Cover Stories

Stairway to Nowhere

As the Santa Fe University of Art and Design prepares to close, lawsuits try to recoup some of what students lost

The flames were visible clear across the 64-acre campus. City police suspect that somebody used an accelerant last May to feed the blaze at the World War II-era barracks on the edge of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, and the arson case remains open.

If set by a student, as former faculty and students allege, the act would have fit the broader mood they describe as anger, fear and ennui that had gripped the school in the weeks since its interim president emailed students on April 12 announcing SFUAD would close after the following school year.

In the months to come, the school's corporate operator, the for-profit education company Laureate International, would bring collegiate representatives to SFUAD in what students say felt like a rushed attempt to connect them with other schools. That did little to alleviate the sense of loss permeating the campus—to say nothing of all the money and time students had sunk into a place that would soon not exist.

A few took their anger out on school property, stealing a projector and other items from classrooms. The school's president, Maria Puzziferro, eventually sent a campus-wide email on May 5 telling students the school would beef up its security to deter what she described as "inexcusable and destructive acts." Noting that students were enduring "an emotional time," Puzziferro added that counseling was available "to anybody who would like to seek it."

The announcements were a far cry from the ethos of Christian devotion with which the campus had been seeded in 1947, when it became the new home of a school founded in the mid-19th century by a Catholic teaching congregation. The trajectory from a liberal arts college steeped in religious humanism to a liability in a multinational corporation's portfolio reveals how readily private education companies can dump assets that aren't turning a profit.

In November, Santa Fe District Court Judge Matthew Wilson ruled two suits against Laureate and its affiliates could move forward, despite the company's legal maneuvering to dispute its role in the closure. The attorneys on the case, Justin Miller and Ben Allison, hope that a case filed by three people will go to trial within the year. Another case alleging the same conduct by Laureate but involving several dozen plaintiffs may drag on for years, says Allison.

"Laureate promised all these students an education and a degree if they paid their tuition and fulfilled program requirements, and then Laureate broke that promise," says Allison, of the namesake law firm Bardacke Allison LLP. Adding insult to injury, Allison says, Laureate delayed informing students of the pending closure until it was too late for a majority of the student body to transfer elsewhere, though it offered each of them a one-time, $2,500 "transfer grant."

Laureate would not comment to SFR on any pending litigation, but spokeswoman Tanea Jackson said the company was "pleased" most students had transferred to other schools, including some with whom SFUAD has a working relationship.

"We believe we have presented all of our students, including the plaintiffs, adequate resources and avenues other than litigation to successfully continue their education and complete their degrees," Jackson wrote in an email.

For former and current students who are plaintiffs in the case and spoke to SFR, some of whom are tens of thousands of dollars in debt as a result of attending the school, Laureate's efforts have not been adequate.

And for the city of Santa Fe, the school's departure leaves a multi-million dollar hole and a cultural void that nobody is sure how to fill.

The barracks that burned last year were sold to the state nearly 10 years ago, and are more recently known for their use as film sets for two TV series, Manhattan and Longmire. Their history is tied up in the former stewards of the school, the Christian Brothers. The college bought the barracks from the federal government after the war and housed the brothers in them for decades while they taught courses at the school.

Enrollment at the brothers' College of Santa Fe peaked in the early 1970s, boosted by the student deferments that allowed young men to avoid being sent to Vietnam. When the war ended, enrollment plummeted and the school's board of trustees grew increasingly worried about its financial prospects. One solution the board pursued was to emphasize studio and creative arts in the place of traditional curricula.

Financially, "we were gradually bleeding to death," says Brian Dybowski, a brother who taught and lived at the school from 1966 to 2009. Art programming required limited class sizes and large investments in supplies, but the change didn't raise enrollment. By 2008, after several years in the red, the school was on the verge of collapse.

It had already been approached by Laureate that summer, when the company offered to provide capital for the continued operation of the college, but the company backed out soon after making the offer.

In a last-ditch effort to save the campus, the city of Santa Fe took out a loan from the New Mexico Finance Authority to purchase the campus property for $19.5 million in August 2009. The city government then leased the campus out to Laureate for a 26-year period, during which time the company agreed to pay the city $2.3 million annually in rent.

The student lawsuits say this was something of a bait-and-switch by Laureate, because it allowed the company to take over the campus without assuming the College of Santa Fe's $35 million debt.

Laureate vaguely describes itself as "affiliated with SFUAD" in its only publicly available annual report for investors, which it released last year. After Laureate signed the lease with the city, it sold SFUAD's assets (in the form of SFUAD LLC) to a subsidiary of Wengen Alberta, a group of hedge funds and private equity funds that is the controlling stockholder of Laureate. Laureate then entered into a shared services agreement with SFUAD LLC, agreeing to provide everything needed to run a school, including administrative and faculty payroll, IT and other services in exchange for millions of dollars in annual payment.

The city hoped that Laureate's vast marketing resources would be able to increase enrollment and make its investment in the property pay off. The company's global profile was rising as it brought on former President Bill Clinton as its honorary chancellor only a few months after Santa Fe leased the campus to Laureate. Clinton's position, which primarily consisted of promotional work, netted him nearly $18 million over five years. By the end of 2016, the company brought in $4.2 billion in annual revenue from 70 institutions in 25 different countries, where it has been no stranger to scandal.

In the report to investors, Laureate said its budget for marketing and advertising had increased over the last several years, and it expected the trend to continue. When it acquired SFUAD, it had hoped to increase enrollment to 1,500, and possibly go as high as 3,000. But for all its efforts, that number never topped 1,000.

Ross Hamlin has taught music as an adjunct professor at SFUAD since 2010, and is teaching students on campus until it permanently closes its doors June 30. As Laureate invested in SFUAD's recruitment efforts, Hamlin says he saw the quantity and caliber of incoming students rise.

"When the big class came in [the autumn of] 2011 and stuck around, and actually started using the practice room and inhabiting the ensembles and showing the hell up, that was joyous—that was great for me," Hamlin tells SFR. He says the entire music department had less than 20 students when he arrived in 2010; by 2016, there were more than 100.

Other arts departments also had their own recruiting teams. Students who enrolled in the school in subsequent years recall getting visits from SFUAD representatives at their high schools, including Blythe Brooks of San Antonio, Texas.

Brooks says SFUAD's booth at a college fair attracted her because of its emphasis on contemporary music. The program offered courses in film scoring and studio mixing, classes that are harder to find at traditional conservatory schools.

"They just had a very unique program that offered a different educational program with a different set of skills," says Brooks, who is now suing Laureate. She enrolled at the school in August 2014 and has stuck around to finish her degree.

Another plaintiff in the case, Sasha Hill, was discharged from the Navy and learned of SFUAD after researching photography programs. She found it easy to connect with a recruiter, who spoke with her on the phone and then personally showed her around the school. She moved to Santa Fe from Kentucky and enrolled in January 2014.

Both Hill and Brooks agree the education they received their first three years at SFUAD was valuable. But outside of class, they say that the overall quality of the school seemed to decline even as more students enrolled.

For some who lived on campus, the dormitories were dirty and uncomfortable, according to Kim Jones, who started at SFUAD in the spring of 2014 to study creative writing. Jones found Santa Fe to be a charming place, and enjoyed her classes, but came to resent the campus itself.

"At SFUAD, they focused on cultivating your own style as an artist rather than just trying to teach you theory and how to conform," says Jones, who is also a former SFR intern. Shortly after her first year, however, she says she started venturing off campus more frequently due to ant infestations, dirty showers and bad food.

Students enrolling at SFUAD were nonetheless building a culture, they say. The company continued to aggressively market and recruit new students, even as the school failed to meet its revenue goals. Enrollment for the 2016-2017 school year reached just 650.

By 2016, the lawsuits against Laureate allege, the company was already preparing to dump the school from its portfolio. They also charge that Laureate installed an "absentee president and [Laureate] corporate representative," Maria Puzziferro, for the task of overseeing Laureate's divestment from SFUAD. She replaced Larry Hinz, the president of the school since 2011 and a former Laureate executive. Puzziferro had also presided over a restructuring of the for-profit Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design in Colorado in 2013.

The lawsuit against Laureate does not simply claim the corporation planned to dump SFUAD, but that it even went through the motions of arranging a sham sale of the school to an American subsidiary of Raffles Educational Corp., a for-profit company listed on the Singapore Exchange, all the while knowing the sale would fall through.

Students were informed of Laureate's intention to sell SFUAD to Raffles in an email from Puzziferro in May 2016, where she declared that the school's administration aimed to "execute a seamless and collaborative change in ownership." Reporting from SFR later highlighted that Raffles had run afoul of regulatory agencies in at least three countries since its inception in 1990, but none of that history was communicated to students. SFUAD was to be Raffles' first entry point into the American education market.

According to the lawsuit, Puzziferro "let it slip to limited faculty" in January 2017 that she knew the school's accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission, would never approve the acquisition, yet continued to misrepresent her knowledge of the situation to students and faculty. The suit further alleges that when Puzziferro emailed students last March to say the sale to Raffles had collapsed, she neglected to disclose that Laureate and Raffles had already decided to abandon the deal if it was not completed by April 3.

Despite the unsettling series of emails, incoming students that year say they were barely aware something was amiss. Amethyst Gallant, a plaintiff in the suit, says she was approached by a SFUAD recruiter after spending a year at another art school in Albuquerque. She was interested in studying graphic design, but hardly got to take any computer courses before the school announced its pending closure in April.

That fact, she says, disappoints her more than any other. "My first year was basically all book work and one computer class, but we never touched computers, [and] the only hands-on digital design class that I got to take was a Photoshop [class]."

In addition to tuition costs ranging from $9,212 to $14,932 per semester, all students also had to pay hundreds of dollars in "general fees"—and the school would impose others, such as an $80 parking pass, that some found to be arbitrary.

"The semester before they announced they were going to close, everything felt like they were trying to get as much money from us as possible," says Sasha Hill, the Navy vet. "They weren't picking up the pest control. Around campus everything deteriorated, but they still charged a lot of money."

Hill and others assumed the price of fees would drop at the ailing campus, but SFUAD has continued charging the same prices, even in its final year of operation after the majority of students left and the school laid off much of the staff. By the 2017-2018 school year, only 155 students remained.

Gallant, who left before the current school year, says the experience was like being "robbed."

"I think [Laureate] owes me at the very minimum the entire amount that I gave them on top of the accruing interest rate of my loan I had to take out," Gallant says.

Anger and shock swelled on campus after the closure was announced, but a sense of unity among faculty and students also developed amid the crisis, according to Gavin Tovar, who was a freshman film student now attending Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. A couple of protests took place on campus, but their numbers quickly thinned.

"I felt like people were saying a lot behind closed doors, how passionate they were about the movement [to save SFUAD]—but when it came down to doing anything, nobody stepped up," Tovar says. He believes students should have protested in the city center to raise more awareness about the closure and what it meant.

Brooks, the student studying contemporary music who is still enrolled at SFUAD, described that spring semester as "an environment where everything is crashing down around you." When she graduates, she says, she will have taken on nearly $100,000 dollars in debt for her time at SFUAD.

"You're trying to do finals in the midst of the school catching on fire and people kinda looting the school and messing things up," she says, "you lose motivation."

Like many of her former classmates, Dawndria Scherff's life has been in flux since she left SFUAD. The school's imminent closure voided a scholarship that was paying her tuition and sent her packing back to her hometown of Roswell, New Mexico. She recently enrolled in cosmetology school as a backup plan, but dropped out after feeling unhappy.

"I found a place [at SFUAD] where I was totally comfortable and happy," Scherff says. "Having to go back home and just try to find work and, in a sense, try to regain myself and find happiness all over again—they've taken away my scholarship I worked so hard for, the internships I was promised from the school. All that's been taken away, all my opportunities are gone, and now I have to find it again on my own."

For hundreds of others, a similar search continues. About 95 students are currently taking classes on campus, and SFUAD spokeswoman Debra Epstein says the school does not track where its former students ended up. A handful of former music students relocated to McNally Smith College of Music in Minnesota last fall, only to see that for-profit school close in December.

Meanwhile, the city is on the hook for around $27 million, due to the New Mexico Finance Authority for 18 years after SFUAD's lease on the property ends June 30. Dry brush has piled up against several buildings, and the school has already transferred some of the unused property back to the city for reduced rent payment.

The city has been collecting ideas for the midtown campus' future, and is recruiting five design teams with the help of the Santa Fe Art Institute to draw up plans this spring. The teams will be getting inspiration from an online public survey that asked participants to rate possible uses for the campus. Options include post-secondary education, affordable housing, co-working space, a "tech hub," city government offices and a dog park.

After analyzing the results of the surveys and taking other factors into consideration, the design teams are supposed to share their vision with "10-20 thoughtful influencers" picked by city officials, who will select a final plan. City officials have yet to choose these influencers, according to city spokesman Matt Ross.

The reason for handpicking the participants, explains Ross in an email, is that if the city is "hoping to have an impact through the site on housing, film, education, etc., we should get feedback from leaders and advocates in those areas."

Smoking pipe tobacco outside The Screen, SFUAD's endangered art-house, film school associate chair Liam Lockhart says he has been calling rich friends to ask if they'd be willing to invest in his program. He has until May 12, the end of the semester. Then, his courses on international horror film and 1970's cinema will finish, and he'll be out of work.

In the likely event that his efforts fail, he argues the school's closure gives students an important early lesson.

"It is the absence of limitations which is the greatest enemy of art," says Lockhart, paraphrasing the late director Orson Welles. "The more restraints we have imposed on us, the more censorship, the more we have to be committed to our vision, and committed to getting it out there."

“If Santa Fe really cares about its future as a city,” he argues, it will “finally recognize the importance of youth, and keeping them here, keeping this institution.”

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