Former president Denise Mullen responds to the loss of Oregon College of Art and Craft

The small art college faced a difficult financial environment and failed to pursue a possible path to solvency

By DENISE MULLEN

Editor’s note: Denise Mullen has written a public response to the decision by the board of directors of the Oregon College of Art and Craft to fold the college and sell the campus to Catlin Gabel School. Mullen served as president of the college from 2010 until September 10, 2018. Her response discusses the difficult fiscal environment that all small colleges face, especially arts colleges, and her efforts to develop a path toward financial success while she was president, efforts that  were not taken up by the board of directors.

The almost unbearable sadness that I personally feel at the loss of Oregon College of Art and Craft begins with the current students, alums, faculty, staff and Board members and extends to those through the years of this remarkable institution that have helped shape what OCAC has become today. The loss is greater than that of a loved one because of the numbers of people affected.

Denise Mullen

Beyond the OCAC campus, there have been public outcries, calls and serious offers to save the college. Our Portland community feels this loss as a blow to our collective cultural identity, and rightly so, but you might not be aware of the larger loss to higher education that the OCAC closing—as well as the merging and closing of so many other small private colleges—is having on higher education across the country. This reflection on, and lamentation for, OCAC will attempt to put the specifics of OCAC in the context of the larger crisis in higher education.

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The OCAC faculty members have created a learning environment that is unique—yes, unique—in college art education today. Combining the haptic (the neurological benefits of the handmade) with materials knowledge to carry out conceptual and expressive ideas is not the norm in current art instruction. Further, the faculty has been unflinchingly devoted to teaching the OCAC students—not a characteristic of all faculties. The bold students who have chosen OCAC have made exponential use of the faculty’s time obtaining their undergraduate and graduate degrees, not to mention those enrolled over the years in the youth and adult programming. After all, the origin of OCAC was an informal group of professional crafts people, led by Julia Hoffman, during the industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. OCAC is the history of Portland, forming a through-line from the native populations to the lumber families to today’s focus on the craft of the hand-made. It is Oregon personified. And it’s going the way of the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Marylhurst University’s Art Gym (and Marylhurst itself), even the Art Institute (the one in Portland among others)—all lost to our community. Why?

A part of the answer comes from the change sweeping higher education today in the U.S., specifically how the many small, private, specially-focused colleges that play a critical role in the education of our populace have been affected. There have been numerous articles on this topic recently. Having been in visual arts higher education for more than 40 years in public and private, multi-purpose and art-specific colleges in the U.S. and Canada, and as the immediate past-President of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, I speak from direct experience.

We all know we are in a period of declining college enrollments due to a smaller national demographic of college-age students and an increasing erosion of confidence in the value of a college degree. Return on investment, or ROI, is regularly questioned in the media given the debt students must often assume to complete their degrees. With private colleges averaging $30,000-$50,000 per year in tuition (OCAC is on the low end with undergrad tuition in the low $30s and grad tuition in the high $30s) access to many private institutions is simply not financially possible for a large component of college-age students in the middle class, much less those families and students with lower incomes, without loans. Many of these families could not save for college and many who did, had their funds diverted after the 2008 financial downturn. With the rise of the digital world and the subsequent changes in accessing information, a costly educational experience is increasingly questioned as the gateway to successful careers, though the data show otherwise. In addition, the recent admissions bribery scandals have further demoralized those striving to enter honestly. Through the fog of controversy, a college education is still the proven requisite for a lifetime of success whether in a career or simply as a knowledgeable person.

The Oregon College of Art and Craft campus/Photo by Bruce Forster

As with all aspects of the educational system, the current trends are more pronounced in our smaller colleges (under 500 students) making these institutions, like OCAC, the “canaries in the coal mine.” During the past five years, we’ve seen seven of OCAC’s sister, free-standing art colleges with modest endowments forced into a decision to close or merge because, among other factors, they were not able to remain financially viable with only two revenue streams—tuition and philanthropy. The Memphis College of Art closed; The Corcoran College of Art + Design and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC merged with George Washington University and the National Gallery respectively; the Lyme Academy in Lyme, Connecticut, merged with the University of New Haven (this merger has broken down after several years, and the Lyme Board is looking for other options); the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston merged with Tufts University; New Hampshire College of Art is preparing to merge. OCAC and PNCA once again investigated merging, followed by merger talks between OCAC and PSU.

In each successful merger, the art colleges desired to remain distinct entities within the larger institution and, over time, did not. According to a number of experts in the field, including Portland’s William Deresiewicz (http://www.billderesiewicz.com/), art colleges are an excellent source of creative thinking and innovative problem solving. These characteristics of the creative process lead to independent thought and innovation and are applicable to any career a graduate might pursue. When small private art colleges close or merge and lose their distinctive educational approaches, an important aspect of higher education is diminished: independent thinking through the creative process.

It’s interesting that in the above list of merged or closed art colleges, a new building factored in the demise of three of them. As with so many small colleges that either purchased or built a new building, the aftermath of that initiative, particularly post-2008, was often not fully understood nor thought out. Prior to the building of the architect-designed Jean Vollum Drawing, Painting and Photography Building completed in 2010, OCAC consistently ran modest operating deficits that were covered by private donations. OCAC’s operating deficits post-building (before depreciation) more than doubled annually. The college leadership set about to meet the challenge, with the help of the new building, to raise the profile of the college, extoll the advantages of the OCAC educational experience, and plan the financial strategy to nourish them. Graduate programs, approved for the college by the regional and national accrediting agencies in 2012 (retroactive to 2010), provided an influx of enrollment on the graduate level. But rather than increase revenue, grad enrollment countered a decline in undergrad enrollment due to the demographic shift.

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On the fundraising side, the college regularly raised more than $1 million annually (on the high end for freestanding art colleges of comparable size). And though the annual gala brought in increasing revenues (and record revenue in 2018) a well-planned Major Gifts Campaign, vetted through a feasibility study, failed to launch in 2018 in a landscape of multiple regional capital campaigns. For context, Oregon has one of the highest percentages of non-profits per capita and a small, yet enthusiastic, philanthropic community to support them. Further, former regional and national foundation funders changed their focus areas from higher education and the arts to social and cultural initiatives after the 2016 elections.

At issue is not just art colleges. Looking at other categories of small colleges, Sweet Briar College, a woman’s college in Virginia, and Bennett College, a black woman’s college in North Carolina, mustered one-time fundraising campaigns when faced with closing. Sweet Briar and Bennett have survived for the moment thanks to their “extreme” fundraising initiatives. Sweet Briar raised $21 million (primarily from the efforts of alums) and Bennett, $5 million (led by a gift from a well-known philanthropist) to address their immediate financial challenges. Now they must consistently maintain their non-tuition revenue generation, beyond the period of crisis—a hard task indeed. Most recently Hampshire College has joined the ranks of small private colleges at risk with its Board moving to close the institution.

In 2014, facing these trends and realizing that the dual revenue streams of tuition and philanthropy were not sufficient long-term to support the OCAC model of mentor- and materials-based education—an excellent educational model and a challenging financial model—the OCAC Board and administration adopted a multi-pronged strategic plan which included pursuing a third revenue stream. Larger deficits were temporarily approved to fund the strategic plan and its components: launching a major gifts campaign, intensifying student recruitment, and developing a third revenue stream. During this time, senior staff voluntarily donated 10% to 20% of their salaries to the college and faculty patiently waited for salary increases.

The third revenue stream focused on the one asset the college had: land. A defining characteristic of OCAC is its bucolic campus positioned on the western edge of Portland. In that same year, the college partnered with the PSU Masters of Real Estate Development program to undertake an analysis of the four-plus underused acres that wrap the perimeter of the campus. The goal was innovative: a mission-related and institution-enhancing development. The 2015 PSU MRED report developed into a 2018 Request for Qualifications (RFQ, the desired form for the local community) requesting responses from local, national, for-profit and non-profit developers to partner in creating multi-generational, market rate and low-cost artists’ housing built around the college campus. Housing was to include student housing, artist live-work space (addressing the well-publicized loss of artists’ studio space in the region), community “maker spaces” and mission-related retail (again addressing the need for affordable rents for art-related businesses) on the active Southwest Barnes Road/Leahy Road traffic corner. The strategic location of OCAC between Portland and Beaverton was seen as a connector of the two cities.

After focused research and cultivation of developers, housing and community experts, city officials in both Portland and Beaverton, the RFQ was set to release August 2018. The expectation was to generate sufficient revenue to cover budget deficits (at pre-strategic initiative levels), keep the college in the black, and retain college ownership of the property as an asset.

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An added challenge for small educational institutions and non-profit organizations is that they are often characterized by “one-person offices,” an attribute shared by many non-profits in Portland. They are thin-staffed and offer modest salaries rendering these positions less desirable to the work force and subject to high turnover in an age of roving millennials and high demand for expertise from the for-profit world. This phenomenon has been characterized as providing middle level support when high level support is needed to carry out innovative initiatives. (Note: a local performing arts professional has suggested pooling staff among multiple non-profits, an idea whose time has come and echoes the trend in shared office space.)

The real estate plan, while unproven, could have assured OCAC’s survival, intact, for the future. What was needed was a longer financial runway provided by the campaign and a collective commitment to a new way of thinking and doing business beyond tuition and philanthropy as the only sources of revenue. With the completion of the RFQ’s path forward, I stepped away from OCAC for personal family reasons to spend time with my dad who passed away three weeks later.

In a perfect storm of events, the entering 2018 class was below target in numbers though above target in quality. The accompanying major gifts campaign failed to attract a lead donor from among our philanthropic community, and the Board opted to pursue merging as a safer solution than the real estate plan. After two failed merger attempts, the college has announced it will close and sell the land to fund a teach out to allow students to graduate this year or find suitable institutions to which all other students may transfer. It is the death knell for the 112-year old cultural icon and its unique and proven educational model that combines the haptic with the conceptual.

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What can we glean from the OCAC example, and those of the other institutions enumerated above? Can we continue to let valuable educational and cultural institutions fail locally as they try to solve endemic national issues within higher education, or can we find ways to support their efforts in the uncharted waters of new directions? Relying on local, enthusiastic Board leadership and over-stressed segments of our philanthropic communities to keep these small, innovative educational institutions in business while they serve students from across the country and beyond doesn’t seem a good formula for success.

Of course, you could say “isn’t this just a natural evolution” of higher education to have these vulnerable institutions close? In response, all of the above-mentioned colleges make strong cases for their ability to educate students who would not have excelled at other institutions and who have gone on to make major contributions to their fields after graduation. It is also important to point out that, as with OCAC, many of these institutions are educating students with significant financial need. Over 90% of OCAC students required financial assistance. In the extreme, if these small private colleges continue to go under, the gap between those who can afford an education and those who can’t will widen and further exacerbate the divide between an affluent, educated class and a poorer, less-educated class. Recent studies have shown that social mobility in the U.S., a long-standing hallmark of our country, has dropped substantially in recent years. The collective loss of these colleges that had functioned as social and economic equalizers will increase the barrier to social mobility.

To lose these institutions, including OCAC, is to lose a mode of education that helps ensure more members of our society are educated in ways that move them and their communities, and yes, the nation and the world, forward. More than ever we need our graduates to be innovative, creative, informed thinkers to help us navigate the rapidly changing world around us. Shouldn’t we also support our institutions in innovating and iterating to find inventive solutions to secure their existence? Many have argued that the prevailing educational model of larger, enrollment-driven institutions, both public and private, and even the well-known, endowment-funded private institutions, tends toward producing generations of followers and not leaders. Given that, how can we tolerate losing these small, specially-focused educational models that are proven to be successful in educating productive, independent thinkers, many from marginalized communities who would not thrive in a mainstream learning environment?

The OCAC model, where the question of ‘what’s best for the students’ has always been the litmus test in decision-making, is an atmosphere that does not coddle students but rather teaches self-reliance and personal responsibility. Through the intense development of creative skill sets, generations of students have been challenged to find new ways of solving difficult problems. The shared experience has fostered a sense of belonging to a community since its founding by Julia Hoffman in 1907. To see the larger Oregon community—OCAC students, alums and fans, arts and community leaders, former and current Board members—passionately rally to support OCAC and keep the doors open to a valuable educational and meaningful cultural institution has been heartening. To have been successful would have been a step in solving the nation’s higher education problem, a positive commitment to sustaining our Oregon cultural ecology, an active demonstration of Portland’s commitment to organizational innovation and a commitment to the students of OCAC. To see the doors close on this chapter of the Oregon College of Art and Craft is truly sad for our local community and adds one more statistic to the looming national higher education crisis we face.

Catlin Gabel School, the new owner, will no doubt make positive use of the property and its facilities for its students and for the community at large. It’s even possible that their stewardship will contribute in some ways to solving the higher education crisis. Who knows, possibly one of the ideas we contemplated at OCAC, the incorporation of high school students into collaborative, project-based programs with undergraduate and graduate students, or similarly inventive ideas, will be developed. OCAC alums would be an excellent source to engage in this process of vetting ideas.

The hope is that the attributes of the OCAC educational experience will live on in new forms through conscious appropriation and incorporation into other colleges and organizations. OCAC and its students deserve no less.

Denise Mullen
Past-President, Oregon College of Art and Craft

43 Responses.

  1. Jason Loeffler says:

    Why didn’t she write this BEFORE the school closed?

    • Barry Johnson says:

      An even bigger question: Why didn’t OCAC assemble a community forum to discuss its situation and alternatives to closure?

      A central problem at OCAC was (and I HATE to put that in the past tense) its lack of transparency. Like many non-profit arts organizations, it concealed its activities and thinking from directly involved members of its community—especially students, alums, and donors. I wrote about this at length earlier in the process: https://www.orartswatch.org/commentary-democracy-and-the-arts/

      I don’t know why Mullen didn’t speak up before, though non-disclosure/disparagement agreements are common in these sorts of situations.

  2. Yet another example of Denise Mullen wearing people down with a long winded response that says nothing except to effectively wash her hands of any responsibility whatsoever. After 8 years as president, she IS responsible. How about an apology Denise? Unbelievable.

  3. Shattered Dreams says:

    Denise mentions a few reasons the college failed to develop a way to stay in the black but she stops short as to explain why that failed:

    1)The real estate venture that could have provided a third revenue stream failed to happen because when the board tasked Denise to pursue the zoning change, she didn’t do it.

    2)The thin administrative staff was thin mostly because she put off hiring new people after numerous others left, specifically citing that it was impossible to work with her. These turnovers were in offices critical to a functioning institution: development, admissions, and business.

    I could go on about her failures, but the last thing she mentioned that rubs salt in the wound is her statements about Caitlin Gable. They have no plan to carry on any of OCAC’s curriculum and an elite school that costs $30,000 for kindergarten is not going to solve the problems of higher ed. If you want to be really sickened, start looking into the connections between OCAC’s board and Caltlin’s board.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Interesting. What is your sourcing for the information and conclusions in your assertions?

      I’m with you on your doubts that Catlin Gabel School will do anything remotely like solve the nation’s higher education crisis.

      • Why not pursue the comments here as leads for serious reporting?

        • Barry Johnson says:

          The more I know about the people commenting and more information they give about how they know what they are asserting, the more likely it is that I would invest the time to do some serious reporting. Which, of course, anyone could do, if anyone wanted! Here, the threshold is going to be pretty high because the deal is done and it’s hard to see what positive impact going into the weeds on administrative practices and deals, even if they were terrible (and that’s nearly always debatable), would have. That’s why I’ve been struggling with trying to figure out whether yet MORE reporting and writing by me on OCAC makes any sense at this point.

          • I think the value of understanding what went wrong with OCAC is that its issues are shared by most spaces in Portland. People need to know what’s wrong so they can, hopefully, not repeat those historical mistakes. The art scene is contracting as population is growing, that doesnt make sense. Schnitzer pronounced OCAC dead, which signaled to other philanthropists to back off, then put his weight behind the Catlin Gabel proposal. Is that all that’s left for Portland arts, pleasing Jordan-if people dont understand the inner workings, that’s all they will ever have. Maybe scrutiny of board activity makes board positions more competitive, draws in people who are serious and have some fire in their bellies. Maybe knowing that people are looking just raises the bar a bit all around. Maybe answering questions does no more than provide closure for people who lost their jobs and students who were uprooted, that’s worthwhile. Maybe it signals to Portland that some of the things they accept as normal just aren’t, like a 100 year old institution closing without comment or Disjecta having both its top positions (board chair and executive director) filled by people who were allegedly fired from similar positions in the past, or the museum merging the chief curator position with his own. If the Portland art scene wants to be taken seriously, self reflection is a part of that process.

  4. Read Between The Lines says:

    New buildings are hard on a college especially when they sue the contractor and lose. There was a lawsuit against the contractor who built the Vollum DPP that was initiated early in Denise’s tenure. As I understand it, the school lost the lawsuit and was required to pay the contractor’s legal fees. This resulted in the selling off of parcels of land the school had slowly acquired over the years and the use of money that was raised or drawn from the endowment to pay down the legal fees.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      What’s the sourcing for your assertions about a lawsuit with the contractor on the Vollum building and the consequent effects on the college’s finances?

      • Read Between The Lines says:

        First hand knowledge.

        • Barry Johnson says:

          Then I’m not understanding “as I understand it”…are there other possible interpretations/understandings? Identifying yourself also makes your case stronger.

      • TiredOfRumorsaboutOCAC says:

        Common knowledge on campus- can’t find details.

  5. Ben Smith says:

    If Denise left for personal reasons, and not because she ran the school into the ground with the help of a completely incompetent and malfeasant board, why was a non-disparagement agreement signed as part of her exit?

    • Barry Johnson says:

      I don’t know, but that’s a pretty standard arrangement for employees leaving a company with a severance package of some sort, right?

  6. Read Between The Lines says:

    I’m curious about the nature of the Editor’s Note on this letter. At no point did Denise say that the board failed act on efforts she initiated. Though for some reason the editor has decided to take a side and cast blame at the board while propping up the past president (who was forced to resign BTW) This feels like bad journalist ethics. It appears as though there is a work around of the non disparagement agreement where the editor is saying what Denise is legally barred from saying. Why take a side? Especially when the author pretty effectively says nothing in over a thousand words.

    What Denise does fail to mention is that she personally shut down the first round of merger talks between OCAC and PNCA. A few years ago when PNCA was in bad financial straights they approached OCAC and initiated merger talks. When they wouldn’t agree to crown Denise as president of the new merged institution she backed out of the deal.

    If it weren’t for this and many more failures of leadership from past presidents and the board OCAC would not be closing.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      At no point did the Editor’s Note say that the board “failed” to act on the building initiative. It said the board didn’t take up those efforts, which is simply a statement of fact.

      Bad journalism would involve such things as failing to cite sources for assertions about previous efforts to merge PNCA and OCAC.

      I agree that it’s likely that “mistakes were made” by past presidents and boards of directors, especially given the advantage of hindsight and the knowledge that OCAC has closed its doors, while still having considerable resources at its disposal. To start to understand whether the series of decisions the college (and the school before it became a college) made, we’d have to know a LOT more about the series of situations each president and board faced, the reasoning behind the approach they took, and the quality of their execution. That sort of an investigation is pretty daunting.

      • Read Between The Lines says:

        There is no mention of the “building” initiative in my comment. Though the editor’s note does imply a narrative, setting a tone for the piece. Rather than providing context the last sentence takes a position that is partisan. I would call it a pundit’s note rather than an editor’s note.

        • Barry Johnson says:

          The natural question some might have had after reading is “what happened with the building initiative after Mullen left.” That’s the context I was giving.

          I personally don’t have a position on whether the building plan was a good one or not. Whichever it was, the board didn’t pursue it. The board didn’t provide an explanation of the details for any of its decisions, that I’m aware of, or I would have reported those in many previous stories.

  7. Furious says:

    “Larger deficits were temporarily approved to fund the strategic plan and its components: launching a major gifts campaign, intensifying student recruitment, and developing a third revenue stream.”

    These things were only discussed (ad nauseam) with no serious moves toward implementation. No pursuit of a zoning change happened – which could have taken up to 18 months- this was the first prerequisite for any development plan moving forward. She knew time was running out and failed to act. Why did she not pursue the zoning change?

    “After focused research and cultivation of developers, housing and community experts, city officials in both Portland and Beaverton, the RFQ was set to release August 2018. ”

    Why was this Strategic Plan not shared with the internal OCAC community in a timely way, and why was RFQ not released in August 2018? That is the question I would like her to answer.

    Furthermore, serious investment in admissions and recruiting may have made a difference. There were only 2-3 to three recruiters doing the work of 8-10. No apparent moves were made to address this. The staff turnover in this office was also damaging to any momentum or coherent admissions plan. Denise was directly responsible for this.

    A key reason why there was so much turn over in important staffing positions is because Denise’s leadership was autocratic within a culture that had thrived on consensus and team work.

    The one thing she managed to do successfully was create firewalls between staff, faculty and the board (which had historically worked together) to insure no-one was comparing notes on her inaction and leadership flaws. The board is at the least complicit in not seeking a deeper understanding and questioning the higher deficits and restricted foundation drawn down to cover operational expenses – for plans that were only on paper at best.

    Her failure is real and has disrupted hundreds of lives.
    The fact that she has the gall to publish this is also evidence of her misread of the community who fought hard to deliver the educational model she so disingenuously flatters.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      You sound like you have first-hand information. Why not identify yourself?

      • Furious says:

        To what end?

        • Barry Johnson says:

          It makes your case stronger. Mullen has identified herself. If you want to contest her interpretation or have an issue with her leadership based on firsthand knowledge, then your name attached to your descriptions and arguments makes them much more convincing. Otherwise, it can be seen as random anonymous trolling. And I can’t quote you in subsequent stories!

          • Furious says:

            I am not a troll. And I do not want to be quoted. Journalism has a history of anonymous sources for good reason. There is nothing random about my comments.

          • Mullens identified herself because she is trying to repair self inflicted damage. Why are you challenging people coming forward with information instead of trying to report on this?

  8. Furious says:

    “An even bigger question: Why didn’t OCAC assemble a community forum to discuss its situation and alternatives to closure?”

    To your question Barry – why do you assume a community forum could have effectively addressed the secretive and opaque leadership style and board complicity? I believe it would have only further entrenched those leadership constituents. This is not the “bigger question”.

    Loeffler’s question is directly on point. Why did she not openly share the situation she so longwindedly describes here back in 2015, or 2016, or 2017…when there was still time? If she had been a consensus builder and not an autocrat there may have been hope.

    Also please do not use OCAC as a first person subject when posing this question. Whom do you imagine would have been in a position to call this forum? Many who may have been in any slight position to raise questions were also fearful for their jobs, recrimination and rather appropriately focused on the educational mission hoping, sadly and in hindsight, tragically that the leadership (including the board) could be trusted with the community’s best interests in mind.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Well, the board chair and/or interim president—and Mullen before she left—could have begun a community process.

      Just to be clear about it all, I don’t think an open, transparent, democratic management approach should be a last-ditch, in-case-of-emergency-break-glass kind of thing. It should be standard operating procedure. When things start to go sideways, it’s often because the management approach is not consultative and distributed. It’s also harder to come up with good solutions to major problems, the more centralized power is.

      And I sympathize with employees who find themselves in that situation—and so many of us find ourselves in that place. I think a good community forum topic might be “creative and ethical responses to failure in hierarchical companies”…I’d go to that one, for sure. I’d also go to one on the responsibilities and ethics of boards of directors.

      On the anonymous quote issue: Sometimes there’s a very good reason to use anonymous quotes in a story, but it should be a last resort. Here’s the Society for Professional Journalists guideline: “Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.” This thread isn’t “journalism”… it’s a forum and it’s FULL of anonymous quotes. I still think that attaching your name gives more weight to the opinion or assertion of fact. And really, I probably wouldn’t use a quote from a comment thread in a story without talking to you directly first.

      • Read Between The Lines says:

        Some of those who are participating in this discourse are likely still employees of the college and fear retribution, hence anonymity.

        • Barry Johnson says:

          Unfortunately, they will be beyond retribution soon, given the imminent closure of the campus.

          • Shattered Dreams says:

            Barry,
            Obviously these comments are written by people on the inside. All this information has been gleaned and remembered over the years as it was mentioned that Denise and the board were far from transparent. Denise is probably shocked that these commentors know so much, because she intended to have it all under wraps.

            Nobody is identifying themselves because they still hope to collect the meager severance they were offered by the board.

            Also the small “community” who even sort of knew the demise was near was told to keep quite. When it became public the faculty was encouraged to not support “community” efforts because they might mess up the deals the board was working on to save the college.
            Well, as it turns out the only “deal” they were working on was how to “close as fast as possible to avoid lawsuits.”

            That last statement is a direct quote from a conversation someone had with a current board member.

            That’s as close to a source as I’ll give. Which may not qualify by journalistic standards, but this is a forum for individuals to express what they know to be true.

            Thank you, Denise, for providing this opportunity.

      • Furious says:

        Based on your logic above, and I agree, the time to have begun a “transparent democratic management approach” would have been around 2012-13 by Mullen. So given the dire circumstances and responsibility to students and staff in the last year after her departure there would have been very little strategic or productive benefit from “transparency” and community involvement. Delivering the education that students had paid for and facilitating a transition for them was a critical priority.

  9. Disgusted says:

    This enormous heap of false sentiments and tedious justifications serves no purpose but to allow Denise Mullen to publicly wash her hands and walk away from her role in destroying one of the oldest public art institutions in the Pacific Northwest.

    If you want to write about someone’s “unbelievable sadness”, why not talk to the students, staff, and faculty who must now rebuild their lives while Mullen and the criminally negligent Board of Directors go on their merry way without ever having to answer for their transgressions.

    • Former staff says:

      @100% agree
      The college failed because of Denise, the awful way we ran the college, horrible way she treated staff, faculty, students and big money donors. Many who told me that because of the way they were treated by her that they would never give money or set foot on campus til she was gone. She pitted people against each other and was a dictator. The board is at fault also for letting her get away with all the horrible things she did. I know all of this and so much more very very first hand. The college was doing great til she came. She should be run out of town! Many know the truth of want she did and how she treated poeple!

      • An_amazing _thing_lost says:

        I totally agree that Denise should leave town. I can’t believe she had the guts to show her face at Ocac related events in the past months.

        And speaking of the board going on their merry way-Are people aware on a Monday night after the sale to Caitlin went through, the Ocac board +Caitlin ‘s board and rich people including Jordan, kicked students out of the DPP building without notice (while they are working in their studios to prepare for finals ) so they could have an opulent spread and drunken rager to celebrate the deal and launch Catlin’s fundraising for their new project? Students reported drunk people bothering them in other buildings too as the night went on. Couldn’t they at least wait until the students were gone? Disgusting.

        • Luisa Adrianzen Guyer says:

          I was at the Catlin Gabel event, and it was an opportunity for Catlin Gabel to speak to supporters of both OCAC and CG about the sequence of events that led to the OCAC sale (which is aligned with what all commenters have posted). There was a buffet dinner and a bar that served wine and non-alcoholic drinks. I was there for two hours and never saw anyone drunk. I am sorry any students had to deal with that, but please don’t generalize the behavior of guests that evening.

          • Luisa Adrianzen Guyer says:

            To clarify, the comments made were aligned with the OCAC’s accumulated deficit and the impossibility to save the organization. There were no personal negative comments about any one on the staff or the board of OCAC.

          • Furious says:

            The timing and location for the event was at best insensitive and at worst callous. Students were displaced from their studios during the lead up to finals. The event should have taken place after the conclusion of classes.

        • Disgusted says:

          Disgusting, indeed…though not at all surprising, I guess.

  10. A faculty member says:

    Mullen was a very poor manager and a very flawed leader who let her titular crown shroud her vacuous capacity to maintain a college as precious as OCAC. There were warning signs ignored, like the crickets in the Admissions Office. Once a competent Director of Admissions was hired, she ran him out of town with her crippling style. She had no rapport with faculty failing time and again to engage with folks who spun circles around her with their passion and artistic wisdom. Was she scared or was she blind?

    Had the Board not left their brains at the door, she would have been out years before or never hired in the first place. Art-focused educational organizations require leaders who are business-minded and competent managers. If anyone rolled a business the way Mullen and the Board rolled OCAC, shareholders would have pulled the plug on them without pause. This is the shameful story of a body of immensely creative people working their hearts out while the shallow pool of talent above fluttered and sputtered.

    We are crying now after the fact. Internally, many folks moved around the wall that Denise created just to get the work done. Her lack of self-awareness now is shocking and a blatant avoidance of the reality that was so crystalline to those of us on the campus. She is not to be celebrated for her work at OCAC, nor is the Board whose stealth style abdicated meaningful oversight.

    Collectively, they let OCAC burn.

    Who watches the Board in institutions like OCAC? It’s clear, now, that fiduciary oversight of a non-profit Board is needed more than ever to keep the wealthy influencers at bay or the right minds more engaged and the incompetent leadership of the institution on the hook for its failed stewardship.

    A jewel is gone.

  11. Faculty member says:

    Letting her write this is tantamount to asking the murderer to assess the crime scene.

  12. See it from both sides. says:

    Based on these comments below, perhaps a
    new piece can be written as there is clearly some first hand information shared here.

    If artswatch is about balanced journalism, why not dive a little deeper?

    Use your platform and elevate this important dialogue.

  13. Waiting to say it says:

    ‘Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation that seeks to sow seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or in members of a targeted group, making them question their own memory, perception, and sanity. Using persistent denial, misdirection, contradiction, and lying, it attempts to destabilize the victim and delegitimize the victim’s belief.’

    Wikipedia

    This is my response to the article, though I have much more to say about the actions and effect of the individual who wrote it.

  14. Ignored and disrespected says:

    Maybe instead of playing the blame game (Denise Mullens and OCAC administration) we should focus on the students who are not only being forced to relocate across the country and bear the financial burden of transferring schools (many of which cannot afford to do so) but loosing friends, collaborators, and a family. Lets continue to fight and not take responsibility while the students are being scraped off the OCAC campus by administration.

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