Paula Wallace and SCAD: From Savannah to the World

Paula Wallace is the president and founder of SCAD, a private, nonprofit, accredited university. Established in 1978, SCAD is the most comprehensive art and design university in the United States, offering more than 100 academic degree programs with locations in Atlanta and Savannah, Ga., and Lacoste, France, as well as an award-winning SCAD elearning program. In 2020, under Wallace’s leadership, the university launched SCADnow, a platform for real-time virtual teaching and learning, to continue preparing students to lead in their professions and creative careers during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since being named president in 2000, Wallace has led SCAD to earn numerous top rankings and firsts, including:

  • The first university to develop B.F.A. and/or M.F.A. degree programs in immersive reality, social strategy and management, sequential art, visual effects, motion media, user experience, business of beauty and fragrance, and more;
  • First creative university with two world-class art museums, SCAD Museum of Art (Savannah) and SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film (Atlanta);
  • First university in the world to devote itself to the adaptive rehabilitation of historic industrial and residential architecture for a contemporary educational purpose;
  • No. 1 undergraduate and graduate interior design programs in DesignIntelligence’s annual rankings, including five years in which both programs simultaneously earned top rankings and 13 total No. 1 rankings since 2008;
  • “One of America’s Best Colleges” by U.S. News and World Report;
  • The only university featured in all five of The Hollywood Reporter’s academic program rankings (costume design, visual effects, production design, acting, and American film schools);
  • One of the “Best Fashion Schools in the World” in undergraduate and graduate fashion design and undergraduate and graduate fashion business and management by Business of Fashion in 2019.

SCAD was founded right on the eve of the ’80s—high times for “Yuppies,” Wall Street, and all things finance. What was it like to launch an arts university during that era?

Paula Wallace (PW): “Even in the 80s SCAD found admirers and students, because we were offering what students and the market wanted and needed, before the market knew it wanted and needed it. It sounds strange to say this today, but in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, universities rarely used language like “student-oriented” or “career-focused curriculum.” That was SCAD from the very first. We were oddballs, I guess. The world has come around to our way of thinking.”

So you’re saying, the national focus on the American Dream, so to speak, worked in SCAD’s favor?

PW: “In a way, yes. Who doesn’t have a dream—especially at art school? SCAD students have always wanted to make a good living while pursuing their creative passions, and they do.”

Where are some of your SCAD grads working today?

PW: The list of companies recruiting at SCAD is long and impressive: Apple, Google, Uber, Samsung, Pixar, BMW. Even very young SCAD graduates have some pretty impressive sounding jobs: CIA cartographer, zoo sustainability specialist, Amazon UX designer, DreamWorks animator, SPANX bra designer, Disney Imagineering costumer, Adventist Health innovation catalyst. For yuppies to hipster millennials to highly ambitious and hardworking members of Gen Z, SCAD offers a positive, student-centered atmosphere and a curriculum that aligns student dreams with professional realities.

Okay, so let’s back up. Let’s talk about you. You’ve written several books. Has writing always been an interest alongside all else you’ve done with/for SCAD?

PW: I’ve always loved reading and storytelling. I’ve kept a daily journal for decades. I wrote songs for my elementary school students, and I’ve written them for my children. I wrote the SCAD alma mater, “Unique, United.” I’ve been writing lesson plans and curriculum since my twenties. Always writing!

You can’t possibly have that much time to write, though, with all you do at the university…

PW: Writing and editing is all I do, some days! In my work as president I publish a lot of essays and editorials, and I write book forewords and a great many speeches. Much of what I write the public doesn’t see: a veritable library of annual reports for various accrediting bodies, private correspondence with my extended SCAD family and SCAD supporters. I write and respond to a lot of letters. So I scratch the writing itch almost every day.

What is it about writing that feeds into your passion for SCAD?

PW: It’s all about storytelling, painting vivid word pictures, and enchanting the reader. This is what all creatives do: enchant, enthrall, inspire.

SCAD’s campuses in the U.S. and Europe make it an inherently international art institution. What was the impetus for creating a SCAD-specific, global array of satellite campuses?

PW: SCAD is one university with four global locations. We have no satellite campuses! Satellites revolve around something else, whereas each SCAD location is a shining star generating its own light. Students earn degrees through three of our locations (SCAD Atlanta, SCAD Savannah, and SCAD eLearning), and the fourth (SCAD Lacoste) is open four quarters a year for an array of majors and disciplines. We’ve had students study at all four — an elite cadre. I recommend each student travel to at least two campuses while they’re here. To study toward your profession on different sides of an ocean, a planet, is eye-opening and soul-expanding.

When did your vision move beyond SCAD in Savannah to other places?

PW: As everything at SCAD, this decision came about from the happy meeting of opportunity and need. In the early 2000s, when SCAD passed the 20-year mark, we started receiving overtures from mayors, advocates, and chambers of commerce asking us to consider opening a SCAD campus in their cities — Tampa, St. Petersburg, Santa Fe, San Diego, Charlotte, Palo Alto, Singapore, Dubai. They’d visited Savannah and had seen how SCAD transformed a city from ghost town to modern vibrancy. SCAD brings people, jobs, history, and beauty wherever we set up shop.

How did SCAD end up in the South of France?

PW: Our international campus was given to SCAD! The Lacoste campus was given to SCAD by the board of the former Lacoste School of the Arts, whose enrollments had dwindled over many years (enrollment has grown every year since SCAD took over and considerably expanded the size and quality of the campus’s built environment).

How often do you work in the university’s different locations?

PW: I travel between Savannah and Atlanta weekly—they’re four hours apart—and I work at the SCAD Lacoste location at least a month or so every year, to engage with the students and work on ongoing design-and-build projects with our SCAD team in Lacoste. International campuses add a layer of complexity to operating a university, but students learn how to interact with new cultures and clients. Their friend networks grow. Friends are very important when building a career. SCAD graduates really root for one another. They hire each other, start businesses together, work together, as SCAD alumni Ciaran McGuigan, Richard Langthorne, and Karl Sjöström do at Orior New York, the Brooklyn location of an Irish furniture company started by McGuigan’s family. (These three designers played on SCAD’s soccer team together, too.)

Let’s talk about the university’s many festivals. What inspired those—and what are the objectives of having event programs from a holistic standpoint?

PW: SCAD loves events! Dreaming up events to showcase our SCAD students and degree programs is one of the great parts of my job. My husband is always saying, “Stop having ideas!” LOL. I tried to stop having ideas once. Didn’t work. The truth is, none of our SCAD signature events — SCAD aTVfest, SCAD deFINE ART, SCAD FASHWKND — would exist without our being a university. They all have a twofold purpose. First, is educational. We want students to feel connected to the professions they’ll be entering. That’s why we invite the preeminent professionals to visit SCAD, the preeminent source of knowledge. We host these guest artists, filmmakers, writers, designers, and others to teach our students through masterclasses, lectures, talks. Our students ask great questions (as when they asked Alan Cumming, at a recent SCAD aTVfest, to talk about practical similarities between preparing for his famous Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret and X-Men’s Nightcrawler). Each signature SCAD event clusters multiple degree programs in one single week or moment, for example, how SCAD deFINE ART honors painting, photography, sculpture, all the fine arts.

There’s a tangible benefit to meeting your heroes!

PW: Exactly. That’s the second purpose of SCAD events: to honor these professions, to show students how to honor those who have come before you. We end up creating an army of SCADvocates who help us evangelize about SCAD worldwide. These events turn any guest into an ambassador, because you sort of fall in love with the place when you visit. It’s true! Our built environment enchants with art and color and history. Our hometown communities each hold a special charm. Mostly, it’s the people. Our SCAD family knows how to host. We were born in the South. Drop in any time!

Learn more about Paula Wallace and SCAD here: