Benito Plaza stashed the College of Santa Fe flag under his graduation gown for just the right moment. He unfurled it as he crossed the stage, and applause and howls that had already been under way got even louder.
The name of the school on his diploma and that of 80 others who earned degrees Saturday, however, is Santa Fe University of Art and Design.
As his classmate, Olivia Lombardi, had noted in her commencement speech minutes before, students suffered broken hearts in 2009 when the College of Santa Fe Board of Trustees announced that the school would close. On Saturday, they celebrated the rebirth of their alma mater, now part of a network of 67 private colleges around the world called Laureate International Universities.
While this is only Santa Fe University's second graduating class, its predecessor granted thousands of degrees over the previous century and a half.
The campus on St. Michael's Drive now belongs to the city of Santa Fe, and the new school is trying to carve its identity and establish a reputation in the community and across the world. About 500 students currently are enrolled.
Still, many things are the same.
"If you look at the curriculum, on the art and design side, it is pretty much exactly the same curriculum that the school had before the transition," said Larry Hinz, president of the reorganized college, which was renamed Santa Fe University of Art and Design in 2010. "Every one of the departments that was here is here. We have just added and improved in certain areas on it."
This fall, the school will launch a new undergraduate business degree in arts management and will add "digital art" to its list of bachelor's degrees in fine art.
Saturday's graduates included those with diplomas for art, moving image arts, music, creative writing, graphic design, performing arts and photography. What's keeping all those programs afloat is the school's connection with Laureate.
Public relations managers at Santa Fe University are picky about how the relationship with Laureate is characterized, and Hinz noted in an interview this spring that the wider Santa Fe community doesn't seem to understand the big picture.
The school is not turning into an online-degree farm or making other sweeping mission changes, he said. It's still a liberal arts college with intimate classroom and studio opportunities, and many of its faculty are the same people who taught under the banner of College of Santa Fe.
"Laureate is somebody who provides funds for the school, provides some services and has been an unbelievably supportive partner," Hinz said.
Laureate also connects Santa Fe University students to a global network by allowing study overseas at 60 affiliated locations and bringing international students here. "For us, it is such a huge positive," he said.
Hinz was the Laureate vice president for business development who answered questions before the City Council as the local government debated buying the campus. He lives here now, though, and says he "eats and breathes this university."
Saving the school
When the city agreed to buy the 100-acre campus in the fall of 2009 for $21 million, it did so with a contract in hand to lease most of the facility to a new Laureate-backed organization called Santa Fe Higher Education LLC. The city also borrowed about $10 million for maintenance that was put off as the College of Santa Fe struggled financially.
The city sold two parcels of the campus to the state government, and payments from Santa Fe University cover the debt service on the loans. The school's lease includes an option to buy the campus.
In the last two years, Santa Fe University has paid upfront costs for repairs to many of the 40 buildings on its 60-acre portion of the campus, and the city reimbursed the school from the deferred maintenance fund. The work should all be complete this year. In addition, Hinz said, Laureate provided money for upgrades to the school's equipment and buildings that were not part of the deal with the city.
The difference between what the campus looked like two summers ago and what it looks like now are subtle.
Instead of a quad pocked with hundreds of prairie dog burrows, there's a walkway across the main part of the campus. A coffee shop was transformed into a cafeteria with an airy seating area. Dormitories have new windows, better electrical systems and fixtures. The Greer Garson Theater, where graduation ceremonies took place, got a new roof.
The Moving Images Arts Center, home of the program with the largest enrollment, doesn't look like much from the outside. It's not one of the campus' architectural gems like the red Visual Arts Center designed by Ricardo Legorreta. But inside are professional-sized film studios, several rooms full of computers for video editing, and an equipment center with cameras, microphones and other gadgets that students can access as they learn various aspects of film production.
The largest two studios are often occupied not by student projects but by professionals who pay the school to use its facilities as they take advantage of state tax credit programs for movies made in New Mexico.
Paula Amanda, associate chairwoman of the Moving Image Arts Department, says while that means the spaces aren't always available for students, professional productions also provide internships that aren't commonplace in other film schools. Some students even get hired for significant work, she said.
"[Students] are in classrooms on one side of the building, and they walk across the hall and they're on a soundstage," she said.
Freshman Baxter Smith, 19, came to Santa Fe University from Fort Collins, Colo., for the film program and its reputation of being small and hands-on. Last week, he was packing up to leave for the summer.
"I have had a mix of production-based classes and more theory-based, which I enjoy. It lets me exercise both sides of the brain, I guess," he said. "They sort of start from the ground up and give you a good foundation."
Smith also was elected this year as the first secretary of the school's student governing body. Even though there was little participation in the election, Smith said the small group is working on official elections for representatives from each program and each dormitory for the next school year.
"There is more going on than meets the eye, perhaps," he said. "That is something that the newly formed student government is trying to work on, letting the community know what we are about and getting more involved, so that there is more of a connection between students and the school and the community. We are working on branching out more. Expect great things."
'The best possible outcome'
Although there were painful tensions during the transition, and some alumni of the College of Santa Fe resisted the change, many remain largely supportive.
"I am just delighted that the school is still operating," said Fred Cisneros, a local designer and 1985 alumnus of the College of Santa Fe. "It's not the college that I knew, exactly, but I think they are trying to carve their new identity. I think they have done well in trying to establish it as an arts center."
Cisneros knows both the painful history of the transition and the fruits of the new endeavor. He served on the board of directors that made the tough decision to give up on the College of Santa Fe, and he's a mentor for current students.
"I'm a businessman," he said. "And I know the situation was dire. It was a rough situation."
The writing was on the wall, he said, starting with the sale of a chunk of the campus to a shopping-mall developer, and followed by the opening of the Santa Fe Community College as crosstown competition for core programs.
The College of Santa Fe also capped enrollment in some of its most promising programs, for example, limiting the number of students who could earn film degrees, he said.
"I think Laureate is being more thoughtful. They take a much more businesslike approach. But I think, from what I can tell, they are also trying to support what it is the programs need, and they are not trying to make decisions from the accounting office. ... I applaud that they are trying to build that here, because I do think there is an enormous potential," Cisneros said.
Alysha Shaw, one of the last to get a College of Santa Fe diploma, said she's also grateful for the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. The months leading up to the transition were a roller coaster, she said, and the city retaining an arts school was "the best possible outcome."
"We heard that the college was not going to be around, or might not be around, and we were just getting basically jerked around by the administrative officials and the board of trustees, all of these people. Thing after thing happened that was just awful," she said. "That was what was terrible about it, but what was beautiful about it was the way that we really came together as a community and the way that we rallied to save our college and the fact that it is still here."
The New Jersey native went to City Council meetings and to state legislative hearings about the college's future. She then made her home in Santa Fe, working for a number of political campaigns and staying involved in a number of artistic endeavors here.
"Their resources are incredible," she said of the school. Recently, it paid for two recruiting tours of regional high schools by students in the Music Department. "It is a great performing opportunity for these really talented musicians," she said. "They are doing all kinds of things like that."
The college says the campus remains available to the general public in many ways. The Screen cinema shows up to three films a day, the library is open to the public, and a variety of campus art shows are free and easy to access.
Hinz said administrators and faculty want to invite area residents to get more involved. This spring, the school held an outdoor art festival where images were projected on the exterior walls of campus buildings, for example.
Most days, however, security guards are on site to ensure that nonstudents aren't "just wandering around campus without credentials and a purpose," according to school spokeswoman Lauren Eichman. Dog walkers are welcome, she said, but animals must be leashed.
Local students say they hope the wider Santa Fe community becomes more aware of what's happening on the campus.
Charlotte Martinez has completed her sophomore year at the school, which she's attending on scholarship, double-majoring in film and creative writing. Martinez, a graduate of Santa Fe High, said city residents seem to be slowly catching on. Art workshops with open enrollment and a high-school theater intensive planned for this summer might help, she added.
"We are not as out there as I think we should be in Santa Fe yet. Right now, when I talk to people and I say the Santa Fe University, they are like, 'What is that?' ... People still think we are transitioning from College of Santa Fe and they don't know exactly what it is we do," she said. "Not yet."
Contact Julie Ann Grimm at 986-3017 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please note, the comment system has been temporarily suspended. Comments will return with the launch of our new website on March 11, 2013. Please direct questions or concerns to web editor Natalie Guillen at email@example.com.
Thank you for your patience.