Denise Mullen

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