissa Tenny as president. It’s rare — very rare — in institutions for something like this to happen. It’s almost always the change accompanied by a search process which will take a great deal of time. It’s quite an expensive undertaking. It can disrupt things that are in place. Here, with the cooperation and support of the leadership of the faculty senate, senior staff, and the board of governors and trustees, we were able to have this very smooth transition. Elissa will have her own priorities, her own style, and all of that. But we have worked together as a team for the last six years.

I think the school and community can rest assured that on the basic fundamental initiatives we’ve started like the [capital] campaign, the cost containment issues, the long range plan for the part-time faculty, those things are going to be continued. Speaking about leadership, I believe in collegial teamwork among senior people who report to me. So you can develop a kind of shared vision and shared goals. It doesn’t mean you don’t have disagreements. You disagree quite often. I encourage candid disagreement. But by getting input from a broad spectrum of people, students and faculty, we develop a vision together. And to me the institution is not dependent on one person as “leader.” But leadership as teamwork is a major lesson that I try to impart to others.

You somewhat spoke to this, but what are you most proud of in your role as president?

The presidential transition of course. The Neiman Center. Imagine no place like that to come together. Those of us who have been here longer can see what a difference the center has made in the community spirit of this institution. Another thing I am proud of is that we have made a concerted effort to be engaged in the city of Chicago. Faculty are always engaged in their individual projects. But we created an office of community engagement, and Paul Coffey is the Dean of community engagement.

We put in more programs to recruit more students from Chicago, including the Massey scholars. Second, we started a program to identify students early in Chicago schools which is our College Art Access Program (CAAP). And the third, we’ve made partnerships throughout the city with other institutions. Interestingly enough, one with my old science institution, Argonne National Laboratory. We have programs with Argonne, the University of Chicago, Northwestern, and cultural organizations like the South Side Community Arts Center

We now have our very first off-campus classroom in Homan Square in North Lawndale. That’s a joint project between the community and the school. So it’s not as if we are colonizers imposing what we want in the community. They came to us and asked if we could do certain things to help them. It’s the first year of real operation, but I think over the years we are going to see that blossom.

Another source of pride is we really have started a serious art and science series of activities here. We have lectures, conversations on art and science and we have visiting scientists. We’ve had some very prominent people in that role. And we have courses that are jointly taught between our scientists on the faculty and studio artists. We are now being seen in the world of art and design schools as one of the leading institutions in this sphere of science.

Any thoughts on Beyoncé?

[Laughter] What does that mean? That’s a loaded question! I’ll have to check with my wife. Well, maybe we should start with Kanye [West]. He was fascinating and I spent quite some time with him. And he was the most impressive young man. Very shy almost. Modest. Nothing like his public persona. But he’s brilliant and he’s using his craft and art to make serious statements. I gather this album by Beyoncé is having an effect even beyond that, causing people to write about issues that go way beyond the songs and the music itself. Things about history, politics, culture. So I have not listened to it. But I have been reading about it. So now I have to listen to it and look at the movie.


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