Q/A w Larry Hinz

Larry Hinz, president of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, has seen the school go through major changes since 2009. Here he answers some questions about how the school is growing, his vision for the future, and what it is that makes SFUAD special.

*The following interview has been edited for conciseness.

JM: How do you think SFUAD has changed since you began as president?

LH: We’ve had an incredible 3 1/2 to four years of transition. We’re at an exciting place in time for this school. We have over 800 students, and the campus seems more alive—I walk across campus and I see students, so it’s really good for me to have that contrast to what it was like four years ago when we were trying to save the school. The student body is the most talented that I’ve seen since I’ve been here; it’s an engaged, energetic dynamic group of students that we have here and the faculty are really jazzed about that. I also think the campus looks really good; the quad is more welcoming than it was two years ago, for example. We will continue to make improvements to the campus and the buildings as time goes on.

Also, we do a satisfaction survey every April, and student satisfaction is way up. There are common themes: students love the faculty, love the classroom, love the courses, love the facilities. Some of the negatives continue as well, like the cafeteria and the dorms and student activities, but this year has been a huge improvement overall. Another area that we track closely is student retention rates. That has also shown consistent improvement over the last year. I think this goes back to that engaged student body. Overall, the group of kids that are here want to be here, and they want to come back and they want to learn, so our attrition numbers have gone down pretty significantly.

JM: This fall felt like the school had expanded more than before; there seemed to be some hiccups: students were camped out in king lounge because the dorms had been overbooked, there were long lines in the cafeteria, the student body only has one counselor—was the growth in the student body this semester too much, or are these just normal hiccups that have to be dealt with?

LH: To answer that I’d look at what occurred this fall. There are some encouraging things that occurred, but it caused some issues that we had to deal with.

Usually by May a school—ours included—knows who will be showing up in August. In May we figure out how many freshmen we’ll have, and we’re pretty much 90 percent directionally accurate, and that’s how we plan the resources. This year we had more demand across all of the different areas of the school. Throughout the summer we had more and more people decide to come—network students, independent international students, students for our English program, and domestic students. It all came from a good spot, but come early August the numbers were higher than we had thought in May.

You saw some areas that we had to fix, like the cafeteria: we had to get more seating, we had to expand the hours to absorb the number of students that were there. I’m confident that we’ve answered that, but there was a week to two-week period that it took us to figure it all out. Now we just need to make sure that as we grow we provide services and don’t repeat any of those hiccups that we experienced.

JM: At what point do you see the school being maxed out or done growing?

LH: I don’t have an answer for that. I don’t have any grand design, and if I did I’d probably be delusional. I don’t think anyone really has that answer. What I am most focused on is that whatever growth we do is responsible growth, that we keep the DNA of this school consistent. I think the school at 800 is dynamic, but it could become more so. Most art schools around the country have between 1,000 and 2,000 students, so our long-term goal would probably be somewhere within that. For me, though, it’s not so much about the number as it is about maintaining what the school is really about.

JM: What is your personal description of the ‘DNA’ of the school that makes it unique?

LH: My view of the school is really embedded in the students. Somehow, some way, we recruit students who know themselves better at 17 or 18 years old than most people I know at 35 or 45 or 50. I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t believe it, and I think it gets truer every year, though it’s been true since I walked in here. There’s a maturity level and a leadership quality, even if it’s not fully developed at 17 or 18, and that differentiates us from a lot of other schools that I’ve seen.
I find that it’s because of the art and design programs we have here that students start thinking independently earlier. We avoid a lot of the cliquish nature of high school—students that come here have found their own crowd or they’ve found themselves, and they’re more focused. When I describe this place to other people, it’s with that in mind.

The student body is serious, not from a competitive standpoint—you all aren’t climbing over your classmates backs to try to get ahead—but just the opposite: you’re much more collaborative than the average school.

Some used to say, “Keep CSF weird.” I don’t think this is a weird place with weird students. We have a lot of people who are bold and aren’t afraid to express their individuality. I don’t find that weird, I find it refreshing.

I also think it’s faculty. The relationship that you all have with the faculty here is different from any other school I’ve seen. It’s not one of motherly or fatherly direction, but of peer-to-peer. When I hear our faculty talk about the students, it’s as if they’re simply less-accomplished artists here and their job is to help them become more accomplished, to be true to who they are. They’re not telling you to paint this way, or to play that note that way. It’s as if they say to each individual, ‘Well what do you think you should be doing?’

I used to think, four years ago, that the secret sauce here was Santa Fe, the location. That’s part of it, but it’s the students, it’s the faculty, it’s the quality of the faculty—the fact that they’re still practicing and award-winning—and then it’s that bridge between the two that this place is all about. As we grow, that’s what I’m confident is going to be maintained here.

JM: Do you think that the representations of what the school is about on our website—such as photos and promotional videos are true representations of the school? Have they changed since the College of Santa Fe?

LH: For one, I think that’s probably better answered by you, the students, because you guys are the ones living and breathing this. Yours is the best answer anyone can give to that question.

From my perspective, what we’re trying to do, to the best of our ability, is to show the school to people who haven’t been to Santa Fe. If we were based in Los Angeles or New York, most students would drive by, most students would know the reputation of the school, and most students would probably know people who came here. Our burden is that most of our students have never visited the campus. Many have never even heard of Santa Fe—their first time here is when they come to see the college—so we have an obligation to communicate what we’re about in a much deeper way than most schools.

The best thing we can do is set the right expectations for people—or, to look at it the opposite way, the worst thing we can do is set expectations for people that aren’t true. Because then within a day or a week a student wakes up and says, “this is not the place that I thought it would be.” It’s in our best interest that we portray it as accurately as possible, and more than that it’s an obligation we have—to keep people happy.

Do I wish our website were better at accurately reflecting the school? Absolutely. There is room for improvement—and that’s an area that our marketing team is working on constantly. Do I wish we had more student videos that reflected a day in the life of a student? Absolutely. That really is the most accurate representation of what goes on here.

JM: How do you navigate the relationship between SFUAD and Laureate?

LH: First let me put Laureate into context. A small school like this, without a larger supporter in this day and age, is kind of scary. Going to a small private school has a lot of advantages, but it’s also kind of scary from a financial standpoint, from a longevity standpoint. We’ve gained the benefit of having the state and Laureate invest in the school, not only financially, but in every other way. The support that we get from this kind of public-private partnership, for a school of our size, is just tremendous.

This is an independent school in just about every way. We have an independent board of directors, and that board has a responsibility to the school to make sure that the decisions that I make, that the administration, the faculty and the teachers make, are all doing the right thing. That’s a requirement by our accrediting body. We set the programs, hire the faculty, decide what the cafeteria hours are, decide what color to paint the signs out front—this is a school that maintains its own destiny in every way.

So where does Laureate come in? Laureate is a network of 72 universities around the world, and their concept is that there are benefits to being a part of this larger global network. And the benefits derive to students and faculty—you all get an opportunity to seamlessly go to Milan and Istanbul and New Zealand and anywhere else on the map, generally for the same cost that you pay here and sometimes for less cost. It’s a big mixing bowl of academic opportunities for the members of the network.

Laureate also funds the school. We’re very lucky to have had an institution like Laureate invest in the school. Otherwise we would have to raise money through donations or become solely tuition-dependent, which would mean that we’d be raising tuition 10 or 20 percent or higher every year. It’s really like a partnership. They lend us resources. Our billing system, for example, is a billing system they’ve designed for multiple schools, so we don’t have to go by our own billing system. Things like this may seem boring to students, but are critically important for the running of a school.

So my interaction with Laureate is extremely positive. They’ve been incredibly supportive throughout this, and they have been hugely encouraging of us to become more global and international. Laureate believes in internationality as a differentiator, because we’re entering this global 21st century world, and the more that their school graduates get exposure at the university level, they’ll be more qualified citizens. Internationality and access are big DNA items for Laureate. They encourage making the schools they work with more accessible to more people.

Laureate is very happy with SFUAD being a part of the global network. They get a lot of advantages from this school being of value to other schools. For example, most of the schools that send students here have art and design programs locally. Their students come here and get to study with a Chris Eyre, or a Linda Swanson, or a Dana Levin. At home, they could never have access to talent like that, along with the one on one teaching that you all get the benefit of. It is a life changing event; there’s a hunger and a desire for them, and also the painful moment when they have to get on a plane and go back home. Some actually transfer here. This has been a very big positive for Laureate in that regard.

JM: What are some of the directions for the future?

LH: Right now we’re working on a number of key initiatives; this school is committed to giving a global perspective, which means that we are expanding the programs that bring in international students and to give our students opportunities to go to other parts of the world for varied cultural and academic experiences. This year alone we’ve had 800 students and faculty from around the world come to Santa Fe, which for an intimate school is a lot. We’ve got 10 students out on semesters abroad. We’ve brought in about 20 full-degree seeking international students from maybe eight different countries, including Norway—our first students from Norway, which is exciting. Some [other] new programs that we’ve launched: digital arts, which is very popular; arts management, which is an undergraduate business degree, or a BDA, that we’re encouraging students from all departments to take courses in.

…the school has been recognized by a lot of third party folks recently, and I think that’s added to the interest level in the school. With Princeton Review naming us one of the best in the west, Variety naming our film program a top 15 media program, Backstage Magazine naming our theater program one of the top five out of LA, and Robert Redford getting associated with the school—people have begun to say, ‘What’s the Santa Fe thing all about?’