Board of Trustees: Apr. 2016

Good morning and welcome! I hope y’all are taking full advantage of graduation season at UNCSA. Since many of our final exams are the exhibition of our students’ work, we find ourselves racing from operas to dance recitals to symphony concerts and to film screenings, amazed as always by the extraordinary talent and professionalism of our students.  

I’m especially pleased to extend a personal welcome to President Margaret Spellings. She began a statewide tour of all 17 UNC campuses during her first week on the job in March, and she’s here with us on the final leg of that tour.  

In the short time since she started, Margaret has shown her extraordinary political and policy chops by engaging her supporters and critics, listening carefully, and aligning her top legislative priorities with those shared by the vast majority of students, faculty, staff, and administrators across the UNC system. I’ve learned already that she has “true grit,” as they say, and by now I’m sure she’s had lots of plain ol’ grits in her, also. As a matter of fact, Crook’s Corner in Margaret’s new home town of Chapel Hill is credited with being the first restaurant to place shrimp and grits on its menu.  One of the many fun facts I learned at Southern Living!

And while we’re on the subject of true grit, both Margaret and I are determined to tackle some tough issues at hand. Topping her list of priorities and mine, are to raise staff and faculty salaries, and more broadly, to uphold the culture of openness, inclusion, and nondiscrimination that defines campus life across our nation. 

Higher education and the arts have historically embraced and celebrated a diversity of beliefs, identities, ethnicities and perspectives. Margaret expressed her concerns about the HB 2 legislation earlier this week at our sister institution, Winston-Salem State University; concerns that I share, along with many North Carolinians.

For some, like our high school transgender student who has been in the news, this issue is deeply personal. To that courageous young woman and her parents, I say, “We've always strived to make our students, faculty and staff, alumni and visitors feel valued, supported and safe and that effort will continue, I assure you.” 

At UNCSA, we’ve felt the effects of HB 2 acutely because of the industries we serve. It began with emails and calls from business leaders in the companies that consistently hire our graduates—global organizations like Disney, Cirque du Soleil, and World Stage. Then came cancellations of major cultural and entertainment events such as Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, and Ringo Starr concerts; as well as multi-city runs by Cirque du Soleil. I don’t have to explain the obvious economic losses--but I should add that these cancellations threaten the livelihood of our alumni who work behind the scenes.

Our already shrinking North Carolina film industry has accelerated its exodus to the south. Our school of filmmaking, one of the highest ranking in the nation, has suddenly attracted the interest of Georgia film investors who see an opportunity to capitalize on the industry flight by replicating our programs in South Carolina and Georgia.

Lionsgate has already pulled two projects from Charlotte, taking an estimated 100 jobs with it, and scrapping plans to film a Hulu series there. A&E Studios, Turner Broadcasting, and 21st Century Fox have stated that HB2 jeopardizes their companies’ future work in North Carolina. Some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry, including some of UNCSA’s most famous alumni, have vowed to reinforce the growing boycott of arts and entertainment licenses in the state. 

You might think, “Eh, it’s just a few shows,” so let me remind you once again of the numbers I’ve shared many times before.  The creative economy contributes $700 billion to the U.S. gross domestic product, and $40 billion to the N.C. economy.  I see huge, untapped potential for the School of the Arts to expand that impact, especially in film, television, music, entertainment technology, and gaming. But HB 2 presents a real challenge for us as we strive to grow the state’s creative economy.

Undeterred, we’ll continue to move forward to realize our full potential and deliver on the initiatives of the Strategic Plan you approved in the fall. We gave it the title “Creative Momentum,” to describe our progressive movement toward a vision of UNCSA as one of the leading cultural institutions of the American South. We’ve assigned diverse groups from every department and discipline to advance each of the plan’s five initiatives. In the interest of time, I’d like to highlight three of them. 

First: becoming a catalyst for arts-based community and economic development. We’re finally making some headway on our two most under-leveraged assets, the Stevens Center and our High Point Studio. 

I’m happy to report that we’ve raised enough money to commission a comprehensive master plan for the Stevens Center, and have attracted the interest of globally-renowned architecture and design firms. My short list includes Robert A.M. Stern Architects, a firm with unrivalled experience in urban planning and creative place-making for small colleges, large universities, cultural institutions, governments, and municipalities worldwide. Stern recently completed the stunning Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston, and is currently working on other performing arts projects, including an urban arts district for Ohio State and a performing arts complex for Villanova University.

One of Stern’s partners recently visited Winston-Salem to brainstorm with us about how the Stevens Center and adjoining properties can evolve into a School of the Arts’ “cultural district” to complement Wake Forest’s innovation quarter. Before the end of this year, I hope to reveal plans for how we can transform our musty old theater—and our largest working classroom—into a 21st Century performance facility that supports leading-edge programming and curricula, and strengthens Winston-Salem’s brand as the City of Arts and Innovation.

Our second most underleveraged asset may not even be on your radar. It’s a run-down soundstage in High Point that was donated to UNCSA several years ago and now sits vacant. Talk about potential! That’s why I’ve been working with Film Dean Susan Ruskin to drum up support for her vision of a turnkey, fully digital film stage that will be the most advanced facility of its kind in the region. I’m not talking about a place to make traditional movies; we have that on campus. I’m talking about a no-brainer way to expand our film school into gaming and virtual reality, which have become the most pervasive storytelling platforms for millennials and younger. Imagine, … a state-of-the-art student learning lab that serves as an incubator for companies such as Technicolor and Oculus Rift. We have the potential to re-invigorate film production in the Triad and generate rental income to supplement our state appropriations and private funding. We aren’t the only school chasing this opportunity, so we need to move fast— and I mean faster than the glacial pace of public higher ed—so we’ve begun to develop detailed plans and drawings for prospective funders and industry partners.

The second strategic initiative I want to highlight is launching transformative programs and curricula. As required by the reaccreditation process, we submitted our Quality Enhancement Plan in March to the On-Site Visiting Committee sent on behalf of the accrediting agency, the SACS Commission on Colleges.

The QEP, as it’s called, requires us to identify a single key opportunity for improvement that aligns with our mission, focuses on student learning, and engages the entire campus community to identify clear goals and plans for assessment. We honed in on a plan called “Tell Your Story: Communication Skills for the Artist,” and asked Jason Romney, an alumnus and associate professor in the School of Design and Production, to lead our effort. The modern artist and entrepreneur faces greater pressures than ever in marketing themselves and their work, and on a campus full of storytellers, the hardest story to tell is usually your own.

The on-site committee was very impressed. About half of all institutions are given recommendations to bring their QEPs into compliance. We received none, so we know we’re on the right track.

In the arts, we tend to measure our success by applause, honors and accolades, but we also recognize the value of quantitative data to back up our claims of institutional effectiveness. I’m happy to announce that Jill Lane has been named our very first Director of Institutional Effectiveness. As soon as she returns from research leave, Jill will split her time, half as a math teacher in the high school, and half in her new role. While Jill develops the appropriate metrics to gauge our progress, we’ll continue to celebrate the many student and alumni success stories such as: 

School of Filmmaking alumnus Jeff Nichols, who recently released “Midnight Special,” his first under the Warner Brothers label. Peter Travers, writing for Rolling Stone, said “With only four films, Nichols, 37, already ranks with the best American directors of his generation.” If that doesn’t wow you, Nichols’ fifth film, “Loving,” premieres as an official selection at next month’s Cannes Film Festival.

Or our School of Dance alumna Dwana Smallwood, named by Vogue magazine as one of the greatest modern dancers. Dwana recently met with our students to talk about her career as a principal dancer with Alvin Ailey for 12 years, and subsequently as the founder of a performing arts center in Brooklyn that uses the arts to empower inner-city youth and to create community identity in neglected areas. 

We have stories of student success such as high school drama senior Will Cannon, who has won a National Merit Scholarship; or high school cellist Daniel Malawsky, who has been named a Morehead-Cain Scholar to UNC-Chapel Hill next year; 

And our recent production of Pericles, which opened with not one, but two understudies. Why? Because one student cast member was testing for a new NBC series playing Stockard Channing’s granddaughter, and another student was filming an ABC miniseries with director/ producer Gus Van Sant. The series, called When We Rise, also stars UNCSA alumna Mary-Louise Parker, who recently visited campus with another alumnus Peter Hedges, the author of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?, which he wrote only seven years after graduating UNCSA.  Peter also wrote the adapted screenplay for the acclaimed film of his book, starring a young Leonard DiCaprio. Peter has gone on to write many more books, many more screenplays, been nominated for Oscars, and then some. That may not be quantitative, but quite a measure of success.

But if it’s numbers you’re looking for, we have application statistics that we’re thrilled to share. As a whole, the School of the Arts has seen applications rise nearly 13 percent over the same time last year, with a 13 percent increase in applications for the School of Music, a 16 percent increase for the School of Design & Production, and a whopping 36 percent increase in applications to our School of Filmmaking, plus a nearly 300% increase in admissions inquiries on our new website. I credit effective repositioning of the institution on print and digital platforms, which supported improved strategies in recruitment. I’m extremely proud to mention that our recent marketing and communications expressions—including the logo and seal, advertisements and billboards, and performance calendar— won seven gold awards from the Higher Education Marketing Report, and three gold awards from the Collegiate Advertising Awards.

Our new website continues to exceed all performance goals and expectations. It was a huge honor for UNCSA.edu to be one of five nominees for the academy awards of dot coms, the Webbys, alongside the likes of larger and older institutions like Johns Hopkins and Juilliard in the School/University category. Social media referrals to our website are up 1500% versus this time last year, with users spending on average 45% more time in each session, and consuming 73% more pages. These are stats anyone would kill for in the media industry, and I expect them to continue to rise when we launch a new recruitment marketing campaign this fall.

The third and last strategic initiative I want to cover is enhancing the living and learning environment. While much-needed capital improvements to our stages, theaters, and studios can take years to realize, we can immediately enhance our living and learning environment by growing our scholarship endowments to reduce the burden of student debt. Our tuition is a bargain compared to our peers—even our out of state students pay remarkably less than they would at just about any other school in our competitive set. That is, unless another school pays their way, which happens frequently. That’s why I’m happy to report on three major gifts, starting with what I call the $200,000 dinner.

School of Dance Dean Susan Jaffe seized upon an opportunity to bring principal dancers of American Ballet Theatre to campus to raise money for the Gillian Murphy Endowed Scholarship, named in honor of one of our most celebrated alumni. The night began with a breathtaking performance by Gillian— literally the crown princess superstar of ballet—and her world-renowned colleagues, the incomparable Misty Copeland, James Whiteside, Isabella Boylston, Marcelo Gomes, Stella Abrera and fellow UNCSA alum Blaine Hoven. An intimate dinner followed the performance, and thanks to some donors who may well have had one too many glasses of wine, we raised $200,000 during the dessert course. The Gillian Murphy scholarship is now fully endowed at $650,000.

This month in our School of Drama, a new $250,000 endowed scholarship has been established by a passionate supporter, who has chosen to remain anonymous for now. We are profoundly grateful for this generous gift by a dear, longtime friend of the school.

I’m up to $900,000 already, and I haven’t even told you my biggest news: Chancellor Emeritus Alex Ewing, my mentor and friend who provides me with equal measures of sage advice and tough love, has pledged $1 million for student scholarships. The fund will be named in honor of Alex and his beloved late wife, Sheila Cobb Ewing, and the first scholarships will be awarded in all five arts schools this coming fall.

Alex, you have left your mark on this institution in so many ways, and your generous gift ensures that you and Sheila will continue to make a difference for future generations. Thank you, Chancellor, from the bottom of my heart.

As you all know, I have a master’s degree in architecture, and I plan to put it to good use as we prioritize the many conflicting needs we have for capital improvements to raise our facilities to professional industry standards. The Connect NC bond package passed in March will fund two projects that are mission critical to student learning. First, we’ll transform this 1970s time capsule, formerly known as our library, into an arts laboratory, with spaces designed for creative incubation, innovation, and collaboration across disciplines.

The bond money will also help us bring the technology of our 1980s time capsule, a.k.a. Performance Place, into the 21st century. This is one of our most important student teaching and training grounds, hosting over 50,000 visitors every year. The bond money provides about a third of what we need to complete the project, but as of cocktail hour last night I had a reason to celebrate. I’m thrilled to announce that we’ve been able to leverage the recently approved bond funding to secure a $5 million transformative naming gift for Performance Place. At the donor’s request (of whose support we are truly grateful), we are considering this the lead gift of the first phase, or quiet phase, of our comprehensive campaign. I look forward to working with the Board, as we transition leadership, to discuss the details and planning of the public phase of the campaign. The time is now to build on the creative momentum of $6.9 million in extraordinary gifts raised in the past few months alone. We are on our way! 

Before I close I have a few more thank-you notes to pass out. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the contributions of our Provost David Nelson, who leaves us this summer to become president of the Massachusetts College of Art and Design. We’ll miss you David, and we thank you for your service to UNCSA.

I also want to thank our Board of Governors liaison and good friend Marty Kotis for joining us today. And thank you to Margaret, for taking the time to visit us today and for the vision and leadership you bring to leading one of the nation’s most prestigious university systems. On behalf of the Board of Trustees and the students, faculty and staff of UNCSA, I’d like to present you with a gift. We understand that you are collecting flags from each of the campuses and we offer ours with the hope that every time you see it flying proudly in front of your home in Chapel Hill, you’ll think fondly of us here at the School of the Cool.

April 29, 2016