Fight Unfolds Over Frank Lloyd Wright's Educational Legacy

The School of Architecture at Taliesin has reversed a decision to close. But its battle with a related foundation reveals stresses and shortcomings affecting college governance.

March 11, 2020
 
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Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin estate in Wisconsin is at the center of a battle between the school of architecture that used to carry his name and the foundation that still does.

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation owns the famed architect’s Taliesin estate in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona. Both are national historic landmarks. As of last summer, both are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Both locations are also homes for the School of Architecture at Taliesin -- at least for a few more months.

The school’s board voted at the end of January to close after the current semester. Leaders involved cited an unsustainable business model and an inability to reach an agreement with the foundation on an acceptable plan for the future.

Just 40 days later, the school’s board reversed course, saying they had heard students’ concerns, raised money and found a sustainable way forward. There was just one problem: they didn’t have the foundation’s blessing. School leaders have been publicly calling on the foundation to extend an agreement under which they use the Taliesin locations.

"The board will look at our options," said Dan Schweiker, who chairs the school’s Board of Governors. "One of those options is to file for mediation and force them to get to the table. We would much rather they came to the table willingly."

That seemed unlikely after the foundation released a Friday statement blasting the school’s handling of the situation. The foundation has two representatives on the school’s board but little information about any new income sources, the statement said.

“The School’s announcements and lack of planning for the consequences of its earlier decision have adversely affected the lives of its employees who were terminated, generated distraction for its students from their studies and future planning, upset its alumni community, and disrupted the Foundation’s own important work,” the foundation’s statement said in part. “The board has demonstrated more concern about seeking blame for its decision to close than creating a sustainable business model for itself.”

Such a war of words between related entities is unusual, although not unheard-of, in higher education. It has become increasingly common for colleges and universities to waffle publicly about closure plans as financial difficulties loom and fights between different constituencies unfold.

Sweet Briar College remains perhaps the most notorious example after a previous administration there planned to close the small women’s college in rural Virginia in 2015, only to have alumnae revolt and eventually win a struggle to keep the institution open. More recently, Hampshire College announced plans last year to find a partner institution before its board decided instead to keep it independent.

And the battle over the future of Westminster Choir College, in Princeton, N.J., provides an example of a struggle over what to do with parts of related institutions, as its parent, Rider University, has sought at different times in recent years to sell the choir college or move it to Rider’s main campus, even as alumni groups want it to remain independent.

The details of the situation unfolding at the School of Architecture at Taliesin and the foundation are in many ways different from those at other colleges. But the case reflects many of the same important tensions playing out at private institutions across higher education -- over finances, control of campuses, institutional identity and who, exactly, is in charge of individual institutions.

Those fights often capture attention because they turn nasty, but they can also reveal weaknesses in the way some higher ed institutions are structured.

“This is a central governance issue,” said Brian C. Mitchell, a former president of Bucknell University and Washington & Jefferson College who is now a consultant. “The governance practices and protocols of the middle and late 20th century no longer fit the direction of institutions as they move forward into the 21st century. So as colleges and universities adapt and modernize, they also need to look carefully at their governance, which must follow suit.”

A Long History at Taliesin

Citing tradition dating to the 1930s, the architecture school operates at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., from mid-May through mid-October. For the rest of the year, it operates at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The school is successor to an apprenticeship program started by Frank Lloyd Wright in the early 1930s, according to its current president, Aaron Betsky. The program was essentially three things, Betsky said: a school, an office that produced Wright-designed buildings and a community where everyone lived and worked together.

In the 1980s, the school gained accreditation and split off from the architecture office, which would continue to operate until 2003, Betsky said. The school remained an important part of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation for another decade or so, at which point its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, asked the foundation to affirm that its mission was to support higher education.

That wouldn’t have aligned with the foundation’s full mission of “inspiring society” with Wright’s ideas and designs and preserving his Taliesin estates. In Betsky’s telling, the foundation wanted to close the school, but the sides found a solution in which the school became a wholly owned subsidiary of the foundation under independent academic, financial and administrative control.

Reports in 2015 said an agreement was reached that would have the foundation supporting the school through 2019, both financially and by donating the use of facilities. That support was to wind down on a yearly basis, AD PRO reported.

In 2017, the school became its own nonprofit entity, changing its name from the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture to the School of Architecture at Taliesin.

“They claimed that if we continued to use that name, they would have to have a right of approval of any student, faculty or staff work that came out into the public under that name,” Betsky said. “That is not something that would be appropriate to an accredited institution of higher learning.”

When splitting off the school as a separate legal entity, the foundation transferred to it the assets and liabilities related to its operation. Net assets transferred included nearly $2 million in cash, investments and pledges receivable, according to the foundation’s audited financial statement.

But the school continued to use Taliesin and Taliesin West. It also paid the foundation for services. In 2017-18, it paid the foundation $248,625 for dining, information technology and human resources services, according to its federal tax statement for that year. It was a significant portion of the school’s total expenses of $1.67 million.

That year the school collected just shy of $392,000 in tuition and fees and slightly more than $129,000 in immersion program fees, according to tax filings.

The school’s lease for the use of the Taliesin estates is part of a memorandum of understanding with the foundation that governs all relations between the two entities, Betsky said. It is up at the end of July, and the sides have been working on a renewal for a year or so, without success.

“The foundation kept wanting more and more and more and finally, at the July 25 meeting, they just said to us, ‘We are not going to renew your MOU under any circumstances,’” Betsky said.

He said that the foundation wanted to charge more for shared services and felt it could use the land better than for the school of architecture. He also said the foundation told the school it wasn’t financially viable.

“Which we thought was odd,” Betsky said. “We have accreditors who have looked at us.”

Without plans for a different location, the school decided to close, Betsky said.

Could the school lease space elsewhere and remain open? Its leaders don’t think so. They already lost the Frank Lloyd Wright name when they split off from the foundation in 2017. Becoming “the School of Architecture kind of near Taliesin” hurts the identity further, Schweiker said.

“It was a marketing challenge when we changed the name from the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture,” he said. “That was more difficult than we thought it would be.”

Any Way Forward?

The school of architecture’s board reversed course after hearing from supporters, Schweiker said. A group of Taliesin Fellows has pledged to raise $500,000 for the school by April 30.

It’s not enough to erase all of the school’s problems. Its costs are too high to be spread across the number of students it enrolls, about 30. But it has a business plan to eventually grow to 60 students, and the pledged influx of money would put the school on a path to sustainability, its leaders believe. It will be breaking even when it enrolls between 45 and 60 students and has demonstrated the ability to raise money to carry it until then.

The branding change made enrollment growth slower than originally anticipated, Betsky said.

“We’re running behind,” he said. “That means we have to raise more money, which we have done, and the foundation just doesn’t believe we will grow and that we will continue to attract more students.”

The school also has pro bono legal representation from the firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP. A lawyer there, Jon Kelley, said that the foundation might think it’s convenient to look at some parts of the school’s financial performance and use them to justify not renewing the memorandum of understanding. But that’s not the full story.

“It’s really nothing more than a scapegoat,” Kelley said. “It comes down to whether the foundation is ultimately going to agree to allow the school to continue.”

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation declined a request for interview for this article. Asked about several details in the school’s telling of events, a spokesperson at the foundation provided a copy of the statement released Friday.

That statement says that the foundation only learned of the school’s new plans to remain open “through stories the School of Architecture’s lawyers had placed in the media.”

The foundation has discussed partnering with several other architecture programs to come to its campuses and establish an accredited program, the statement said. The foundation plans to continue to explore such options.

“Frank Lloyd Wright’s 88-year-legacy of architect training will continue at his two homes,” it said. Later, it said that Taliesin and Taliesin West “remain open and thriving, welcoming record numbers of visitors from around the world.”

The foundation declined further comment until it is directly given more information.

“We do not intend to debate or negotiate this matter in the press or in social media and plan no further statement at this time,” its statement said.

A foundation official has, however, forwarded an internal memo about the situation to Architect magazine. The memo, marked confidential, is from Schweiker, the school’s board chair, and is dated Jan. 23 -- days before the initial vote to close the school.

“I have reluctantly concluded that SOAT is too small to exist in its current form,” it said in part. “We do not have, nor will we have in the foreseeable future the resources needed to successfully operate our current model. We do not have the funding to even have the state of the art software programs that graduates need to gain successful employment.”

The memo went on to call for dropping accreditation and engaging with Arizona State University for a teach-out programs. Such a move on teach-out programs was announced after the school decided to close in January.

“In in-depth meetings with the Foundation on the future of the MOU, we ran across areas, where despite the decades of animosity between the two groups, we have alignment of thought,” the memo said. “Both organizations are dedicated to education and to keeping alive and sharing the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright. To no one’s surprise we have followed different roads though it turns out driving towards the same goal. Having two groups battling each other and fighting for the same donors does neither group service. The Foundation firmly believes in the education aspects presented in Mr. Wright’s will. It only makes sense to avoid duplication of expenses and the energy lost to interfamily dysfunction and embark upon finding a future education path together.”

Schweiker said Monday the board had changed its mind. It has reopened admissions processes while "disclosing uncertainty" to prospective students, a spokeswoman said.

“There was such an outpouring from students, from former students, from architects,” Schweiker said. “We got together as a board and looked at our previous decision and said, ‘You know what the right thing to do, the only thing to do is to reverse that decision.’ And we’re going to make this school succeed, and if the foundation doesn’t want the school around, instead of making it look like we can’t make it, they’re just going to have to tell the world that they do not want the school anymore.”

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