Barrett Doherty

The future of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture remains uncertain as a series of recent events have revealed a division in leadership between members of the school’s Board of Governors and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. Two weeks ago, foundation president and CEO Sean Malone announced that the school would be considering its options with its pending accreditation loss, sparking a rift over the school’s future direction.

ARCHITECT spoke with Jerry van Eyck, a member of the school’s Board of Governors to learn more about the underlying issues facing the school and how he hopes the situation will be resolved.

Describe the relationship between the school’s Board of Governors and the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

What has come to light is a difference of vision, of opinion, of where the school goes. … We started with the search of a new school director [to replace long-standing dean Victor Sidy, AIA] to basically develop this precious piece of American culture and architectural heritage into a fantastic and unique school, even stronger than it already is. … A few weeks ago, the foundation board, through CEO Sean Malone, sent out this message and oral presentation to students and community at Taliesin [West], that there aren’t going to be any admissions; there will be an admissions stop after 2017. What he literally said and instructed the school community and admissions office not to do is confirm any admissions from now on. The search for a new school director had been put on hold and there are initiatives to look at partnerships with other schools. In other words, a clear sign that the foundation has the intention to close the school as an M.Arch.–accredited institution.

A couple of days later, after much pushback from the community all of a sudden, the foundation came out with another message that it is not going to terminate or cease education of architecture. However, what that means has never been described. What it probably means is that some sort of architectural classes—whether it be post-graduate or post-professional classes of architecture which is basically for people with too much time on their hands. It’s not really an architectural education in the sense that you graduate with a master’s and you can become a licensed architect. It’s something completely different. That would basically mean the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture would cease to exist. Of course, that would be a damn shame. It would be a national disgrace; it would be an international disgrace.

The potential for the school’s termination is not something the board has stated publicly. Is that something that is being discussed by the foundation as a possibility or is that something you think would happen as a result of losing accreditation?

Although we appreciate [Sean Malone’s] statement that the school is not closing, we believe, whether they intend it or not, the path the foundation is currently on will inevitably lead to that result. Suspending admissions, suspending the school’s director search for the past five months, not taking any steps to implement the board-approved post-professional program for 18 months, and ending the conveyance of a professional degree permanently all indicate that any semblance of the school as it has existed throughout its entire history, as a place to train architects, will inevitably end.

Also, I have concerns about the stated reasoning that the school is not closing because the foundation is seeking to partner with another institution which offers an accredited degree—however, such a partnership was considered by the foundation board members in early 2013 and rejected by them, in part based on the assessment of a specialist consultant that they hired. And as far as we, members of the school board, are aware, there has been no vote of the foundation's board to implement a sole strategy of partnership. Finally, even if such a partnership were to be achieved, the professional degree would likely be awarded by the partnering institution, not our school.

Do you believe the foundation has been hiding information from the community or been misleading about their intentions?

I don’t think they’ve been hiding information. It has been very, very confusing. The community, meaning the students, alumni, staff, faculty, school board—all these people having to do with the school—have been asking for clarification but it was never given to us or basically answered in riddles. That, of course, is very frustrating. We’re not angry; we’re not in a fight with the foundation, we’re just extremely disappointed and flabbergasted that there are even people thinking of closing the school as a master’s education in architecture. How can you even think of that? … That would be terrible, terrible. That would be awful.

We are very interested in working things out with the foundation. I’m not accusing the entire foundation board, because the majority of the foundation board is actually in favor of the school. It’s just that it was decided that the decision regarding the school had to be decided by the [two-thirds] supermajority.

What do you see as the best and most attainable solution for the future of the school?

The best solution, and it’s not that hard, is for the school to become independently incorporated and still remain a subsidiary of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation. The people who are afraid to lose control, because that’s probably the basis for all this, can keep their control. We can work out the details. And then we get to keep and develop the school of architecture. If the school ceases to exist, it would be a disgrace for the foundation itself.

One of the biggest issues that the foundation has raised against independent incorporation is the financial management of the school. How would the school and the foundation operate their finances effectively if independently incorporated?

It’s really a strange argument. Now, the situation is a little tumultuous. There are philanthropists that have been supporting the foundation through the school. And there are people who have the foundation in their will who have given signals that they are changing their wills if the school ceases to exist. The thing is this: People want to invest in people and not just in empty buildings. The school is a trigger, it’s a reason for people, an incentive. It helps getting funding for the foundation. The students who are attending also pay a decent amount in tuition.

I think the convoluted part is that fundraising now goes through the organ called the foundation. And people contribute funds to the foundation because of the school. Maybe the solution is that the school develops its own fundraising side so that the books remain clean. … The money that Sean Malone claims it would cost to keep the school (which is really not a lot) is there because of the school itself.

Note: This interview has been updated to add that the search for a new school director would replace the current dean, Victor Sidy, AIA.

For more on the coverage of the Frank Lloyd Wright School's pending accreditation loss, read the original story and ARCHITECT's Q+A with Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation president and CEO Sean Malone