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Exit Interview: Pacific Northwest College Of Art's Tom Manley


Pacific Northwest College of Art is losing its long-time president, Tom Manley.

Manley says, "You have to step back and take the long view. This is a period of pretty disruptive change for higher education."

Manley says, "You have to step back and take the long view. This is a period of pretty disruptive change for higher education."

April Baer/OPB

Fresh off a transformative $35 million capital campaign for its new address at 511 Broadway, Manley has taken a job leading Antioch College, a storied, sometimes troubled liberal arts college in southwestern Ohio.

In his 12 years at Oregon’s top school for fine arts, Manley has overseen tremendous growth: the creation of six new MFA programs, expansion of the school’s endowment, and the increase of PNCA’s footprint well beyond the new building. It was during his time that PNCA acquired the Museum of Contemporary Craft and a new dorm. More broadly, during the Manley years PNCA has become a more complete presence in downtown planning and the regional creative scene.

Still, the growth spurt left some faculty and staff with question about how their experience is valued. Some programs, like photography, had to start at the new building before their facilities were ready. Students questioned spending surrounding the move; the school offered graduates a gift of a free iPad as a gesture of gratitude for their patience during the transition.

Manley sat down with State of Wonder to talk about what drove his decision-making at PNCA. Here are a few highlights from our conversation:

On why he’s leaving: “The challenge presented itself. It was a good time to look up from what we’ve been doing here for the last 12 years. The building is open and creates a platform for where the college is going to go in the future. For me, the question is what will that involve. It was a good opportunity for me, when a new opportunity presented itself, to give that opportunity its due. And I was very excited to be invited to apply for that position at Antioch.”

On the academic state of PNCA: “The core strength has always been the faculty and the quality of the programs. That’s only strengthened. The (six new) graduate programs allowed us to do something that wasn’t possible in the years before I came, but became possible when we looked at research that showed interest in graduate studies. You tend to look to the new programs: animation and our video and sound program; illustration has grown and grown. I think, by and large, the college’s academic offerings and experience is really even. That’s a testament to the faculty and the students coming to the college now.”

On faculty, staff, and student morale following the move to 511 Broadway and cutbacks of recent years: “The first four or five months were really — because it was such a daunting task to move mid-year — there were so many issues. We did get into the building, but the building wasn’t ready in its finished form. There were so many issues to work through.

“You have to step back and take the long view. This is a period of pretty disruptive change for higher education. I don’t think the model we have now is working for us in the way it needs to. Our economy is growing slowly. Many people have part-time jobs. They would rather have full-time jobs. All of those things create a context for a school in Portland, Oregon, to have to take into account.

“That said, this is a dynamic, creative institution. If I had to put my money down on one number to figure out these problems, I would put it on an institution like PNCA.”

On keeping PNCA’s focus on artistic integrity versus a more commercial art education: “What I’ve learned is that art is about the practice of freedom. If you’re not exploring what that means, if fields aren’t changing, if you aren’t always pushing, then probably you’re not practicing freedom in the way we desperately need in the world today. There is pressure to find relevancy, and a tension between understanding what students are looking for and what you should provide. You need to strike the arc of that conversation.

“If you’re not looking forward to what the world needs and not responding to what students are asking, then not only are you not relevant, but you’re not meeting your obligations. There’s nothing wrong with applying knowledge.”

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