Taliesin school board reverses vote, won’t close the school

Back in (the) Black

Taliesin school board reverses vote, won’t close the school

Taliesin West (Christopher Michel/Flickr)

It turns out that earlier coverage of the death of the School of Architecture at Taliesin (SoAT) may have been premature. In a stark reversal, SoAT’s board has decided to reverse its January 25 vote and keep the school open.

When the news was announced at the end of January, it looked like the 88-year-old SoAT would close at the end of June and send the final 30 students from the Taliesin West campus in Scottsdale, Arizona, to the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe to finish their education. After an outpouring of support, the board’s change of heart might seem like a good thing, but the school still finds itself in a precarious position. The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which owns the land the school is on, has terminated SoAT’s lease effective July 31, 2020; as a result, the Chicago based law firm Kirkland & Ellis, LLP is representing the school pro bono in what could become a protracted legal battle.

How did the situation come to this?

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and the School formally split in 2017 as a requirement of accreditation; under Higher Learning Commission regulations, accredited schools must be separate from their parent institution. A memorandum of understanding was signed between the two bodies to dictate the terms of how they would interact.

When the news first broke of the closure, dueling editorials published in AN from the Governing Board of the School and from Stuart Graff, president and CEO of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, laid fault at the feet of each other. The School claimed that: “The Foundation presented our school with two options. One was to close the school when the current Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) expired this summer. The Foundation’s other option was to keep the School of Architecture at Taliesin open for the 2020-2021 academic year. The Foundation wanted the school to immediately terminate our accreditation under those terms. The Foundation also wanted the school to then help create a new non-accredited program to be run by the former.”

In his rebuttal, however, Graff claimed the School has always been a financial drag on the Foundation and that they were subsidizing its continued existence. Citing what he called “aspirational, but unrealistic” enrollment and fundraising targets, Graff wrote that the Foundation was materially incapable of supporting the school any longer.

Additionally, the Foundation released a previously confidential memo from the School’s Governing Board that seemed to confirm their version of events; in it, Dan Schweiker, the chairperson of the Board of Governors, admitted that “We do not have, nor will we have in the foreseeable future the resources needed to successfully operate our current model. We do not have the funding to even have the state of the art software programs that graduates need to gain successful employment. Our students are immensely talented, but we need to give them the proper tools. No matter how romantic or quixotic are aspirations are, they fail to meet current reality.” He then recommended that the school drop its accreditation and move students to ASU, close enrollment, and sign a new, one-year memorandum.

Whoever the responsible party was, there was an outpouring of support for keeping the school open. A petition to save SoAT has nearly hit its 10,000-signature goal, editorials from former students and staff piled up across architecture outlets, and plenty of memes have been posted at the Foundation (though Graff has asked the parties responsible to stop).

And, thanks to community efforts, it seems the winds have shifted. Today, the SoAT board confirmed that they had secured additional funding and have long-term operating viability. However, the final word still lies with the Foundation, and according to the media release sent to AN, the school board is “now calling on the Foundation to allow the School to extend its existing agreement so it can remain open, but the Foundation is being resistant and still retains the power to force the School to close unless a deal is reached.”

Schweiker also provided the following quote:

“The legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright embodied by the School is, as the outpouring of support has shown, one of international importance. The quality of the work the students have been doing in recent years is excellent. It would be a severe blow to the future of architecture if these talented students would not have the chance to continue this legacy.”

The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation provided the following statement when asked for comment: “The Foundation has no proposal from the School other than what it reads in the media. We therefore have nothing to respond to.” The Foundation later followed up with a full editorial, readable here.

This is an evolving story and this article will be updated as more information comes in.