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Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture (winter 2001)
Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture
IN RECENT YEARS, the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture has been engaged in a struggle for its survival. Although there was a hint of the troubles to come when National CrossTalk profiled the school in 2001, its accreditation seemed reasonably secure. But in 2005 the National Architectural Accrediting Board reduced the school’s status to “on notice,” and the Higher Learning Commission, an independent regional accrediting agency whose approval is necessary for accreditation by the national board, warned the school that it could lose its accreditation entirely.
The turmoil began in 2004 when a report became public saying that the school’s two facilities–Taliesin West and a sister campus in Wisconsin–needed $100 million for future development and restoration work (an estimate that later skyrocketed to more than $200 million). The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which operates the school, determined to make leadership changes, and fired the foundation’s CEO. Dean John Wyatt resigned in protest, and most of the faculty subsequently left. Enrollment dropped from 22 to five.
In June 2005 the Higher Learning Commission issued its harsh assessment, questioning the school’s fulfillment of basic educational values, such as “acquisition of a breadth of knowledge and skills and the exercise of intellectual inquiry.” The commission also leveled criticism at the school’s governance and expressed doubt about its financial stability.
Big changes were needed.
The foundation hired Victor Sidy to be the new dean in August 2005. Sidy, who had studied at the school for five years in the 1990s and was well acquainted with its philosophy, said in an interview that he was hired “to help rebuild the organization.” Sidy referred to the staff resignations as “an event that really showed that the Frank Lloyd Wright organization was not healthy.”
“What I did with my team was to evaluate the possibilities within the organization, to find ways of leveraging those possibilities to achieve success,” Sidy said. “We streamlined the administration, we hired faculty, and we increased our enrollment. We clarified our admissions standards, developed strategic plans, and we revamped our curriculum. A lot of it was in response to some excellent recommendations from our institutional and professional accrediting bodies in 2005.”
Many of the changes put in place could be seen as “mainstreaming,” but Sidy resists the use of that term. “There are so many opportunities that are available to us as a result of our increasing openness,” he said. “I would not call it mainstreaming, but rather taking the core values of the institution and interpreting them in a contemporary way. That word, ‘interpretation,’ has become a touchstone for us.”
This summer, there was an important “benchmark moment” with regard to accreditation, and the school performed well. “Our ‘on-notice’ status has been removed,” Sidy said. The Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture enjoys full accreditation once again.
The school currently has 19 students, five of whom are women, which represents a slightly more favorable ratio than in 2001. “We are now moving to a more balanced enrollment,” Sidy said, noting that the gap between men and women in the architectural field is closing as well.
While the school still has no grades, there now are formal classes. And the 38 knowledge and ability areas (or “K/As”) that students were expected to master have been reduced in number to 33, and are now called “performance criteria.”
And students (the term is now used interchangeably with “apprentices”) are allowed to take off-campus jobs. “We are now encouraging our students to develop internships—to work as interns in the architectural community beyond the walls of Taliesin,” Sidy said, adding that these changes have been well received.
“We are also embarking on an aggressive building assessment and conservation program at both campuses,” Sidy said. “The Frank Lloyd Wright organization expanded its studios, which are really the classrooms, the drafting studios, and there was a restoration of living quarters in Arizona, which is peripheral to the school, but important for the organization.”
Annual tuition, which includes room and board, has grown from $9,600 in 2001 to $17,000 in 2007. The Frank Lloyd Wright organization, which continues to derive the majority of its funding from visitors to Taliesin and Taliesin West, is also providing funding for a push to increase the size of the school’s endowment, which is “in the high $500,000s,” according to Sidy. “At the moment we are in the process of engaging in a capital campaign which we hope will substantially enlarge that endowment for student scholarships, faculty fellowships, and program initiatives,” Sidy said. “We are hoping to celebrate our endowment’s million dollar mark within the next two to four years.”