Reflections on the Presidency with Neil Hoffman, Lorne Buchman, and Michael Roth

Earlier this year we sat down with three of CCA's former presidents, Neil Hoffman (1985–93), Lorne Buchman (1994–99), and Michael Roth (2000–2007), to talk—and reminisce—about their respective tenures at the college.

Neil Hoffman is now president of the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. After leaving CCA he served as president of Otis College of Art and Design from 1993 until 2000. He went on to become associate director of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, and he also spent five years as a consultant in college and nonprofit development. He is writing a book on the management of nonprofit institutions.

What program, event, or decision do you think was the most pivotal or far-reaching for the school during your presidency?

There were two. Soon after I arrived at the college, Oakland's mayor, Lionel Wilson, asked me to lead the city's cultural planning process. The comprehensive plan we devised—which actually got implemented—was totally inclusive. It encouraged people to give their best thoughts and look to the future. I realized that if 300 or 400 people who don't even know each other can work together for a common outcome and be pleased and excited by it, we certainly ought to be able to do that at CCAC. The process involved everything from curriculum development to fundraising to enrollment management. It also tied into the need to find a permanent home—that we would own—for the architecture and design schools in San Francisco. We were looking to buy the Greyhound building when I was there. I'm disappointed that I wasn't the guy to be able to do that.

What was the other pivotal development?

The Board of Trustees at that time was a fairly small group of people, very dedicated and loyal. They knew they needed to expand and bring in a broader constituency, take a leadership role in fundraising, and get their committees directly involved in the oversight of the institution. The result: The board today compares favorably with any of the best boards in the country.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as president?

When I arrived the college had an accumulated operating deficit, it had no endowment, enrollments were low, morale was low, and faculty salaries were low. So we needed to manage the enrollment. We needed better graphics and better communications, and of course our own Graphic Design faculty was a major part of that change. In seven years it became a more selective institution, able to attract very good new faculty. And it became very viable financially, attracting annual funds and creating the base for the kind of fundraising it now enjoys.

Is there a particular achievement of which you're most proud?

That turnaround, and also the realization of the best dreams. Everyone made some very distinct decisions about what the priorities were. The standards and aspirations were always there. The ability to realize those aspirations took time to develop, but they did it. That's on every front: faculty, staff, board members, and the community. In the first year, I think nine of ten foundations bellied up in support of what we were doing. Another part of it was commitment to diversity. Not just attracting and retaining the best students and faculty of color, but also diversity of thought.

Is there a particularly funny moment or incident that you want to share?

It wasn't as much funny as it was rewarding. When the NAAB accrediting team came to review the Architecture school, they insisted on meeting in private with the students. So they went in a private room, closed the door, and the team actually said, "Now is your opportunity to bitch." And the students took them to task for it. After a long conversation the team asked the students, "What would you like us to say to Neil about how this school can be improved?" And the student leader answered: "If we want to talk to Neil, we'll just talk to him. We don't need you." I'm very proud of that.

At the end of the process, the head of NAAB said, "Let me put it this way: Unless there's an earthquake that takes this entire school out, you're going to be NAAB accredited. This is an amazing place."

What advice would you give students who are interested in art and architecture school?

Find your voice. Find your passion. That's it.

Lorne Buchman is now president of Saybrook Graduate School and Research Center in San Francisco. After leaving CCA he served as president of School of Education and as interim CEO of the San Francisco Art Institute. He is also currently the principal and founder of a consulting firm that provides organizational development and strategic leadership to a wide range of nonprofit and public entities.

What was the most important event or program during your presidency?

The strategic plan of 1994 was bold, ambitious, grand, and, in retrospect, completely audacious. Given no history of a major campaign, a somewhat anemic annual fund, relatively low enrollment, and an uneven academic infrastructure, we were certainly reaching to think we could realize the objectives of that plan. But Neil Hoffman and John Stein had done such good work before I arrived and prepared the institution so well that the stage was set, courageously, for something very exciting to happen.

One key to our success was that the strategic plan had its inspiration in solid educational values and principles. The faculty had a clear picture of the exceptional education CCAC could envision for its future, and the plan was invented and driven by the teachers themselves. Every dollar we raised, every building we explored as a possible new campus, every conversation about new programs, growing enrollment, new faculty, stronger library resources, technology, equipment for studios—all of it was in service of educational values and mission.

Our plan worked for many reasons but, at its core, it was always serving education and learning. So, for example, we never looked at enrollment growth just for the sake of growth. We imagined programs that would add to the vitality and dynamism of the education we offered. Similarly the new campus in San Francisco was, at the end of the day, not about some abstract glory or prestige. We simply needed the space to grow and to provide a better learning environment—to teach the critical mass of students that would be part of the great school we envisioned.

What is the achievement of which you are most proud?

I suppose the most significant achievement was the recognition that, in the end, true success did not simply rest with the tenacity and force of Thom Weisel (who generously chaired our capital campaign with the enthusiastic Emily Carroll); or the devotion of Tecoah Bruce (the platonic ideal of the Great Board Chair); or the luminous creativity of Steve Oliver; or the penetrating insights of Ron Wornick, George Saxe, Simon Blattner, Jeanne Wente, Barc Simpson, Shep Pollack, Mary Jo Shartsis, and David Kirshman. True success for me can be summed up in two words: Helen Frierson.

CCAC was the experience of my life, even though I was only about 12 years old when I was appointed president. The learning and personal growth for me were extraordinary, and I'm grateful to the entire community for the opportunity to be part of something so exciting, dynamic, and meaningful.

Tell us about something that you wanted to do but couldn't implement and why.

I wish I could have moved further along in faculty development. The Architecture and Design programs were built on the heroic contributions of a dedicated, part-time, professionally practicing faculty. We desperately needed their involvement and participation, but I don't think we ever fully recognized or compensated them for their efforts. The "ranked," or tenured, faculty were not exactly sitting pretty themselves. And yet the part-time faculty often were not subject to the same performance reviews and scrutiny. Reconciling all of this, setting up proper governance and classification, recognizing contributions adequately, and bridging the gap between the culture of architecture and design on the one hand (the "San Francisco programs") and fine arts and humanities and sciences on the other (the "Oakland programs") was exceedingly difficult.

What are some adjectives you would use to describe CCA during your time as president?

Bold. Dedicated. Ready. Daring. Generous. Creative. Naive. Goofy (charmingly so). Lucky that Montgomery Securities was bought out. And not ready to drop "crafts."

Talk about some of the people you hired who made a difference at the college.

John Stein. I didn't hire him but what a stroke of incredible fortune to work with him. Steve Beal. His experience, wisdom, calm, focus on enrollment, understanding of art and art education, friendship, support, humor, and love of students made a huge difference. Margie Shurgot. Without her boldness and ambition, our fundraising efforts would never have succeeded; she worked tirelessly behind the scenes, set the stage, made the calls, and threw the best parties this side of the moon. Joan Majerus, in her quiet way, was a fabulous CFO. Focused, hardworking, completely skilled and responsible. Larry Rinder. Without him I would have never been able to launch the Institute for Public Programs (now the Wattis Institute), which was so important to my vision for the college. We hired a lot of inspiring faculty members as well—too many to list here.

What was the funniest moment of your presidency?

There were several:

Getting lost in a parking lot (looking for my car) for an hour with Tecoah Bruce. These were the people running the school?

The power outage in the tent at the big campaign launch party at Thom Weisel's house. In the middle of my passionate plea for support, the power went out, the mic went off, and nobody heard or saw a thing. The gardener, apparently, had shorted something. It was later determined that, in an effort to save some of their own philanthropic funds, certain board members (who shall remain nameless) had colluded with said gardener.

Getting locked in the Greyhound building during a donor tour (wasn't funny at the time).

Watching Julie Milburn pour hot chocolate for a crowd of students on the morning of the first day of classes at the new San Francisco campus. Truth be told, we were waiting for our occupancy permit to come through from the city. It was political (and it also wasn't too funny at the time). The permit finally came through about 20 minutes after classes were scheduled to start.

Gaining a pound for every million dollars we raised. I was a chubby president by the end.

What advice would you give to students interested in art school?

Know that great art and design schools feed the mind even as they teach the creative work in the studio. The two (creativity and intellectual study) are mutually nourishing and together form the fundamental paradigm for the best art and design education.

Michael Roth left CCA in June 2007 to become president of Wesleyan University, his undergraduate alma mater. He earned his doctorate in history at Princeton University in 1984 and began his teaching career at Scripps College and Claremont Graduate University. In 1987 he became founding director of the Scripps College Humanities Institute, a center for intellectual exchange across disciplines, and in 1997 he became associate director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

What event or decision do you think was the most important for the school during your presidency?

There were two: reorganizing the college to promote cross-college and interdisciplinary work. With no more schools of Fine Arts, Architecture, and Design, we could facilitate work on a collegewide curriculum. The second was the name change to California College of the Arts, which allowed us to clarify our mission and identity to a broader public, particularly beyond the Bay Area.

What was the biggest challenge you faced as president?

The economic and educational necessity of enrollment growth. We decided to become a more robust, two-campus school, and that meant we needed to increase the size of the student body and the number of programs.

What adjectives would you use to describe CCA during your time as president?

Nimble. Innovative. Inclusive. Humane. Ambitious.

What is the achievement of which you are most proud?

The expansion of the applicant pool and the internationally recognized work of our faculty, our alumni, the Center for Art and Public Life, and the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. The development of residential life on the Oakland campus and the collaborative work of our First Year Program were great additions to the college. In San Francisco, progressing from a building to a campus will ensure a great future to those who create and learn there.

Tell us about something that you wanted to do but couldn't implement and why.

Swim team and equestrian club. No pool. No horses.

Convocation. We just couldn't bring enough students and faculty together in a community event at the beginning of each term.

Talk about some of the people you hired who made a difference at the college.

Susan Avila has built a first-rate Advancement department that has reinvigorated fundraising and alumni relations. Ralph Rugoff made an international reputation for the Wattis Institute during his tenure as director. Larry Rinder is a first-rate academic leader, and it was a great boost to bring him back to CCA. Sonia BasSheva Mañjon has put the Center for Art and Public Life on the map as one of the great community arts organizations in the entire nation. And Yves Béhar is an extraordinary designer, teacher, and departmental leader for Industrial Design.

What advice would you give to students interested in art school?

Learn through the arts to follow your passion, to discover what you really love to do. When you make this discovery, you can acquire the skills to continue to pursue this work in a way you can build on for the rest of your life.

What will you remember as the highlights of your tenure?

Building a board of generous, thoughtful trustees who love CCA and work hard to advance its mission. Developing a national reputation for the school that will benefit alumni and faculty as they continue to make work that will shape the culture of the future. Creating partnerships with local arts and community organizations on both sides of the bay, and connecting with nationally and internationally with schools and companies that foster creativity.

The great highlight, of course, was teaching the inspirational CCA students each semester.

Any final thoughts on your time at CCA?

I am very proud of what we—trustees, faculty, staff, students, alumni, and donors—accomplished during my time at CCA. The college's position in arts education has never been stronger, and interest in its academic programs, public programs, and exhibitions only continues to grow. I would like to thank the entire CCA community for the support, creative spirit, and collegiality they showed me throughout my seven years at the college.