The Academy of Art University (formerly Academy of Art College), a proprietary, private university owned by the Stephens Institute, was founded in San Francisco, California in 1929 by Richard S. Stephens. With an enrollment of nearly 12,000 students, the academy is reportedly the largest art and design school in the United States.
Stephen's son, Richard A. Stephens, took over direction of the school after graduating from Stanford University in 1951. During the son's tenure, the academy expanded its enrollment from 50 to 5,200 students. Richard A. Stephens oversaw continued expansion of department majors, starting with the addition of a Foundations Department, which offered courses in the basic principles of art and design, along with other Fine Art departments. In 1966, the school was incorporated as the Academy of Art College, and the California Bureau for Private Postsecondary and Vocational Education granted the school the authority to confer the Bachelor of Fine Arts degree that same year. In 1977, the Academy of Art College added the Master of Fine Arts program to its degree offerings, marking the inauguration of its graduate school, with the state of California later approving the Masters program in 1983. In 1992, Elisa Stephens, granddaughter of the school's founder, succeeded her father, Richard A. Stephens, as president of the school.
The Academy of Art University offers both on-campus (traditional instructor-led) and distance education (online) degree and Certificate programs in its fine arts programs. These programs include Associate of Arts and Bachelor of Fine Arts for undergraduate degrees, Master of Fine Arts and Master of Architecture for graduate degrees, and certificate programs for personal enrichment. The academy offers degree and certificate programs in 13 majors: Advertising, Animation & Visual Effects, Architecture (M.Arch only), Computer Arts & New Media, Digital Arts & Communications (AA and BFA only), Fashion, Fine Art, Graphic Design, Illustration, Industrial Design, Interior Architecture & Design, Motion Pictures & Television and Photography.
The on-campus Bachelor of Fine Arts degree program offered by the academy in Interior Architecture & Design is accredited as a Professional Level Program by the Council for Interior Design Accreditation (formerly "FIDER," the Foundation for Interior Design Education and Research). In addition, the on-campus Master of Architecture program offered by the academy's School of Architecture has been accredited as a Professional Level Program since 2006 by the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB). Although the academy offers separate on-campus and online graduate degree programs with the term "Architecture" in their names (Master of Interior Architecture & Design, an interior design program, and the architecture degree programs for Master of Arts in Architecture and Master of Architecture), the NAAB accredited only the on-campus degree program for Master of Architecture.
The Academy of Art University's rapid growth and acquisition of numerous buildings throughout San Francisco has generated several controversies, including debates about specific buildings, as well as a 2007 city government investigation for ignoring building permit processes and signage regulations.
In 2007, the Academy of Art University signed a contract to purchase the historic Flower Mart located in San Francisco, which the academy plans to convert into a site for housing sculpture studios. Eviction of tenants from the Flower Mart would result in the closure of 30 businesses and jeopardize the employment of more than 300 people. The proposed eviction comes at a time when the academy is under close scrutiny for accruing more planning permit violations than any other property owner in San Francisco, leading to the academy hiring a land-use attorney to address issues related to the acquired properties.
The Academy of Art University exercised an option to purchase the building where it leases space for dormitories and houses the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, a prominent African-American theater. The academy entered into an agreement to purchase the building from Sutter Taylor, the owner and seller of the building and real estate development company that planned originally to convert the building into high-end condominiums. With the purchase of the building, the university announced that it planned to reconvert the building, a former YWCA designed by Lewis Hobart that already houses a pool, back to a gymnasium "for the private use its its students." The theater's lease with Sutter Taylor is scheduled to expire on July 31 2007.
The Lorraine Hansberry Theatre launched a campaign with the help of arts groups and politicians to retain its theater space within the building, complaining that the loss of the space threatened to cancel the already-scheduled 2007-2008 season, which the theater and its supporters allege could lead to the theater's demise. According to the academy, Sutter Taylor promised that the building would be vacant at the completion of the sale, and the theater knew of the school's plans to purchase the building as far back as 2005. Back then, the theater chose to forego the option of renewing its lease with Sutter Taylor, receiving in exchange free rent of the space from 2005 until its lease expires at the end of July 2007. The academy offered to help pay a comprehensive assistance and relocation package totaling up to $125,000 to the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, while the school awaits information from the theater about the costs of the move. In spite of the help offered by the academy, the theater wants to revisit and question the agreement it made with Sutter Taylor about the space within the building to be purchased by the academy.
During discussions about the landmark designation for St. Brigid Church, the academy agreed with the former parishioners that the exterior of the church should be preserved in its present form, although the academy continued to disagree with them regarding landmark status for the church's interior. According to the academy, "landmark status for the interior was never part of the plan," and it was really caught in the middle of a dispute between the former parishioners and the Catholic Church over the closing and sale of St. Brigid Church.
Although the Archdiocese of San Francisco declined to preserve landmark status for St. Brigid Church and despite the academy's requests to remove the church from the historic registry, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to grant partial landmark status to the church. In its October 3, 2006 ruling, the board accorded St. Brigid Church historic landmark status for its exterior, leaving open the question about preserving the church's interior features for another time.
Richman referred the matter to her department's coordinator, seeking advice and guidance for how to handle the student's submission. The department coordinator suggested to Richman that she recommend the student read the first chapter of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold in order to initiate a discussion about the power of violence in artful storytelling. Richman also supplemented the academy-approved text books with reading assignments from Girl With Curious Hair, a short story by award-winning author David Foster Wallace. When the academy's administration office later learned of the student's graphic short story, the academy expelled the student and referred the student's graphic story to the homicide division of the San Francisco Police Department for criminal profiling. Richman also lost her job after the academy accused her of violating school policy by assigning textbooks not approved in advance for the course, although no policy existed officially at that time governing use of supplemental materials.
Alan Kaufman, another faculty member at the academy and author of the Jew Boy and Matches, took up the cause of the student's expulsion and Richman's firing by organizing protests against the academy's response. Kaufman was later dismissed from his job at the academy because of his role in leading protests about the controversy. In support of Kaufman's protest against the student's expulsion, authors Stephen King and Salman Rushdie (at the time, Rushdie was President of the PEN American Center) wrote letters of protest concerning the academy's handling of the matter. The academy defended its actions to expel the student and request criminal profiling of the student's story by arguing that its actions were a response to the Columbine High School shootings and the September 11 attacks. After the Virginia Tech Massacre in April 2007, the Academy of Art University was mentioned in the press as an example of a school that had been assailed for expelling students for the use of threatening language. Sallie Hunting, the school's vice president for public relations, stated that the incident at Virginia Tech made evident that schools should observe with more alarm students' use of what she called threatening language. Hunting noted that, although laws exist to protect an individual's right to privacy, safety issues may sometimes present the need to look deeper to balance this issue with security concerns.
During the protests, Starving Artist, the academy's student newspaper, also covered the story about the student's expulsion. After the student editor of Starving Artist approached the academy about covering the protests, the academy granted permission to cover the protests in two parts so that the student newspaper could give equal weight to both sides of the controversy. In its initial coverage of the protests, Starving Artist featured the headline "Safety from What?" on its front page, along with a photo of a student with a taped over mouth wearing the sign "At the Academy of Art ... Students = Credit Cards." The student newspaper also included an editorial comparing the academy's response to fears that erupted during the September 11 attacks. To quell the ongoing disruption of protests on the campus, the academy shut down the newspaper after seizing the undistributed newspaper copies featuring the provocative headline and rescinded permission for the student newspaper to cover and print the remaining part of the story.