The governing boards of Atlanta College of Art and Savannah College of Art and Design voted Wednesday to make ACA part of the Savannah college.
Amid declining enrollment, ACA administrators see the merger as a chance to provide more resources for students and to keep programs on their campus financially viable. Some students and faculty members, however, say they were not included in discussions about the move, and are concerned it could be more of an absorption than a collaboration.
While Atlanta's enrollment has declined for three straight years, SCAD -- which has 6,700 students to ACA’s 330 -- has been growing. The Savannah college last year decided to open a campus in Atlanta. Rather than becoming competitors, "we saw their capacity to recruit and place students in jobs, and with our special reputation in the fine arts community, we saw it as an opportunity to broaden opportunities for students,” said John Spiegel, chairman of the ACA Board of Directors.
Paula Wallace, president of SCAD, said the joining of forces will be a boon to the Atlanta arts community. "It’s a chance to use more resources to build on our strengths and shared interests,” she said.
All full-time ACA faculty members have been told that they are assured of their jobs after the merger.
SCAD, which has hundreds of students majoring in fine arts, has been very successful in placing recent graduates, especially in high-profile applied arts professions. A recent Newsweek article noted SCAD as being on the “speed dials” of recruiters for Hollywood special effects companies. Meanwhile, ACA, over its 100-year history, has been an intimate setting where, even though only 40 percent of the students now major in fine arts and 60 percent in applied arts, classes are small and the faculty are all versed in the traditional fine arts core, in subjects like color, light, form and drawing.
Next May, following a transition period, the Atlanta College of Art will no longer carry an individual name. Classes will continue on the ACA campus, just blocks away from SCAD’s Atlanta campus.
Many ACA faculty members are not sure what to think, as they were not included in preliminary discussions and have only known about the plan for about a month. “I’m stunned,” said Larry Anderson, head of ACA’s drawing department. “Having it done behind our backs doesn’t inspire much trust. It makes us feel unempowered.”
Spiegel has tried to reassure faculty members that the culture of ACA will inform the direction of SCAD’s fine arts offerings, and said keeping the plan under wraps was necessary. “The normal process is to have substantial faculty involvement,” he said. “But in this situation, that was inappropriate until we knew we had a proposal both sides could live with.”
Some students and alumni don’t think they do have a proposal they can live with. “How could anyone characterize this takeover as a ‘weaving together’ when ACA loses its name, [National Association of Schools of Art and Design] accreditation, its 100-year-old legacy, and, ultimately, its endowments?” reads part of the mission statement of ACA100,  a protest group of students, alumni and others.
People familiar with arts colleges nationally said the gobbling of a college that traditional focuses on the fine arts by one famous for applied arts is not indicative of any national trend, and that some fine arts colleges have managed to increase enrollment with aggressive recruiting and fund raising.
Bill Barrett, executive director of the 36-college Alliance of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, said that the merger is really a “closure” of ACA, and that perhaps other avenues could have been tested. Barrett said that when he became president of the San Francisco Art Institute in 1987, the financial outlook was so grim, the college barely made its payroll. “Now the deficit is gone, and the endowment is more than doubled,” he said. “I would ask the trustees to reconsider [the merger]. Schools in far more severe circumstances have been saved.”
In fact, ACA itself was once saved. Ofelia Garcia, currently dean of the College of the Arts and Communication at William Paterson University, took over as president of ACA in 1986. She had to “fight to make the college again viable,” she said. In more than five years there, enrollment and program offerings increased. Garcia felt that some of the concern from faculty members could be about becoming part of SCAD, which does not offer tenure, and is not accredited by the National Association of Schools of Art and Design.
She added that mergers can be done well. She was part of Newton College, which had accumulated debt, when it was absorbed by Boston College. “There was tremendous care and faculty were part of the conversation,” she said. “It doesn’t seem like there has been much discussion here. It seems unprofessional.” Garcia said she is personally sad to see ACA close “because my blood and sweat are on those corridors.” But, she said, “there’s no guarantee an institution lives forever.”