Evans Puts Art To Work

May 16, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Oliver Evans, president of Kendall College of Art & Design, seems to have a gift for being in the right place at the right time.

More importantly, he appears to have gift for helping educational institutions shape their vision for the future.

As a former English-professor-turned-college-president for one of the nation’s top five art schools, Evans oversees 760 students, all of whom, from an artistic perspective, could be called “visionaries” in their own right.

What attracted Evans to Kendall originally, and continues to now, is the quality of student work.

“There is something almost tangible about the creativity here,” he remarked. “The level of student work here is really pretty extraordinary. Some people think art and design students are strange. They really are not any stranger than any other group of students. In fact, many students in the design field are really heading toward very traditional professions.”

Kendall specializes in developing working artists. Some 95 percent of its graduates go on to work in the furniture industry.

Oliver started his teaching career as a graduate instructor in Purdue University’s Department of English in 1967. He went on to serve as an assistant English professor for Dakota State College, then South Dakota State University and, later, Creighton University in Nebraska. He held an assistant professorship at Western Michigan University’s College of Business for four years and moved on to Nazareth College in 1984.

“I found that I really had to focus not so much on what I thought I was going to do as to what are the opportunities. There weren’t very many traditional jobs teaching English and literature. But the whole area of business and technical communications was a growth area and I began to teach in those areas.”

In his 10 years at Nazareth, he rose from adjunct professor to director of advising and graduate studies, to vice president for academic affairs, to president.

Evans was asked to assume the presidency at Nazareth following a series of unexpected resignations. His job was to lead the college in determining the best course for its future. The Sisters of Saint Joseph, sponsors of the college, felt their mission was to focus on other things, so it was in their best interest to close the college, Evans recalled.

He came to Kendall as dean and vice president for academic affairs in1994. A year later, the same thing happened again. He was asked to assume the interim presidency and to work on a course of action for Kendall’s future.

An administrator, he said, has to have sensitivity as to where the institution would like to go and where it ought to go and then do everything necessary to make that possible. One of the options for Kendall was merging with Ferris State University.

“I supported that from the beginning and thought that was going to be a key to Kendall’s future — that we really needed to establish a relationship with a larger organization.”

Due to the way Ferris approached the merger, which was finalized in January, Kendall has been able to retain much of its own autonomy as well as control over its future, Evans said. Post merger, Kendall has had the freedom and flexibility to plan in ways that it couldn’t before because it could look ahead with more confidence in terms of stability, he said.

It’s unusual for colleges to merge and it requires a lot of courage on the part both institutions because it’s not like merging two businesses, he noted. There are a lot of constituents involved on both sides — the alumni, the faculty, the students — and they all have their own attitudes and values.

Even though the more artistic, creative Kendall and more technical Ferris seem different from each other, Evans said they have one thing in common: a commitment to professional preparation.

“Both schools are very committed to the idea that students come out prepared to do something,” he observed. “The second thing that made this merger actually work is the fact that we’re so different. We didn’t duplicate what Ferris had. We brought things that were of value to Ferris.

“Our strengths have always been, and I think continue to be, our relationship with the professional world of art and design. We want to ensure that when students walk out they are able to walk into business and meet today’s expectations.”

Kendall’s student body has since grown by 45 percent, which Evans attributes to the wider variety of programs, the increase in faculty and the enhanced facility that resulted. The school draws students from around the world and sends students abroad as well. Kendall’s furniture design program, in particular, attracts a number of international students because it’s a well-known program, he said.

Kendall introduced a Master of Fine Arts degree last year and is looking at developing other graduate opportunities over the next several years as well, Evans said.

Evans expects the student body will grow to between 1,000 and 1,200 students in the next few years. In fact, the school is growing faster than anticipated and is reaching a point where it may have to start thinking about limiting enrollment in some programs.

“The one thing I hope doesn’t change is that we are still small. We’re a very competitive environment but also a very supportive environment and I hope that also stays.”

Evans says West Michigan is an area that has a lot of respect for design and offers many opportunities in design. And Kendall is a school that makes the most of opportunities, he said.

One quite extraordinary opportunity has recently presented itself.

A group of Kendall students will attend the International Furniture Fair in Milan this April and will have an exhibit in the 2002 Salone Satellite, part of the fair that showcases educational institutions and rising talents.

Renowned furniture designer Vladimir Kagan, who spoke at Kendall’s May commencement, arranged the group’s invitation. The application process for students to be selected to exhibit at the fair typically takes three years. Kagan had encouraged the school to apply after viewing students’ work during his visit here in May.

“We’re trying to make sure we provide students with the opportunities and ability to define what tomorrow will look like,” Evans said. “Our goal is to prepare students to spend their lives doing what they love and making a living at it as well.”          

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