How Paula Wallace Created a Wonderland Called SCAD

Most U.S. universities feel as old as the nation itself, with histories stretching back a century or more, when most students studied Latin and Greek and academic career paths pointed towards law, religion, medicine, and not much else. Almost all of these older institutions feature a hall somewhere–usually the main administrative building–featuring large portraits and photographs of past university presidents, rows and walls of austere faces of men staring back across the centuries and decades. How rare, then, to meet the President of SCAD Paula Wallace, her smile anything but austere, a thriving university she founded, not in the distant past, but some 40 years ago. In a mere four decades, Wallace has elevated SCAD among the elite creative universities on the planet.

Paula Wallace

How did she do it?

It all began, like stories do, long before SCAD, when she fell in love with creative expression as a girl of six, learning to play the piano. By age 12, she began teaching piano lessons to other school children around her neighborhood. “I loved teaching from the very first,” Wallace said. “I knew that whatever I did with my life would involve education.”

After studying music and elementary education at a small liberal arts college in South Carolina, Wallace jumped right into the classroom, returning to her hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, in 1970 teaching second grade, while working on a master’s degree at night and on weekends. “My classroom was a lab,” Wallace said. “Everything I learned, I tested.”

She was most fascinated with using creativity to teach all subjects, where her piano became a teaching tool. “I had one in my classroom!” she said, even though she technically didn’t teach music. She’d write songs about history, grammar. “The students really came alive when I made it fun,” she said. Soon, she had them writing songs and skits and poems and performing, drawing, dancing. “Everything,” she said, “is more approachable with art.”

A few years into her teaching career, Wallace decided to make a change, taking her ideas from primary school and applying them to higher education.

“I’d never taught at the university level,” Wallace said, “but I thought of my own college education, and frankly how dull and dreary it was.” Why couldn’t she apply her elementary classroom tactics to enlivening the college classroom, too? Every great entrepreneur and inventor has a moment where they ask a Big Question nobody else is asking, and this was Wallace’s.

The stars aligned to make this hope a reality. Wallace’s mother, May Poetter, had recently written an English literature textbook for Houghton-Mifflin that sold very well, and her parents determined to support their daughter’s dream by donating the royalties from the book to the new college Wallace had begun planning.

The work began in earnest in summer 1978, when Wallace and her family selected Savannah, Georgia, as the place to start. “This city was and remains gorgeous and steeped in history and character,” she said. “It had everything our students wanted and needed: small-town charm, great architecture, expansive natural beauty, public parks and squares, a nearby beach, and so many gorgeous but sadly empty buildings.”

SCAD was incorporated in fall 1978, with plans to offer classes a year later. The next year was devoted to finding a suitable building (the historic Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory), creating a faculty and staff (including her husband and her parents, whom she cajoled out of retirement to help), and creating curriculum and a course catalog for recruitment and, eventually, instruction. Wallace built a substantial network of educators from across the U.S. who came to SCAD in 1978-79 to help write the curriculum and prepare the building. Ceramics, historic preservation, graphic design, painting, interior design, printmaking, photography, and textile design were the first majors.

She and her team began recruitment, too, traveling to high schools across the Southeast, from Florida to Virginia to Texas. “The hardest part of the whole enterprise,” Wallace said, “was going from zero students to one.”

Throughout spring and summer, SCAD recruited 71 students and a small but expert faculty to teach them, and its doors officially opened in September 1979. The rest is history.

“And nothing has been easy,” she said. “To do anything well requires research and devotion and kindness and work, work, work.” Her mother, she says, had a saying: “We only work half days at SCAD, sunup to sundown.”

In the decades since its doors first opened, SCAD has risen from a small, experimental art school of 71 students into a preeminent powerhouse of creative education with more than 14,000 students and three campuses, largely due to a few secret (or not-so-secret) ingredients.

“If I had to boil it down, I’d say we have three special qualities that differentiate SCAD among other universities,” Wallace said.

First, the SCAD mission is to prepare students for professional careers. “Our explicit focus on career preparation is rare among arts universities,” she said. Wallace says that this focus on careers drives everything at SCAD: who they hire (those with real industry experience) and what they teach (knowledge so that students will be “ready on day one” of the job). The success of SCADpro, the university’s research consultancy where students partner with companies on actual real-world design projects, is one example of this career focus.

Second, she says, it’s all about the beauty and design of SCAD buildings within the urban context of a beautifully designed city. “You come visit SCAD and you fall in love. It can’t be helped. The art, the architecture, the Spanish moss. It makes you swoon. Students can see themselves living and loving it here. Our Atlanta campus, which opened in 2005, creates a similar feeling in students.” says Paula Wallace about SCAD.

And third? “SCAD is full of kind people!” Wallace said, explaining that the university’s origins in the South and a desire to create a warm, hospitable environment have suffused every aspect of operations, how professors teach and how students engage with the community.

Some forty years later, it seems to be working. Learn more about Paula Wallace of SCAD here:

About Carson Derrow

My name is Carson Derrow I'm an entrepreneur, professional blogger, and marketer from Arkansas. I've been writing for startups and small businesses since 2012. I share the latest business news, tools, resources, and marketing tips to help startups and small businesses to grow their business.

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