A Message from Nerman Family President Tony Jones

In Spring 2017 KCAI welcomed HLC to its campus for a site visit.  HLC had kindly ag reed to a delay of the visit, due to an unusual set of circumstances in which the college found itself, and which were detailed in an introductory letter I wrote, which prefaced the college’s submission.  I concluded that long explanatory letter with the following remark:

I can report to HLC, with credible confidence, that the college now has a solid team of experienced and effective managers with whom I am honoured to work, a strong faculty, fine support staff, a conviction of increased enrollment, quite extraordinary success in fundraising, a renewed sense of purpose, and belief in a definable and durable future.  It is for others to remark upon, but I believe we share a sense of much-improved morale and certainty in that future.

If today I adjust upwards the fundraising numbers, and add a list of building projects completed, I can stand by that statement – and say this after the college has navigated a path through the COVID pandemic that plagued higher education across our nation.  The college that HLC visits in September 2021 is a very different place from that of five years ago – dramatically better housed, very solvent, protected by a significant endowment, more diverse, with a dynamic academic programme, a committed board, and management team.

I joined KCAI on an Interim President basis, effective January 2015, with a proposed term of 18 months.  This was extended further, and extended yet again, to June 2022 – during 2021-22, KCAI will welcome both HLC and the National Association of Schools of Art & Design (NASAD) for a full ten-year re-accreditation (April ’22).  The Board’s plan was to have all the college’s many building and facilities projects complete, capital campaigns successfully closed, and the HLC and NASAD site visits undertaken, and asked me to stay with the team until all these targets were achieved, “clearing the decks” for an incoming leader. Thus, I will retire in June 2022, and the college is currently in search mode for a new President; Isaacson Miller have been appointed as the Executive Search agents.

Execution of a new Master Plan.

KCAI was preparing its documents for the 2017 HLC visit, it had begun an audit of the physical facilities, reviewing whether they were fit for purpose, met current programmatic needs, and whether they met a ‘standard of excellence’.  The campus had some first-class programmes in good space, but the overall impression was of dilapidation, deferred maintenance, scruffy landscaping and tired buildings.  KCAI received “The Great Gift” of $25 million from an anonymous donor, through the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation – and a $5 million portion of that gift was directed to ‘campus improvements’.  This, combined with a generous gift from the Wylie Foundation, impelled KCAI to commission a new Master Plan and appointed Ayers St Gross (ASG) as its agents.

In accepting the recommendations of the ASG ‘tipping point’ plan the college embarked on a major overhaul of the college’s operations, which were added to the good counsel that derived from the HLC visit.  The guiding principle was to make KCAI a centre of excellence with state-of-the-art facilities that served the transient population of students, but also faculty and staff who spend much of their professional lives within its friendly confines. 

The core of the new plan was a strategy known as ‘SEWing’ -  Sleep Eat Work

Sleep (replace the aging dorm), Eat (replace the student dining hall), Work (new studios and classrooms ).

The key was to secure a solid foundation for KCAI going forward by prioritizing a rational plan for facilities, overhauling inadequate or unsuitable studios and classrooms, and erecting new buildings, appropriate and relevant to the overhaul of the academic programme.

To fund these physical improvements, the college would need to advance fundraising -  increasing donations to the Annual Fund, and design successful Capital Campaigns.

Securing enrollment growth, in part tied to new state-of-the-art residential and dining facilities, and new studios was on the essence. 

Another part of this was to create working parties and faculty-led discussion regarding the academic programme, and set priorities for its development.  This led, for example, to the decision to teach out the BFA in Interactive Arts, and the decision to introduce a new BFA in Product Design ( now in its third year ), introduce electives like Entrepreneurship in Art & Design ( collaborative with UMKC Bloch School of Business ), and create a new building for technologies applicable to every student in the college ( David T Beals Studio for Art & Technology ), and a new building for Liberal Arts & Art History (again, a facility that is used by every student), and a “one-stop shop” for all of Student Services.  Key to this Master Plan was to address the urgent need for a new residence hall to house c230 students, as the college recognized the old dorms were a serious impediment to success in attracting students.

Elsewhere in this report, HLC will note how these and other projects were funded.

Suffice to say here that the decision to submit KCAI to review by Standard & Poors was not taken lightly, and the college was very happy with the investment-grade rating, which supported the decision to successfully issue bonds, collateralized in large part by projected income from a new dorm (the Barbara Marshall Residence Hall).

While the college was buoyant over the opening of the new Café Nerman, Wylie Dining and the Barbara Marshall Residence Hall, the Rockhill and Southmoreland communities were also delighted, and became significant users of the café and the dining halls.  Sadly, the euphoria was short-lived. Within three months of the opening, COVID-related issues forced the closure of the entire complex (in March 2020) until a reopening for Autumn 2020 (KCAI reopened with a hybrid teaching model with full studio class operations – with lecture courses online).

In spite of the shut-down, the college was committed to major new-build or conversion projects, which continued apace to successful on-time delivery – the new DeBruce Hall for Liberal Arts & Art History, and the conversion of the old student residence hall to create 30,000 sq ft of new studio space in the Tony Jones Studios for Animation and Illustration.  While these state-of-the-art facilities have been lightly used due to social distancing regulations, they will be fully employed for the Autumn 2021 semester.  

Simultaneous with these projects, the college’s administration has finally been consolidated in one building, our historic and iconic Vanderslice mansion – thus the Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs (Dr Bambi Burgard and her deputy, Dr Milton Katz, Dean of Faculty) , the Vice President for Advancement (Nicolle Ratliff) , the CFO & COO (Brian Henke) and the KCAI President (moi) are all in one place.  

The college does everything it can to support local and regional industry and professions, and is particularly pleased that all its new buildings were commissioned from KC architects, were built by local contractors, and that every project has won major design awards, including the American Institute of Architects “Project of the Year”, for the Barbara Marshall Residence Hall / Wylie Dining / Café Nerman, by Helix Architecture of Kansas City.

The completion of a five-year intense period of building (summer 2020), led the college to a realignment of priorities.  Coupled with my impending retirement and the two re-accreditations (HLC, NASAD) the focus has moved “from the physical to the fiscal”.   Two themes of study are being pursued:  firstly, reviewing the overall operation of the college post-facilities expansion (“small college economics”), and secondly, a deeper analysis of the direction of the academic programme. 

Tied to this is the trending in Admissions and enrollment – the college has recorded about 11% growth in enrollment since 2016.  Given the effects of a campus churned up by so many construction projects, COVID etc, this is a rather remarkable achievement.

While the focus of KCAI’s efforts may seem to have been almost exclusively about facilities, we also addressed concerns about faculty ranks and salaries.  In 2016 the college undertook a comparative study of faculty salaries, using apples-to-apples data, to better position faculty in relation to AICAD (Association of Independent College of Art & Design).  The resulting significant uplifts in salary are described at (5.A).   Salary is but one component of overall remuneration and benefits, and the college remains committed to high ranking in the ‘great place to work’ perception – it is one of only four AICAD colleges that provides all faculty and staff with medical coverage 100% free, along with other excellent benefits.

The college is fully committed to becoming a more diverse and inclusionary institution and has made significant progress – but what is in place is not enough, and the college presented a forward plan to the Board at its June ’21 year-end meeting that lays out the courses of action in DEI to be taken in the coming year and beyond (described at 1.C). 

As the college has wound down its facilities projects, it has turned increasing to creating working parties and consulting groups from within the institution to study and prioritize developments in the academic programme.   Examples of this would what stance will the college take in regard to academic disciplines that have sharply declining enrollments?  How to strengthen and consolidate?  On the other hand, how does the college feel about having 50% of its upper-division enrollment in just two disciplines (and with student demand for those courses increasing every year)?  What is the appropriate balance between tenured, tenure-track, and adjunct part-time faculty? How does the college address the increasing demand for student support (welfare, mental health, counseling)?

Thus, HLC is visiting KCAI at a very interesting moment –much has been done to get us to a crossroads.  The coming year will analyze the possible directions, gather yet-more data, and place that before the new Board Chair, and the new President, who will lead informed discussions and turn aspirations into policy, and a redefined mission.

 It will be my pleasure and honour to welcome HLC to KCAI for a candid and lively visit!

Professor Tony Jones CBE


The Nerman Family President, KCAI