Dr. Elisa Stephens is the president of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Under her leadership, the academy has become one of the largest private schools of art and design in the nation. Dr. Stephens is known for her pioneering approach, blending art and design education with cutting-edge technology, and she's written thought-provoking pieces on open admissions and the significance of creativity in the age of AI. In our conversation, we explore AI and open admissions as well as her insights on the future of art, design, technology, and education.
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Summary of the Conversation
The Academy of Art University holds onto time-honored principles of drawing, design, color, structure, and form while staying current with technology and ever-evolving trends in art. The university has a "No Barriers" admissions policy that ensures a diverse student population. Dr. Stephens believes that a student's past does not predict their performance and that traditional education may not provide the necessary art education to create a portfolio. The policy allows everyone to have access to higher education, regardless of their socioeconomic background, which the university sees as important for the benefit of the world, and it can work for other types of colleges and universities too.
Academy of Art University combines STEM with art to create STEAM-powered portfolios. The university offers academic resources, such as English for art purposes courses and free tutoring, to assist students who need help in certain areas. The university believes that supporting and helping students in areas they need to be stronger in is crucial for their success.
The Academy of Art University has had the "No Barriers" policy for almost a century, which was part of the foundation of the university. The policy was not difficult to implement as it was already ingrained in the institution's pedagogy and it helped to create a diverse population and benefits the university. They have a holistic approach to recruiting students, looking beyond just grades and test scores. They visit schools and attend college fairs to connect with potential students. The University also has an online application process that includes essays and a portfolio review. They look for students who are passionate about art and design, have a strong work ethic, and are willing to collaborate and learn from others. They also prioritize diversity and strive to create a welcoming and inclusive community.
The university does not subscribe to the "starving artist" notion and believes that art and design touch every facet of our culture and economy. The school differentiates itself by having the best professional artists as instructors, emphasizing the importance of the person in the classroom over a piece of paper.
Dr. Stephens believes in the importance of vigilance in evaluating instructors and equipment to support artists. The school has a balance of adjunct and full-time faculty, with a focus on hiring industry professionals as adjuncts. The curriculum stays relevant through the use of current professional faculty and advisory boards comprised of professionals. The school also has a robust online program, initially created to ensure education could continue in the event of an earthquake.
AI is seen as a tool in the field of art and design, and it will take over some white-collar jobs. The future for artists is on the iterative process that AI provides, which inspires the artist. AI can come up with a hundred ideas in 30 seconds, and the artists will take those ideas and improve upon them. AI is being integrated into various majors at the university, including advertising, copywriting, art direction, fashion design, photography, industrial design, car design, product design, and game design.
Art and design require collaboration and teamwork, with diverse artists and designers playing different roles. Students are taught to collaborate and work hard to keep up with the team, which is a skill that is highly valued in the industry. The school focuses on teaching students to accept failure as this builds resilience and helps them improve over time. They also provide a safe environment for students to fail and learn from their mistakes through an objectively based critique method.
Branding and marketing are crucial in higher education, as universities need to market themselves to attract students. Differentiating oneself from other universities is important, and schools should focus on their unique strengths and value propositions. Looking inward and promoting those strengths is key to success. Dr. Stephens advocates for individualized education in art schools and encourages institutions to take chances and not be afraid to "fail-forward." She believes that art and design are woven into the fabric of society and that it's important to give all segments of the American population access to higher education.
Ian Evenstar: Dr. Stevens, welcome to the show. Well, congratulations again. Let's just start by saying congratulations again on the continued success of the Academy of Art University. I'd love to hear just a bit about your journey and how it has evolved under your leadership.
Dr. Elisa Stephens: Well I've been a president for a long time, probably longer than most presidents, and we've seen a lot of change in art and design, but with the change that we've seen, we've also held to the time-honored principles of art and design. So with change, we've also stayed the same. So I think that's been a big advantage for us to be able to hold onto the past strengths and yet stay current with technology and ever-evolving trends in art.
IE: Tell us more about the past strengths and where you've been able to honor tradition. We're gonna talk quite a bit about AI and the innovations, but I'm curious about what traditions the university's holding onto.
ES: The traditions that we're focused on are the time-honored principles of drawing, design, color, structure, and form. We've emphasized those at the beginning of the curriculum, in the foundational curriculum. And then we practice them throughout the curriculum for the student's journey at the Academy of Art University.
IE: Yeah, so it's really important to have that foundation before moving into more of the experimentation and innovation. I think that the traditional education model is sometimes under scrutiny, so it's I guess notable that you've been able to hold onto that, but then also, you know, stay relevant and stay contemporary with your curriculum.
ES: Well, we have subscribed to the notion that you have to know the rules before you break them.
Ian: That's true. I think there's the anecdote around Picasso and how he learned the many techniques of the Masters before moving into his cubist aesthetic and, really is an exemplar of that exact notion. Know the rules before you can break them, and build that vocabulary before you begin writing your own prose. So let's talk more about your open admissions policy. This is something I know you're a, you're a champion of. I think it has different definitions or different inflections. Within higher ed what is the open admissions policy or what is the admissions policy there at your university?
ES: Well, we have a “No Barriers” admissions policy and it ensures the most diverse student population that we can strive for. We're firm believers that a student's past doesn't predict performance in school and isn't predicting their future performance at our school. And we, we see that students. Whether high school students or even other university students, if they've gone to a traditional university, really haven't received the art education needed to create the type of portfolio one would need to get accepted into a university, and our No Barriers. policy doesn't handicap anybody. I guess the best way to say it is our No Barriers policy is allowing everybody to have access to higher education. Even if you come from a lower socioeconomic background, you might not have had the education and the opportunity to have. Computers, art supplies, art teachers, higher private art tutors like other high school students might have had, or other families may have had that advantage. So we see that as very important that the whole world benefits by giving people the opportunity to be creative.
IE: And I'll ask about the outcomes and if that approach, the no barrier approach affects outcomes at all. But I'll hold that question for a moment 'cause I'm curious if you have a sense of this 'cause a lot of our listeners may not be administration within art schools. Or liberal arts, even for that matter, they are listening possibly from, you know, STEM programs or business programs. Do you think the No Barriers approach would work for other types of programs?
ES: We as an art and design university have 14 STEM programs. So we combine STEM with art and come up with STEAM, and we STEAM-powered portfolios, and that's how students are hired based on their portfolio. So they have to perform. Do I think a nuclear physics major needs to know math? Yep, I do. And if you don't have barriers, the question becomes, wow, how do we get a qualified person? So I think the answer to that, which is, which is part and parcel of the No Barriers admissions program, is that we have programs and services that assist our students. We have academic resources where support teachers go into the classroom. If a student's English is not as strong as it may need to be, we have English for art purposes. Courses so that students take English for art purposes and then that teacher goes into the art classes with that student to assist them. We have writing courses that are free. Our resource center is free, so we have free tutoring and you have to put those services in as well as have foundational programs. You can't just ask a person to you have to support them and help them be maybe stronger in areas that you're gonna need them to be in order to succeed.
IE: Was it difficult for you to develop this policy or as the president, did you just say, this is the mandate and this is the direction we're going? How much buy-in did you require? And ultimately what would you say to someone that might be struggling with creating a more open admissions policy for their units
ES: Well, we've had this No Barriers policy for almost a hundred years, and my grandfather was a painter and art director for Sunset Magazine and he started the Academy of Art University in 1929 and from its inception, he had a No Barriers policy because he had seen and was realizing that many, many Americans were not receiving, drawing and art education at the high school level. And even if they did have art classes, they weren't taught by artists. And so the second part of his pedagogy was to have working professional artists teach the next generation of artists, primarily because art's moving so fast that an instructor A faculty member must be in the industry in order to convey the most relevant information to the students in an art and design school. And that that information then is built upon semester by semester with art moving so fast. So it wasn't hard to implement because it was part of the foundation of the university. It's been more difficult to explain.
IE: And how about for those who are struggling to get this across the Dean's desk into the President's office as an initiative?
ES: I would argue that if you want a diverse population that Open Admissions policy is gonna help you with that, and that you will have a very broad range of people, both socioeconomically and in terms of their own heritage, and that will benefit the university, and that yes, they'll have to be support systems to in place, perhaps in various subjects to assist these students, a percentage of the population that did not receive this information prior to being accepted.
IE: Well, I love the notion of STEAM. I'll add to that because of my background in design and my love of design, especially as it relates to every facet and every industry of our lives, we could be STEAMed. So we have science, technology, engineering, art, math, and design to lead the way. What other ways do you support students? I know you mentioned where someone might step in and help with writing, or maybe there's a math component that needs help. Where, where are other ways that you're supporting students that someone could take a note from?
ES: We start with teens as young as 14, and we have a summer art and design experience program where teenagers can come in free of charge to experience art and design classes. This gives them a chance to explore whether or not they might wanna do this thing called art and design, or it even focuses them on what they do wanna do. And by giving them a summer art experience. And we also expanded it to Saturday art. During the spring and fall semesters, students actually acquire the skills before they get to the academy. And they can even put a portfolio together if they wish, as high school students in our free summer art and design program. And I would recommend that other schools do that. And if they wanna focus on math and science, they can do so.
IE: Tell me a little bit about your recruiting strategies and how you find best-fit students. And I know with No Barriers, best fit may not be kind of a typical qualification, but how do you, how do you recruit and how do you find your way to the perspective students', hearts and minds?
ES: Recruiting now is really digital and we're doing a lot of digital outreach. Of course, we use Google. We use YouTube. We're on Instagram. Some of that's paid, some of it's organic. But that's been our focus. I still have a belief in outreach through television. I believe in the power of television and the reach of television. I think radio also is still valid particularly probably in California where people are still in cars. But I think today we have to do it all. We have to try to use all channels to reach people to get our message across if these opportunities exist. I think the biggest mistake that people make, and I may be jumping the gun in one of your questions, is that of this sort of starving artist notion, which we have never subscribed to. We look around and we see art is everywhere. The cars we drive, the clothes we wear, the buildings, we look at, the buildings we are inside, the interior architecture, the movies we watch that are constantly changing. I don't think that there's anything that we can actually think of including landscape design with the landscape, photography, video, music, and acting. There's nothing that we don't participate in every single day that hasn't been touched by the hands of an artist, and those are all jobs.
IE: Well said, “We don't subscribe to a starving artist syndrome. Instead, we subscribe to a successful artist syndrome.” And I think that's a message that everyone should hear, and you're absolutely right. Art and design touches every facet of our culture, our societies, and of course, our jobs and our economies. So tell me a bit more about recruitment in terms of leaning into your values or your brand differentiators. How have you been able to carve out space and differentiate yourself from other programs that you might be competing with?
ES: I think what we do best is that we make sure that we have the best professional artists in the classroom. And it's the person instructing that matters. It's not a piece of paper. It's not that, it's the person in the classroom to differentiates you from any school. It's the instruction and the instructor. And we focus very hard. I use the analogy of sports a lot. Football, for example, they’ve got the best players and they work as a team. And that's how they get to the Super Bowl and they're constantly reevaluating their players all the time. And some players that were great at one point are, are no longer great. For various reasons. Injury could be a reason. So I think that that vigilance on instructors. In front of the classroom is important and it's you can't rest on your laurels with that. And I think equipment to support artists we have special environments and need special equipment. We've been lucky. We have a really robust online program, which I actually put in, in 2001 over 20 years ago because I was worried at the time of earthquakes, my grandparents had been in the 1906 earthquake, so I wanted to make sure that students' education could continue in the event of an earthquake in San Francisco. So the online platform we initially built as a proprietary system and we've got whiteboards and drawing pens and everything was geared to the artist, with the artist in mind, and a lot of our students have taken advantage of our online program.
IE: Thinking about the faculty and the artists as like one of the main differentiators, do you try to find a balance between adjunct and tenured as a way to always have the best talent or do you firmly believe one way or the other is best for a university?
ES: I think for a professional art and design school, which is what we are, we have a very good balance. We do have a fair amount of adjuncts because we are hiring people who are in the industry. If, you know, if I were running you know, if we're having an acting program, which we do have, you know, I want people like Brad Pitt to come and, and lecture and instruct, and, and Mr. Pitt can't be full-time because Mr. Pitt's making movies all the time. So, or directing. So I think it's important to have a strong, large number of adjuncts, but primarily the executive chairs of these programs are full-time.
IE: So a bit of a hybrid model, if you will. I know that word gets thrown away, thrown out a lot, but hybrid in terms of tenured and adjunct. So let's turn our focus a little bit toward the curriculum itself because I think this is gonna touch upon our sec second topic, which is AI and technology and, you know, really where the world is taking us. So as a president, how do you ensure that the curriculum that the chairs are overseeing, how do you ensure that stays relevant and aligned with some of these latest trends, including AI?
ES: We have two ways to do that. The professional faculty that are in the classrooms are very current in this subject. And secondly, we have advisory boards comprised of pros. People who generally cannot spend the time to instruct but can com donate time to advise. So we have robust advisory boards that inform us and look at the student work for its strengths and weaknesses and look at the curriculum to see where we may have gaps and where we have strengths.
IE: Do you think AI is a challenge or an opportunity for not only higher ed but career creative professionals?
ES: I've embraced technology from the inception of my presidency, and I see it as a tool in the field of art and design, and it's a tool. If it is a tool that enables art and design students to better hone their craft and express their creativity, then I believe as a university we'd be derelict for not teaching that. So I think AI will take over some white-collar jobs. I believe that. But there'll always be a need for the human component with AI because the human component will drive AI. So I think that could be considered a negative. However, the creative jobs, the ones that are non-factual, the ones that are designed to spark inspiration and create motivation for people.
And it's a non-repetitive job. I think those jobs will exist in being in higher demand because those are the people who are gonna use AI. AI is going to need those people to prompt it. If it hasn't been invented, discovered, or created. AI can't imagine it. So I think the future for artists is on the iterative process, that AI provides and it provides it quickly and it provides a lot of iterations, I think is valuable for the artist to inspire the artist. It might take days and weeks to come up with a hundred ideas. AI's gonna come up within 30 seconds, and then the artists will take those ideas and improve upon 'em, expand upon them. Change them.
IE: Yeah, that's exactly where I land with that too. It's nice to hear your perspective. I've been reminding people that, HI, human intelligence is never going to go away. And then HD human direction is also going to be increased, ultimately leading to the best AI we've ever seen, which is not artificial intelligence, it's augmented intelligence. And I think that if Michelangelo had people helping with the Sistine Chapel, many artists in the next year and beyond are gonna be leaning on AI as that. That production artist helps generate ideas and help execute some of the concepts. Have you seen any interesting projects or interesting artifacts coming out of the university with AI? I'm just curious about that as well.
ES: Yes, we've had AI embedded in our curriculum for over a year, and we see it in advertising, the copywriting area. We see it in art direction and the actual commercials that are being created. We're seeing our students in fashion design start implementing it with their fashion designs. Photographers are using it, and particularly our industrial designers, our car designers, and our product designers, they have it, they're using it, the game designers are using it. So we're seeing it in game design and it's pretty well integrated into all those majors. We have over 120 programs, but those departments are really taking it and running with it. And I've seen some really fascinating artwork that's come out of it.
IE: I appreciate the fact that you've listed so many industries 'cause I know that in terms of producing graduates who have gone on to make significant contributions. Industrywide the art university has really excelled in this area. Can you share an example of a student who's made an impact?
ES: I can, and in fact, I wish I could show you the impact that they're making because I think the picture speaks volumes. I just saw some examples in car design and footwear design, the iterative process. Where they're improving on the look of the shoe. Let's say, for example, a tennis shoe. Once again, the machine can't tell you whether that shoe's comfortable or whether it works. That's gonna have to be with artists to do prototyping and really testing it. But, I've seen amazing things happen in advertising. Our last student took images and then she did copy and she used AI to advertise an electric motorcycle, and it was a video and it was very powerful. And I think she's probably gonna get hired based on that work that she did. Another aspect of AI that we teach, and which we have taught for many, many decades is the collaborative experience. And a lot of artists when they first come to us aren't aware of how collaborative art and design is.
And you may have a painter that works alone in a studio, but everybody else, whether they're photographers, motion picture television people, designers, writers, They're all architects, interior designers, landscape architects. They're all working collaboratively. Animation animators, the game designers, none of that's done by an individual. It's done in a team and it's usually a team of diverse artists and designers. 'cause they all play a role and that collaborative process is practiced. And you have to be taught how to do that. You have to be taught what your role is and then you have to work very hard. To keep up with the team and the collaboration, and that's a skill. And we have many, many, many collaborative projects that tie into industry. So students are already getting contact with the industry before they graduate, and this helps them get employment.
IE: That's absolutely great. I love the placements and the connections that a student can make with industry as part of the curriculum, and part of the learning experience. The notion of collaboration too, I think touches on what we were just describing, where we're now. Learning to collaborate with AI, right? So it's not only the other types of members or specialists as part of your team, but also, how does AI collaborate with that process? How does AI contribute and collaborate to the overall outcomes? Thinking of collaboration and success, what are some other skills or the qualities that you're looking for and, and trying to develop in a student so that they do go on to succeed in the field of art and design? What are, what are those key skills?
ES: Well, I think we talked about drawing and design skills, color, structure and form, technical skills, computer skills, AI skills. But we're what we really focus on is failure and learning to accept failure and keep failing and then keep redoing, keep failing, keep redoing your work. And that builds a lot of metal and that's what the marketplace is gonna ask of you. So don't be frightened of failure. Everybody fails. The more you fail, the better you're getting. And we provide a safe environment for them to fail. And we'd rather they fail at school than. In the job market, it could cost them their job. So it's, I think failure is what we teach 'em. We have a critique method. It's an objectively based critique method. We're an objectively based art school where we're teaching 'em the facts and they're drawing their conclusions and through critique, we're showing them where their work can be better. Every, every project and then we were asking them to go back and make it better so that that process of performance on the part of the student is what I feel makes 'em better over time.
IE: That's great. Learning how to fail forward is a, is a skill that Yeah. Yeah. Every artist needs, I, I would say every individual needs to learn and embrace and, and also the ability to provide constructive feedback in the form of objective critique is also, you know, one of life's greatest skills, I would say. So I love that. And it also goes back, I think, to the traditions that you're honoring, right? I have, in, in the design courses that I teach, I, I have this lecture all about how. Design is pretty damn old, meaning the theories of art and color and balance and visual hierarchy, like those things will never go away. They work for a reason and those are some of the facts and conclusions that I think that you're, you're drawing from in that objective critique process. That's correct. Just to. Kind of wrap up and close here. What role do you see branding, I know you touched upon advertising, but what role do you think branding and marketing play in today's higher education landscape?
ES: I think they're very important and I think all universities, education is customer service and all schools. Benefit by and, and do market themselves, whether they know it or not, they're doing it through their sports teams. So I think branding to the customer, the needs of the customer, and we're focused very heavily on it starts here at the Academy of Art University for your art and design career.
IE: I agree. I think that marketing and branding are key and leaning into those differentiators, which I think is part of the reason I asked you about that. If a university is struggling to carve out space within the market, do you have any secret tips, tactics, or a direction that they should head, a place where they should look for those differentiators?
ES: AI. I think that they need to look closer to home. In your own backyard see where your strengths are. I think a lot of schools have done remarkably well and promoting themselves, and I'm always surprised by how they promote themselves so well, but I can't actually see that they are the richest schools or the schools in the best, you know, best cities or whatever, best weather, whatever we would think might do it.
But they look at their own unique value proposition and then they just go laser-tight on it and they push, push, push. And I think that they, that you have to look inward for that. And then not deviate from that. This is who we are. We're not all things, all people. This is what we do. A lot of times in education, especially art education schools follow each other, or I think they should be more individualized. I think that's interesting how, especially for artists who've viewed themselves as creative, the schools can all look the same when they shouldn't. There should be choice in education for the American population.
IE: Well, you give me the impression that you're not afraid to take chances and you're not afraid to carve out that unique identity. At the risk of maybe not being all things to all people, is that, is that accurate? Yes. And, back to your earlier answer about what skills an artist or an individual might need. I think at the institutional level, what you're advocating for in terms of branding is don't be afraid to take those chances. Don't be afraid to fail forward and redo and iterate and grow and learn at the institutional level, and certainly don't be afraid or build into your process that objective critique process that we learn as artists, as part of your own methodology, again, at the institutional level.
ES: It's a life-learning lesson. The future for artists and designers is robust because art and design are woven into the fabric of our society, and that's based on looking around and seeing that everything that we see has been touched by the hands of an artist.
IE: Dr. Stevens, thank you for this time. You have the ear of fellow presidents, the ear of deans, and vice provosts. Any final words, any kind of marching order, or final thought?
ES: Be brave. It's a brave new world. Be brave. I do believe that it's very important that we reach all segments of the American population and give them an opportunity to have access to higher education and not let their past predict their future because they're still young. And it's too early to write off an 18-year-old.
IE: We'll just let those words linger as we take ourselves out. Thank you again for your time, Dr. Stevens. It's been an absolute pleasure to have this time with you today.
ES: Thank you. Very nice to meet you.