Wellington “Duke” Reiter Credit: Danny hsu

When Wellington “Duke” Reiter took over as president of the venerable School of the Art Institute 18 months ago, he had plans to reinvent the place. An alarmed faculty resisted his attempts to tame what they saw as creative chaos, and both sides dug in for what looked to be a prolonged struggle.

But this month the confrontation came to an abrupt end, with Reiter preparing to pack up and hightail it back home to Arizona.

What happened?

An e-mail Reiter sent to students and faculty gives the impression that he was overcome by a compelling urge. He wrote that after contemplating “the direction of my career, the needs of the School, and what we have accomplished together. . . . I have decided to return to my ongoing work linking the fields of art, design, and sustainable urbanism. These issues have always been my passion and I look forward to devoting my full attention to the creation of sustainable city models on a global basis.” His resignation takes effect May 25, the end of the spring term. He was conspicuously absent from an all-school strategy meeting he’d called for April 6.

Reiter came to SAIC from Tempe, where he was dean of Arizona State University’s school of design and the force behind a high-profile new downtown campus. If second-tier ASU seemed like an improbable stepping stone to prestigious SAIC—regularly ranked as one of the top art schools in the nation—Reiter had other chops, including a Harvard graduate degree, a position at MIT, and a reputation as a pragmatic, corporate-style administrator who could rustle up change and manage it. That last bit must’ve looked especially good to the board of trustees. Unwieldy and idiosyncratic, the SAIC was loaded with $140 million in debt, mostly due to real estate deals. About 70 percent of operating expenses were being funded by a combination of hefty tuition (around $35,000 a year, excluding room and board), and a steadily growing student body. But the growth might end soon, the school’s prognosticators were saying, with both the physical plant and the economy likely to top out.

The possibilities for overhaul must’ve seemed obvious. SAIC, which prides itself on being a hothouse for innovation, eschews both majors and grades (students either get the class credits or don’t), and offers its nearly 3,000 students a roster of 1,200 different courses. When the bottom fell out of the economy a couple of months after his arrival, Reiter instituted budget cuts and freezes and began talking about the merits of herding students into majors—whose curriculum requirements would make class enrollments more predictable—and offering fewer choices. He observed that ASU’s design school had about the same number of students as SAIC but offered 75 percent fewer courses, as if that were a good thing. In an interview a few months after his arrival, he alluded to the need for drastic change, at least in certain areas. “I’m not in favor of reducing everything by a little bit,” he told me. “At a certain point you have to put your current way of doing business aside.”

Among Reiter’s first official actions were to dismiss SAIC’s communications and publications directors and install a former ASU colleague in the new position of associate vice president of communications and strategic planning. He also convinced the board to establish a slot for a top-level executive the school had previously managed to function without—a provost, who’d take a bunch of administrative duties off Reiter’s hands. And he floated the ideas of outsourcing SAIC’s academics to someplace like Northwestern University and “professionalizing” department chairmanships. Rather than faculty members elected annually by their peers, chairs would be full-time administrators apparently accountable to Reiter. It all rankled—and so did Reiter’s demeanor, which struck most of the faculty members I spoke with as either distant or abrasive.

Neither Reiter nor any other senior SAIC official was available to be interviewed for this story, and most faculty declined to be quoted. But professor emeritus Tony Phillips, a retired former chair of the painting and drawing department who now teaches a single course at the school, said that Reiter is a “top-down individual and the school’s always been a faculty-run institution, at least as far as the curriculum is concerned. He was a corporate dude trying to grab onto things with a limited understanding. He wanted a top-heavy administration and he fought for that. And he wanted to have grades. That works when you have a definitive body of information. But can you go to a museum and grade one piece of art against another? Our students are exploring, inventing themselves every day. SAIC became a leading school because of its embrace of complexity.”

As part of SAIC’s program for change, a committee of faculty, staff, and students had been formed to develop a list of core values for the school. The results were posted on SAIC’s internal network and were presented, along with a related list of strategic plans, at the April 6 meeting. Faculty members say the values list, which was concise—only five points—turned out to be comfortingly familiar. Two points affirm the school’s relationship with the Art Institute and the city; the other three affirm its commitment to breadth of offerings, academic independence, and barrier-free interdisciplinary education. The committee calls for “a wide range of media and processes” and a faculty-driven curriculum.

So much for top-down administration.

The official announcement of Reiter’s departure assured the SAIC community that a transition “team of senior administrators and faculty” would see to it that “operations continue uninterrupted.” But as this academic year concludes, the school’s top three positions are all in play. Candidates for the dean’s slot—open since Carol Becker left for Columbia University nearly three years ago—were expected to be interviewing on campus in May, but that search has now been postponed for at least another school year; acting dean Lisa Wainwright will continue in the job. The search for the provost Reiter wanted is down to a short list, with on-site interviews coming up and an appointment expected shortly, according to an SAIC spokesperson. That’s fortunate, since the “international search” for Reiter’s successor will take a couple months just to gear up, and the president’s seat is likely to be vacant for at least a full school year. The provost who would’ve been Reiter’s right hand will now help fill his shoes.