A Conversation With President Samuel Hoi

In 2014, Samuel Hoi was appointed MICA's president following the long tenure of Fred Lazarus. Along with more than two decades of higher education experience, Hoi brought with him a resolute belief that artists, designers, and creatives possess the skills and vision to reimagine and reshape the world. This is the first of several conversations we will have with him over the coming months as he reflects on the last four years and discusses the future for MICA.

This past July marked four years of your tenure as President of  MICA. During that time there has been a dramatic shift on campus and among the many things accomplished are the re-articulation of the Mission and Vision, the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Globalization (DEIG) Task Force completion and implementation plan, the successful launch of MICApreneurship and Baltimore Creatives Acceleration Network (BCAN), the creation of Product and Game Design majors among many others.

What do you consider to be most important about your accomplishments and how do you see them positioning the College in a different, future-oriented way?

Samuel hoi Now that you list the major initiatives MICA has undertaken since my arrival in July 2014, it does seem like a lot! I joined a highly accomplishing MICA in 2014, and I believe all that we have taken on in recent years are positioning us well to serve our students and the world even better.

If I have to pick my most important accomplishments at MICA to date, I would highlight two overarching efforts.

The first has to be the collaborative work with the entire MICA community to reflect upon and articulate our new and bold Mission and Vision, along with a set of provocative Tenets and underpinning philosophy. I am so proud of everyone at MICA to have generated such a clear and powerful expression of our common purpose. When we launched the new mission and vision in Fall 2017, the public response was most positive and gratifying.

The second is my work with the campus community to shift our ways of working into a silo-breaking one-team culture that is inclusive and collaborative. The work is not done yet, as old systems and habits take time to evolve. Yet we are moving quite fast, and there is no return – that’s how people want to work now at MICA and with our external partners. The campus team is modeling the way our graduates will work.

I elevate these two efforts as my proudest because a clear mission inspires and unites the entire campus community to do our best to serve our students. It gives us a focused and clarifying lens to understand our role in the world. We need it to orient our strategies, to measure our success and identify areas for improvement, and to rally support from others. A silo-ed and hierarchical workplace is outmoded; it cannot propel MICA into 21st century educational leadership or operational innovation, both of which are within our reach.

In the 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Report of Creativity Connects: Trends and Conditions Affecting U.S. Artists, you were quoted with this statement: “We are at an important evolutionary moment…in which the value we ascribe to artists and the roles they play in our communities needs significant recalibration, as do the ways we train artists and support their work."

What are some of the related challenges for art and design higher education? Do you have ideas for how we at MICA might address these challenges?

SHI firmly believe that opportunities and challenges go hand-in-hand. We need to consider both at the same time.

The 2016 NEA Report of Creativity Connects presents compelling research and analysis findings regarding how artists live and work today. Among the five top issues surfaced by the report, one speaks specifically to education: “Training is not keeping pace with artists’ evolving needs and opportunities.” The report calls for the creation of 21st century training systems. I have no doubts that’s where MICA can make transformative contributions.

Creativity Connects reveals that today’s creative ecosystem is much more entrepreneurial, breaks down disciplinary barriers, and connects with non-arts sectors. As a result, artists today have much more potential for self-reliance and wider impact. MICA’s education model and programs are taking note of these opportunities. I am very proud of how MICA both protects what is best of traditions, like our dedication to craft, and embraces the new to meet the future.

MICA’s flexible curriculum and interdisciplinary spirit encourage our students to experiment and invent through transdisciplinary practices. We also connect our campus to other fields. Examples are our arts residency program with the Hopkins Extreme Materials Institute (HEMI) at the John Hopkins University’s, and our MBA-MA dual degree program in Design Leadership with Hopkins’ Carey School of Business.

Since 2015, we have integrated creative entrepreneurship into art and design education through the MICApreneneurship program and its annual Venture Competition that helps MICA students build their original ideas into businesses. We have the only Entrepreneurship Evangelist job title among art schools! And so many of our Venture Competition winners are running enterprises with rich social content, which is in keeping with MICA’s mission and approach. I am always happy to see art, business, and positive impact for all come together in smart and fearless ways.

Of course, a key challenge in higher education today is the cost of education. MICA is a private college with top-end services; we are not inexpensive. That said, we have strived to be responsible in several ways. For a few years now, we have kept our annual tuition raise at the same level and at the lowest level as compared to the decade before, where there lacked a predictable pattern of increases for our students and their families. We have invested in additional scholarship support for students with financial need. Most importantly, we are innovating in how we equip our graduates with the skills and means to achieve a satisfying and contributing life and career, including ways to sustain themselves economically.

In 2017, the Ford Foundation selected you for its Art of Change Fellowship that recognizes visionary U.S. artists and cultural leaders driving social change. You were surprised by the unsolicited honor because arts educators seldom receive attention as cultural leaders and social change makers. You said at that time that the fellowship made you realize that “art and design education has been my medium in a metaphoric way.” 

Obviously, you have given a lot of thought to art and design education – can you talk about what you see as its signature value to society?  And building on that, why should young people choose an education in art and design?

SHSpecialized art and design education will persist in some form or shape because there will always be some students desiring such education. However, it has occupied a marginalized position.

There is an opportunity for art and design education now to assert its value in society. It is more relevant than ever as a creative education and as a training pipeline of change agents to make our world a better place. MICA is at the forefront of demonstrating that relevance.

Looking forward, it is obvious that the vector of human, social, and economic development points towards continuing shifts and escalating speed of change.

In terms of human development for thriving with such change, today’s students must be able to understand their core essence, find their uniquely individual ways to generate ideas and express themselves, respond to change positively and inventively, find joy in problem solving, and inspire others in their work. You see that I have just described a quintessential art and design education, right?

On an economic level, we are now in an age of ideas. Unlike agricultural or industrial products that drove previous economic eras, creativity cannot be outsourced and adds rooted value to its location and people. Our economies will be more and more based on the value of knowledge, information, and innovation. Creatives can succeed well if they are educated in the right way.

Everything must come together for our collective future and common good. As our societies become more diverse and global, and fates of people, countries and nature become more intertwined, we face increasingly complex social and world issues. We count on our future generations to create transformative and equitable opportunities through both mundane and spectacular challenges.

Artists and designers are uniquely positioned to be such visionary and compassionate problem definers and solvers. In the kind of holistic education offered at MICA, we empower our students through the development of their skills, their imagination, their intellect and critical thinking, their sense of social justice, their sense of citizenship in the world, their leadership, and their professional readiness. The practices and lives of our alumni represent a compelling value proposition of artists in society.

For students passionate about their identity as art and design creatives and who resonate with our mission and vision, I cannot think of a better place than MICA.

You’ve said that you believe MICA is a hub for innovation; can you talk about the reasons why MICA is especially suited to this idea and process?  Can you share some examples of innovation happening now?  And perhaps, what you hope to see in the near and distant future?

SHInnovation can happen virtually anywhere under any circumstances. I really appreciate that MICA has an organically inventive environment where innovation occurs naturally both unexpectedly and by design.

I believe that there are requisite elements for innovation in a mindful community like ours at MICA. They are: purpose and intention; appetite for change; stimulating environment; diversity in talent, expertise and perspectives; and culture of collaboration.

It’s great that MICA can check off all on this list! Our mission, vision and tenets are clear and powerful. The campus-wide embracement of DEIG integration is an example of our capacity for change; diversity, equity, inclusion and globalization are considered at MICA in a way that is fundamental and transformative. Baltimore provides a complex social context for education, and there exist fertile resources in the region for multi-sector partnerships. Our interdisciplinary approach and one-team culture, which I already mentioned, is our secret sauce that brings people, ideas and actions together in our inimitable MICA way.

The upward trajectory MICA has enjoyed during the past few decades demonstrates our momentum for change. Our more recent innovation examples include the evolution of the foundation year program into First Year Experience, the extension of maker spaces into bio-fabrication, and, again, the embracement of creative entrepreneurship into art and design education. The list does go on!