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Art Center won't renew president's contract

June 25, 2008|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

After an intense grass-roots protest movement by students and alumni of Art Center College of Design, trustees of the elite Pasadena institution have decided not to renew Richard Koshalek's contract as president when it expires at the end of 2009.

The decision came despite assertions by Koshalek, 66, that he wanted a four-year extension of his contract. Koshalek said he hoped to pursue the ambitious agenda he embarked on in 1999: expanding the college, building its endowment and raising its profile. The school has long been known for training top designers, including an impressive roster in the automotive world.

In a videotaped meeting with the student government May 30, Koshalek said that the board had unanimously approved a new contract for him in February, "then set up a special committee to look into how long it should be."

Key elements of Koshalek's program have now been thrown into limbo, including a proposed $50-million, Frank Gehry-designed high-tech library and design studio.

Discontent with Koshalek's agenda -- and what some saw as a management style that brooked little dissent -- broke into a full boil in mid-May. It was fueled by the sudden resignation of Nate Young, an alumnus and former board member who was second-ranked to Koshalek and had served five years as the college's popular chief academic officer.

Soon, student-coordinated blogs and an online petition posted by a group called Future of Art Center were serving as sounding boards for complaints on a number of fronts. Many charged that Koshalek had focused on enhancing Art Center's reputation to the detriment of educational quality. At the same time, tuition had been increasing 5% to 6% annually. (The cost of an undergraduate degree is now $117,376.)

Among Koshalek's critics were some highly placed alumni, including executives at Walt Disney Co., Microsoft, Mercedes-Benz, Renault and Johnson Controls Inc.

"This is unprecedented," Clement Mok, a San Francisco designer and 1980 Art Center graduate, said Tuesday. Mok resigned from the board early in 2003 because he thought that Koshalek wasn't putting enough emphasis on education.

"Leadership must continue to evolve," Art Center's chairman, John Puerner -- a former Los Angeles Times publisher -- said in a prepared statement Tuesday.

Puerner also thanked Koshalek and announced a search for his successor.

In a separate interview, Puerner declined to talk about the board's deliberations or whether the protests and petitions had influenced the decision.

Board members all received "representative examples" from the opinion barrage, Puerner said. They included e-mails and comments posted on rival Internet petitions: One called for change and bore nearly 1,500 names, while the other backed the administration and carried 409 names. The board also received a request from the Art Center student government to boost scholarships and meet current needs for better equipment and facilities.

Puerner said he was pleased that Koshalek had "expressed to me a sincere desire" to stay through the end of his contract, as the board had requested.

When he was hired after a long tenure as director of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, Koshalek was handed the mission of raising money for the expansion of a school, founded in 1930, that had never mounted a major capital campaign.

On Tuesday, Puerner said that "all our capital projects are on hold" while the board's finance and facilities subcommittees examine whether they are "the right priorities" -- and whether it will be possible to raise the money for them.

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mike.boehm@latimes.com

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