Nathan Cooke isn’t a miscreant. He isn’t a troublemaker or a misguided teen. He is a 26-year-old industrial design major in his final two trimesters at the prestigious Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Cooke’s a good student too — a rare Art Center scholarship recipient and an active force on campus. He’s the president of the EcoCouncil, a student organization designed to promote environmental responsibility on campus and beyond. Befitting his position, he’s an idealist, and when talking about his work he makes earnest statements like, “I want to use design to make lives better — to make a difference.”
Nathan Cooke is exactly the kind of student Art Center wants. That is, until recently, when Cooke inadvertently launched a campus-wide revolt.
It started with Styrofoam.
Despite branding itself as a world leader in sustainability education, Art Center’s cafeteria uses disposable Styrofoam dishware. For nearly two years, Cooke says, EcoCouncil, fellow students and even some faculty lobbied Art Center’s administration to ditch the Styrofoam in favor of something more environmentally friendly. Some recycling bins around campus wouldn’t hurt, either, they argued.
“But, we were consistently told there wasn’t enough money,” Cooke says.
After seeing tuition jump more than 5 perecent each year — it’s currently $45,000 a year for the three-year undergraduate program — Cooke found it troubling that a school which goes out of its way to promote sustainability couldn’t cough up enough cash to fulfill even its most basic environmental obligations. Then, last month, Cooke attended an on-campus Art Center–sponsored sustainability conference, which featured reusable plates, biodegradable utensils and recycling bins. The next day, the plates and bins were gone and the cafeteria was back to Styrofoam.
Cooke had had enough: “I didn’t want the school greenwashing itself.”
And so he did what many college kids might do under similar circumstances — he blogged about it.
“Art Center is in danger of becoming highly irrelevant to the very world it is trying to influence,” Cooke wrote. “While touting its desire to be a leader that prepares students for the world tomorrow, Art Center lacks any understanding of what that world will be. Or, at least, lacks the legs to walk the path it loves to talk about.”
Benign enough, but what he said next really rattled the monkey cage.
“I’m glad someone in Art Center was able to find the $385,068 in 2005 to pay Gehry Partners to design our new ‘advanced technical center.’”
Cooke was referring to the nearly decade-long effort to build a $50 million Gehry-designed research center on campus, an effort that happens to be the pet project of Art Center president Richard Koshalek. Since he took over as president in 1999, Koshalek has been pushing hard for the Gehry building — which would contain a digital library and a series of high-tech studios built to accommodate the design world’s changing technology — an effort that many faculty and alumni have privately said for years is to the detriment of the school’s educational responsibilities. Cooke was among the first to publicly put words to that frustration, and the timing couldn’t have been more explosive.
One day after Cooke’s post, Art Center’s Chief Academic Officer Nate Young resigned under curious circumstances — with Koshalek hinting it was due to Young’s handling of a $1.1 million educational budget deficit. A short time later, Young’s assistant, Rachel Tiede, fresh off maternity leave, was fired after speaking up for her former boss at a student government meeting.
Outraged students, faculty and alumni flocked to Cooke’s site to make their voices heard. Within days, the post had nearly 800 comments questioning Young’s firing, the Gehry building and Koshalek’s leadership. Signatures began to appear on an online petition calling for a moratorium on all new Gehry-related building expenses. The site has garnered more than 1,000 signatures — including several prominent alumni and the chair of Art Center’s top-ranked Industrial Design program, Andy Ogden. A separate Web site has called for the Art Center Board of Trustees to deny Koshalek a new contract when his expires at the end of next year.
Days after his site took off, Cooke received a disturbing conference call from school administrators, encouraging him to take down the post. The not-so-subtle suggestion on their part was that if he refused to comply, it could impact his scholarship money.
“It was not a pleasant conversation,” Cooke says.
He refused to give in, and though, as of now, his scholarship remains intact, Cooke’s treatment is indicative of what many faculty label a “culture of fear” on campus when dealing with the administration. Indeed, while finding faculty willing to speak critically of Koshalek is relatively simple — I had five such conversations — getting them to say so on the record is next to impossible. Art Center does not offer tenure and to speak ill of Koshalek or his Gehry building, they say, is as good as tendering their resignation.
And some suggest that this is nothing new. Long before Nate Young’s resignation, Art Center saw its share of high-profile yet strangely hush-hush departures. CFO Glenn Baker left Art Center after only five months on the job, and Young’s predecessor, Ron Jones, resigned under similarly strange circumstances. Baker refused comment and neither Jones nor Young responded to e-mail queries.
Richard Koshalek rode into his presidency at Art Center on a wave of good press. Hailed as a fund-raising genius for his work at MOCA, which he almost single-handedly built during his 20-year tenure as the museum’s director, the WallStreet Journal and the New York Times both wrote stories trumpeting his arrival.
It was a pivotal turning point for the college — Koshalek was charged with bringing Art Center into the 21st century, from a design school with a sterling insider reputation to a global brand name. He vowed to accomplish this by revamping the educational system and put Art Center on the forefront of the sustainability movement — carving out new roles for design in dealing with the world’s problems. Newsweek praised his vision of “raising the consciousness of the next generation of designers.”
But while media buzz swirled around Art Center’s green, new vision, such monumental change naturally invited dissent. Digital-design pioneer and Art Center alumni Clement Mok was on the Board of Trustees during the Koshalek’s transition period. “We brought Richard in to fund-raise. Design was changing, and there was a definite need to evolve. Lecture style wasn’t working anymore, and we needed to retrofit our class space to accommodate a studio style of work.”
Shortly after Koshalek took over, however, talk of capital improvements and educational reform suddenly morphed into a the case for the new Gehry building. “Things got out of hand,” says Mok, and much to his dismay, a massive fund-raising plan was implemented and a 2005 target date was set for the groundbreaking.
“I asked Richard, ‘What is the educational value of this structure? What are we going to put in there?’ I never got a reasonable answer. Art Center used to be a school for Jedi knights. Under Richard, it aspires to be a cultural institution competing with the likes of MOCA and the Getty.”
Koshalek rejects the criticism from Mok — who left the Board of Trustees in 2002 and hasn’t been active at Art Center since — as sour grapes. But Mok isn’t the only prominent Art Center figure making these critiques.
“I always thought the building was a kind of fetish,” says artist Mike Kelley, who taught at Art Center for more than a decade before moving on in 2005. “If all the fund-raising efforts for the building went toward scholarships, we’d be much better off now.
“I’m no fool,” he adds, “I know people will give money for a building that they won’t give for scholarships, but it’s still disappointing because I lobbied for Koshalek to be brought in.”
Kelley says Koshalek’s approach reflects a larger trend in the museum world, of institutions staking their future on a signature building, often at the expense of their programming.
Koshalek denies the museum comparison: “We have to educate people for jobs that don’t yet exist,” he says. “We have to train them for a future that is constantly changing, and we need the facilities to be able do that.”
Many agree with Koshalek. A separate petition launched in favor of the Gehry building is slowly gaining signees. But with so much at stake, given the current economic climate, many on campus openly wonder, despite his reputation as a master builder, whether Koshalek is the right person to oversee the construction of these facilities. Ramone Muñoz, who has taught at Art Center for more than 25 years and attended the school in 1968, reflects what he says is a significant faculty concern. “Richard is one of the foremost advocates of great architecture in the world. No one questions his sincerity that he thinks this building is what’s best for Art Center. But one of the problems is that Richard’s past projects on campus don’t have a great historical track record.”
Muñoz, a moderate voice by most accounts, says Koshalek’s two largest projects since coming to Art Center — the Sinclair Pavilion student center and the new South Campus, a retrofitted airplane-testing facility — have, at best, been mixed bags. “These buildings are sensational pieces of sculpture, but there are serious questions as to their functionality. If every structure had been an unqualified success, I don’t think anyone would have a problem with the Gehry building.”
Administration officials admit the South Campus has acoustic problems and is running at roughly 50 percent capacity. As for the Sinclair Pavilion: “It’s true, students hate it,” says Patricia Oliver, Senior Vice President of Educational Planning and Architecture.
But, they say, all new buildings have kinks that need to be worked out.
Still, while the administration deals with building plans and infrastructure dilemmas, many say fund-raising for scholarships is suffering. Ninety percent of Art Center’s $65 million annual budget is funded by tuition, and though the school’s endowment has increased by $25 million during Koshalek’s nine-year tenure as president, “we’re just barely keeping up with tuition hikes,” says Stan Kong, a product-design teacher at both Art Center and Pasadena City College, and co-chair of the alumni scholarship fund-raising group Legacy Circle.
“I’m concerned. I’ve always directed my most talented PCC students to Art Center — I’d say more than 1,000 over the years — and I want to make sure Art Center continues to attract the best students from around the world, not just those whose parents can afford it.”
Kong has cause to be concerned.
“The administration is letting in kids who aren’t qualified,” says one faculty member, who wished to remain anonymous. “We have students who can’t even speak English.”
Again, there’s truth to that. Art Center grades the portfolios of its prospective students on a 1 through 10 scale. Only scores of 5 and above have typically been considered Art Center material. But faced with projected enrollment shortfalls of nearly 100 students for the fall trimester (and therefore budget shortfalls) department heads were told to go back into the application pool and start letting in the 4's.
“It’s true we’re letting in 4's,” says Mark Breitenberg, dean of Humanities and Design Sciences, “but that isn’t unique to Art Center. Times are tough all over. Two hundred new design schools have opened in China alone, which we have to compete with.”
This naturally begs the question: Is it fiscally responsible for a small, private college that is facing infrastructure problems, running a budget deficit and lowering its admissions standards, to pursue a $50 million building that many students, faculty and alumni regard as superfluous to the educational needs of the college?
“We’ve put eight years of planning into this building,” Koshalek says. “We’re not going to just give up at the first bump in the road. That’s not planning for the future.
“This building is going to be the critical factor for the college to distinguish itself in the global marketplace — to attract the best students, faculty and corporate partners. Involving a name like Gehry will be essential for fund-raising — not just for the building itself but to ensure the studios continue to be upgraded with the latest technology. And it’s a simple fact that great architecture inspires great work.
Koshalek adds: “It’s an adventurous path we’re taking, one that will face some opposition — but we knew that going in.”
Is there anything that can stop this new building?
“No. Not unless the world and technology suddenly change so these things become unnecessary.
“Or,” he adds, “if we can’t raise the money.”
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled Nathan Cooke's name. We regret the error.