Paula Wallace

Founder of SCAD

Paula Wallace founded SCAD in Savannah, Georgia, in 1978. As president of SCAD, she has led the university’s expansion to locations in Atlanta, and Lacoste, France, and pioneered the award-winning SCAD eLearning program. With more than 100 academic degree programs and 15,000 currently enrolled students, SCAD is the preeminent source of knowledge in every discipline it teaches and has prepared more than 43,000 alumni for creative professions worldwide.

Wallace served as academic dean and provost of SCAD for 22 years before becoming president in 2000. As president, she created and championed many of the university’s most popular annual events, including Sand Arts Festival, SCAD aTVfest, SCAD deFINE ART, SCAD FASHWKND, SCAD Savannah Film Festival, SCADstyle, and Sidewalk Arts Festival. Wallace also founded three teaching museums, SCAD FASH Museum of Fashion + Film in Atlanta, SCAD Retour en 1856 in Lacoste, and the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah.

Her initiatives include the SCAD Alumni Atelier Program, which provides SCAD alumni with an on-campus artist residency program; SCAD Art Sales, which connects SCAD artists with global clients; SCADFILM, which increases the knowledge and network of entertainment arts professionals; and SCADpro, the university’s in-house design consultancy that solves high-stakes design challenges with leading-edge business solutions for world-renowned companies.

Under Wallace’s leadership, SCAD has earned numerous top programmatic and institutional rankings, including:

No. 1 undergraduate interior design program in DesignIntelligence’s annual rankings. Since 2008, SCAD undergraduate and graduate programs have been awarded this superlative more than any other university — a total of 13 times.

Best Motion Graphics School in The Rookies’ “Best Creative Schools in the World” rankings for 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

No. 1 university in the U.S. and No. 2 university in the Americas and Europe in the 2018 Red Dot Design Rankings.

No. 1 university in’s The Best Illustration Colleges of 2018.

Top 10 for Costume Design Schools, Production Design Schools, and Visual Effects Schools in The Hollywood Reporter’s 2019 inaugural, unordered rankings.

Named one of America’s Best Colleges by U.S. News and World Report in 2013.

President Wallace advances the SCAD legacy of historic preservation. The university has been recognized with prestigious awards from the American Institute of Architects, American Society of Interior Designers, Art Deco Societies of America, National Trust for Historic Preservation, and UNESCO.

Wallace authored a memoir, The Bee and the Acorn; the first major book on China’s leading couture visionary, Guo Pei: Couture Beyond; a celebration of architectural splendor, SCAD: The Architecture of a University; two interior design titles, A House in the South: Old-Fashioned Graciousness for New-Fashioned Times and Perfect Porches: Designing Welcoming Spaces for Outdoor Living; and several children’s books.

Wallace is an honorary member of the AIA, a Senior Fellow of the Design Futures Council, a member of the Advisory Board of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She is a recipient of the ASID Nancy Vincent McClelland Merit Award, the Arthur Ross Award for Stewardship, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award, and a Roger Milliken Honorary AIA Legacy Award. Wallace has also been named among Blouin Artinfo’s “Power List: High-Wattage Women of the Art World” and Condé Nast’s “Daring 25.” The French Embassy in the United States of America appointed Wallace a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, the Georgia Historical Society named her a Georgia Trustee, the City of Atlanta presented her with a Phoenix Award, the City of Savannah awarded her the key to the city, and DesignIntelligence named her to its “30 Most Admired Educators.”

Paula Wallace earned her Master of Education and Education Specialist degrees from Georgia State University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Furman University. She also was awarded an honorary Doctor of Law from Gonzaga University.

Where did the idea for SCAD come from?

SCAD was born of a thousand insights and observations and epiphanies over time, but I suppose I could condense it down to three generative ideas in particular. The first would be my innate and lifetime love of education. I studied classical piano from an early age and was invited by my teacher, Miss Peggy Mayfield, to take on some of her students when I was 12 or 13. I loved every aspect of teaching, choosing the day’s music, writing lesson plans, sitting alongside my young students and watching the joy and delight when the notes came out right and in the right order. The sense of satisfaction was nonpareil. I went on to study music and education as an undergraduate.

When my professional teaching career took off in the elementary classrooms of the Atlanta public schools, I taught gifted and talented students and increasingly turned to art and creative expression as an instructional mode. Math and grammar and social studies take on more color and life when you involve the senses. Learning the meaning of a poem becomes all the more urgent and lively when you’ve been asked to perform it on a stage. Discussing the history of ancient Egypt takes on more interest when students get up out of their desks to dance the “King Tut” like Steve Martin. We drew, painted, choreographed, recited, performed. Why couldn’t all learning be this fun? The rigor of education was still there, and so was joy. This was the second notion that led to SCAD, this idea of creative education not as something in addition to “real” learning but as a way of learning and studying anything and everything.

Third was my mother, May Poetter, a high school language arts teacher. I watched her break stereotypes throughout my life, enrolling at university in the 1950s after having two children—sadly rare at the time—and earning a master’s degree in summers while being a wife and mother and fulltime educator. In the early 1970s, she authored a language arts textbook for Houghton-Mifflin, where she shared her instructional methods and favorite readings with tens of thousands of students and teachers around the U.S. I saw with my own eyes how what works for one teacher can work for many. This inspired me to consider translating best practices and insights from my own classrooms to something larger, grander. Why couldn’t a university education employ the same theories and approaches? We had no elite arts colleges in the Southeastern U.S. There was a clear need. And so, in 1978, with my family’s full support, I resigned my job with the Atlanta public schools and moved to Savannah, Georgia, to create SCAD.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I’m up before the sun. As my mother (who, along with my father, came out of retirement to join me at SCAD) used to say, “At SCAD, we only work half-days. Sunup to sundown.” Winter and summer, I’m on the treadmill first thing. Fall and spring, I’m walking through the verdant squares and canopied streets of downtown Savannah as the morning light pushes through. I read through and answer emails for an hour or so and by 8 a.m., I’m on my first Zoom of the day. From there it’s off to the races. As I write this, we’re still in the middle of the pandemic, so most of my days are spent in virtual engagement of one kind or another, but it varies quite a lot. I might spend an hour in a Zoom with SCAD’s global leaders, then an hour to review correspondence, then an hour or two for a virtual class observation (one of my favorite parts of the day), followed by two or even three hours of phone calls with SCAD board of trustees members and university leaders, an hour to review research (we’re a research machine at SCAD—always something to review and learn from), and ending the workday with a SCAD Guests and Gusto master class or recording a live “On Creativity” episode for the podcast. It’s a full day, then Pilates, then dinner and another walk.

Paula Wallace, how do you bring ideas to life?

Do your research, make your move, and never stop improving on the original idea. Humility is key. Good ideas can always be better. Better ideas can always be great. Great ideas can be epic. But an idea that never gets off the ground can’t be anything. At SCAD, we don’t waste time going over the same ground. Academics especially love to talk, talk, talk, weigh, consider, debate. Discussion is key, but discussion is not the purpose of SCAD. Too much talk and you lose momentum, the moment gone, but that doesn’t mean you can neglect the research phase of a project.

The artist has much to teach the leader. Artists and designers know how to observe, listen, and learn. I always keep one ear to the students to hear their desires, to discover what subjects and professions they want to study next. Their antennae are tuned to frequencies leaders can’t always hear. I keep the other ear turned to the professions, to learn what they need to grow. This collective dialogue is how SCAD developed academic degree programs like luxury and fashion management, themed entertainment design, and equestrian studies, three programs that married student desires with professional demands.

At SCAD, our mission is to prepare talented students for professional careers, emphasizing individual attention in a positively oriented university environment. Thus, a large part of “success” at SCAD equates to graduates’ success in their own professional careers. We measure that success in several ways, including the alumni employment rate and the growing number of employers coming to campus to interview and hire students, as interns and full-time. This focus on alumni success and gainful employment allows the SCAD team to row in the same direction. Every idea is weighed against our mission and purpose.

What’s one trend that excites you?

The pandemic is no trend but a historic moment that will reshape human culture and life for years, maybe decades, to come. Organizations large and small—universities, startups, governments, even families—are of course working hard in the short-term to thrive during this most challenging year of 2020. At SCAD, we’re also thinking long-term, asking Big Questions. How will student expectations and desires evolve as a result of nearly a year of learning from home? How have the creative professions and industries adapted to COVID-19 and what of those adaptations will stick after the pandemic is over? The answer to both questions will drive (and has already driven) substantial change in operations and services at SCAD, e.g., which degree programs will grow, which should undergo serious revision, how we engage the professions and employers, and so on. We have gathered quantitative and qualitative data since March (when COVID-19 first impacted SCAD operations in the U.S.) and assess findings almost daily. You can read about some of our recent adaptations to teaching and learning, as well as a vivid account of what virtual learning will look like at SCAD in Fall 2020.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I work tirelessly to write and speak with clarity and empathy. I am no fan of jargon or anything that smacks of officiousness and self-importance. If someone comes at you with lots of technical gobbledygook, you can bet they’ve got an agenda. Speak clearly! In my work, I encounter experts across the spectrum, from finance to construction to government to accreditation to film and fashion and beyond. The brightest people are always those who can convey their message and their work with a story.

What advice would you give your younger self?

At one time in my life, I was far more tentative than I am now. Sure, I had the courage to start SCAD, but in general, I was not known to make sound and quick decisions. I am a classic oldest child, studious and thoughtful. I was always a rule-follower. When we first created SCAD, I served as academic dean and perhaps spent too much time weighing every option, even when a decision was needed quickly. I lacked confidence in those early days. When I became president 20 years ago, I simply no longer had time to linger. One has to be decisive and learn to trust your instincts, as clichéd as that sounds. Your heart almost always knows the answer before your brain does. I am a better heart-listener, these days, I think. It turns out that following your instincts, plus a little grit and elbow grease, can help to accomplish quite a lot.

Paula Wallace, tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

Every person is creative and every student is capable of earning an A.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

We have a number of SCAD alumni working at Pixar, and many members of their creative team have visited SCAD to recruit, speak, and mentor our students. One of these Pixar guests had just finished a tour of SCAD and remarked on how appealing our classrooms and studios are to the senses: positive, convivial, comfortable, engaged, a marriage of historic architecture and contemporary art and furnishings. Our students love it, and every visitor, it seems, wants to return as a student. “This is one of our secrets at Pixar,” he said. “Create an appealing world where the audience wants to spend time.”

Think about the worlds of Pixar—the topsy-turvy wonder of Monstropolis, the beauty and awe of Nemo’s underwater home, the Americana of Radiator Springs. These are settings that charm and delight. We create a similar sense of visual magic and sensual warmth at SCAD—in classrooms, residence halls, dining areas, studios, offices. We want SCAD to be a place students want to spend time, to return to again and again like a favorite film. Our interiors aren’t just inspiring; they’re professional and designed with intention, imparting a sense of purpose and professionalism in students.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I don’t subscribe to the nobility of failure. Success is a much more effective teacher, as I’ve written in the recent past.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Paula Wallace: I love hiring former school teachers for leadership roles. A school teacher is a bit like a field general—you have to do it all, on the spot and under fire, playing the role of teacher, nurse, entertainer, confidante, friend, font of all knowledge, comedian, disciplinarian, coach, choir director, mentor, orator, you name it. Some of our most talented administrators and leaders at this university are former elementary school teachers.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

During the pandemic, where Zoom is 24/7 and everybody sees you from the waist up, jewelry and other small statement pieces are definitely on-trend, like SCAD alumni Jocelyn DeSisto’s aquatic-inspired cocktail rings and Libby Newell’s layered collage brooches. I never grow tired of the classically timeless Hermès scarf: the hand, the look, a small item in one’s wardrobe with infinite value.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

The phone—for making actual phone calls. Text and email can often cause more problems than they solve, especially with tone and meaning so fluid. A simple phone call can tell you more than a hundred emails.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Paula Wallace: My favorite books have always been volumes of poetry, works by Rita Dove, Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Psalms. The most influential, if I had to choose one, would be Maya Angelou’s “And Still I Rise.” There’s a beautiful musicality that accompanies the confident, uplifting message in many of those poems. The work is not unlike a book of hymns. In 1998, I had the pleasure of inviting Dr. Angelou to SCAD as our commencement speaker. What a dream! She opened by singing the chorus of “When the Saints Go Marching In.” What a memory. I shall hold it dear, always.

Paula Wallace, what is your favorite quote?

Not a quote, but a question: What can we be doing better?