Wanted: Columbus College of Art and Design President

Michelle Sullivan

When Denny Griffith announced in August 2013 that he'd retire from the Columbus College of Art and Design after 15 years as president, the art school had an enormous pair of shoes to fill. Griffith remains a beloved and ubiquitous figure not just on campus but throughout the city, especially in the Downtown business community. During his tenure, CCAD's campus doubled in size and annual contributions skyrocketed. To find his replacement, a board of trustees-appointed search firm waded through a pool of 50 candidates before selecting Tom White, an industrial designer from California.

June 30, 2014, was White's first day as CCAD president. By March, he was gone.

College leaders announced the change March 3 in a short email to students, faculty and staff. The email said only that the board and White had "mutually agreed" on his resignation, effective immediately. Since then, neither the board nor school administrators have elaborated on the reasons White stepped down. "We mutually agreed it wasn't a good fit," says board chairman Jim Kunk. "That's really all I have to offer on that." White, who returned to the West Coast and is currently working as an adviser to startups in Silicon Beach, says he enjoyed his time at the helm of CCAD. "For a number of reasons, it made sense for me and for the school to part ways," White says. "But I believe very much in what CCAD is doing and where it is heading."

Several changes in the months leading up to White's resignation seemed to point to the final outcome.

White's lack of higher education experience wasn't counted as a strike against him during the hiring process. In fact, his business acumen and reputation for revamping brands of Fortune 500 companies helped him edge out his competition. "We took a risk and stepped outside the academic circle when we hired [White]," Kunk told a room full of students, staff and faculty a day after the college announced White's resignation.

Students were unpersuaded from the beginning. "A lot of us weren't comfortable with the hiring decision," says Cameron Granger, president of CCAD's student government. "We felt concerned about the direction he'd go. Denny (Griffith) was an artist and an academic. He knew exactly what we needed. A lot of students felt [White] was a business man, and we're not business majors. It was a fear, for sure."

White's unfamiliarity with academia was evident almost immediately, says one former staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He lacked understanding of the college admission process, the source says. He also initially resisted the marketing department's suggestion he sit for interviews with local media, pushing instead to speak only with national publications. And, shortly after arriving, he abruptly froze all marketing and development strategies, a move that rubbed some employees the wrong way.

"It's one thing to make a change and go in a new direction and another to completely bulldoze and start over," the former staff member says.

Tensions grew so high that in September, Robin Hepler, vice president for marketing and communication, resigned. In early October, White laid off nearly the entire marketing and communications team, retaining one full-time marketing employee and outsourcing the rest of the work. Included in the marketing department were 17 student employees who worked for what was called The Design Group. They also lost their jobs when the department was dissolved. (While the full-time staff has not yet been replaced, the student group has since been restored.)

Laurie Beth Sweeney was vice president of advancement-responsible for fundraising-when White took over as president. She resigned in December.

"We wanted to take the advancement program in two different directions," she says. "We had two really different philosophies on donor relations." Her philosophy? "Long-term relationships. A donor-centered approach."

During White's eight-month tenure as president, about 25 employees resigned or were fired. Despite the distance between the boardroom and classrooms, students sensed the tension.

"It was very clear at the time that people weren't happy," Granger says. "CCAD is normally a vibrant place. We're so close-knit that when there's some discourse, you really feel that. When you see staff members leaving or getting fired, that makes you nervous. It definitely was kind of somber on campus."

The low morale was exacerbated when students remained in the dark about personnel changes and rumors began to swirl.

"If you're going around changing things when you first get in, people are going to ask questions," Granger says. "In order for people to follow you, they need to know why you're changing what you're changing. There was this iron curtain, almost, between students and administration."

That's changed recently. The day after White's resignation, board chairman Kunk and Provost Kevin Conlon, who's been serving as interim president since White's departure, hosted an open forum for all students, faculty and staff and say they'll continue to hold similar meetings.

"Being as transparent as I can with communication is important to me," Conlon says. "We have regular meetings with student government, and we have regular meetings with faculty and staff."

Some students, including Granger, have even met with candidates for the two open vice president positions. Conlon says they're down to final candidates for each role. The board began accepting applications for the position of president June 1. Kunk says they plan to make a final decision by the end of the school year.

Conlon says he's not yet sure whether the college will fill every position opened during White's tenure.

"I prefer to let the new VPs come in and then inform me of what they think is the best organizational structure moving forward," he says. "I think there are a lot of assumptions that have been made that we'd just replace on a one-for-one basis, and I don't necessarily think that is going to be the case."

White's legacy isn't all negative. Conlon says he brought some good ideas to the table-ideas the college will continue to pursue.

"One of the things that Tom (White) quite rightly identified is the future of entertainment or media-we prefer to use the term 'media'; he used the term 'entertainment,'" Conlon says. "I think we have seen far too much of our talent here in Central Ohio, after having earned degrees in animation or cinematic arts and film, evacuate for the coasts because there's nothing to keep them here." Conlon says CCAD will continue to prioritize partnerships with companies in the production industry to create jobs here, "so that rather than head for the coasts, [graduates will] stay right here and contribute to our economy."

White's swift arrival and departure wasn't ideal, but CCAD administrators have been able to glean useful knowledge from his time there.

"We've taken a hard look at what he's had to say," Conlon says. "Because he didn't have a tremendous wealth of higher education experience, he asked questions that challenged our assumptions about how we normally operate in a higher education sphere. And that's not a bad thing. It provides incentive to make the kinds of changes that we needed to make."

Though Sweeney resigned, the former vice president of advancement doesn't harbor any resentment toward the college.

"I still love CCAD," she says. "There are no hard feelings there. Just because we tried on a president that wasn't a good fit, that's not a permanent reflection of the college. You move on."

Timeline of events

August 2013: Former CCAD president Denny Griffith announces his retirement.

June 2014: Griffith retires. Tom White becomes CCAD president.

September 2014: The vice president for marketing and communications resigns.

October 2014: All but one member of the marketing staff are fired.

December 2014: The vice president for advancement resigns.

March 2015: The board of trustees announces Tom White's resignation.

June 2015: The board once again begins accepting applicants for CCAD president.