Erika Kent

Last week, Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation president and CEO Sean Malone announced that the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture could lose its accreditation in 2017. Due to the Higher Learning Commission's (HLC) 2012 by-law changes, the school is considered a multifaceted institution that is not focused exclusively on higher education. Therefore, it cannot be HLC-accredited, a requirement by the National Architectural Accrediting Board which oversees all U.S. master's degree programs in the discipline. The HLC has given the school a two- to three-year deadline to make the changes needed for compliance with the by-law changes, but the school is also exploring a variety of options.

Malone spoke with ARCHITECT about the foundation's relationship with HLC, the school's options for the future, and the other activities that the foundation is managing.

The beginning of your official statement released on Thursday, Aug. 21, says that since 2012, when the HLC changed its by-laws, the foundation has been in “regular communication to find a resolution” that would allow the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture to remain in compliance with the new policies. Describe the foundation’s relationship with HLC over the past two years and what has been discussed during that time.

The foundation had concerns when the HLC conveyed the simultaneous need for significant financial guarantees and true autonomy—no direct governance and no operational control. We worked for some time on the basic premise of whether the foundation itself could be considered an institution of higher education, because we are involved so heavily in higher education, it’s so central to our mission, and we’ve been doing it for so long. We had a number of conversations where it looked like it might be possible for them to interpret or determine that the entire institution was an institution of higher education and therefore the new by-laws would comply. … It was ultimately determined that even though higher education is central to our mission, preservation is also central to our mission, as well as public access and engagement. … They have to apply their guidelines consistently and consider us a multifaceted institution. Therefore, the school is an operating division of a larger multifaceted institution. … We explored and pushed in a number of ways to see if it was possible to loosen the restrictions on direct governance and operational control, if we were going to be required to invest the level of support they were talking about.

How would the school and the foundation operate financially if they were to be separately incorporated?

The school of architecture requires a significant subvention—which many schools of architecture do. Total revenue minus total expenses leaves a pretty substantive deficit. HLC’s requirements for separate incorporation are that the foundation would not have annual approval of or control over the independent school’s annual budget—but would still be responsible for providing the seven-figure funding. The foundation would simply be responsible for whatever funding is necessary to sustain the school but could not, in correlation with that funding, have any direct governance or operational control.

You delivered the announcement to the students on Thursday. All current students will be able to complete their educations through an accredited program, but what was their general reaction to the news?

They were surprised. We let them know last fall that things looked good and things looked hopeful in terms of being considered an institution of higher education as a whole. We were surprised when that didn’t work out, and they were surprised as well. I think there was frustration that there wasn’t a resolution that allowed the board to create this independently incorporated organization. As a whole, they would’ve liked to have seen that independently incorporated organization that the HLC asked for, so that it could continue without having to look for a partner.

The school has been working for over a year on a post-professional program that would not require HLC accreditation. Tell me about the development of that program and why the school began working on it last fall.

A consultant had suggested it first, and school board members liked the idea. They liked the idea of a post-professional program in conjunction with a first-professional program, an M.Arch., which is more typically what you see when you see a post-professional program in the architectural education realm. In broad terms, there is a desire to see what impact we can have with people who are farther along with their architectural education or career, either right after they’ve gotten their M.Arch. or after several years of being a practicing architect and perhaps coming back to explore something in more depth. There aren’t specific plans beyond that, other than a belief that there is a need that can be filled there and that what the two Taliesins and architectural education have to offer could make us uniquely positioned to meet those.

What is the foundation doing on the other components of its mission: preservation of the Taliesins and the collections, and the transformation of lives through the experience of Wright’s work?

A lot of exciting things are happening on those fronts. Five years ago, we spent about $1 million combined on annual and capital endeavors for preservation, and this year we’ll spend close to $3 million. That’s more or less consistent with last year and what we expect for next year. So we’re doing a lot more year-to-year to take care of these true international treasures. We’re also right in the middle of a long-term preservation master plan, where we’re doing an in-depth analysis of Taliesin West, in particular, of what needs to be restored and to what level, why, and how, so we can ensure its preservation for generations to come. We’re also investing very heavily in how we have the deepest impact in terms of public access and tours. We just started an 18-month tour evaluation and interpretation plan project. With 100,000 visitors coming here [to Taliesin West] every year, we feel a real obligation to what they’re taking away with them.