The NewSchool of Architecture & Design, a decades-old “idea factory” that has helped revitalize downtown’s East Village and influenced the larger look and feel of San Diego, is facing an array of problems that threaten the institution’s future.
The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, or WASC, which granted the school accreditation in 2014, said in a recent review that the private, for-profit business “may not have resources sufficient to ensure long term viability if current trends continue.”
The association noted that NewSchool, whose financial health is deeply tied to enrollment, had 368 students this spring, a decline of nearly 190 students since fall 2017. The institute had nearly 700 students in 2011.
The pandemic contributed to the recent drop in enrollment. But reviewers said the slump began well before the onset of COVID-19 and that it is causing financial problems.
“The declines were across multiple programs and for all enrollment status groups,” WASC said in an earlier report, written after reviewers visited NewSchool in the spring.
The reviewers said NewSchool, which was purchased in 2020 by Ambow Education, a company based in China and the Cayman Islands, is lacking in important fundamentals, such as a formal strategic marketing, enrollment and retention plan built on measurable data.
The accrediting group also said it is concerned about the school’s leadership, noting that NewSchool has had one permanent and four interim presidents since 2020, and is currently doing another search for a permanent president.
“In addition, there has been an unusual level of turnover in other key positions at NewSchool,” said WASC.
In November, the assortment of problems led WASC to issue a formal Notice of Concern about the school, which means that it is at risk of failing to comply with one or more of the basic standards that underlie its accreditation.
NewSchool will keep its accreditation for now, although WASC said it won’t give the institute an indefinite amount of time to fix its problems.
NewSchool told the Union-Tribune in a statement that it “has worked collaboratively with WASC to be responsive to the areas that it found needed improvement.
“When (we) acquired the NewSchool in March of 2020, it had been losing money for years and its international owner was considering either closure or sale.
“(We) recognized that it would be a long-term investment and indeed have invested millions into the NewSchool since that time. The pandemic and the unexpected departure of a college President have led to some delays, but the turn-around is underway.
“We expected it to be a 4-5 year process and believe that will still be the case.”
The company added that it hopes to name a new permanent president in the spring.
The situation is a source of concern for students; NewSchool is the only well-established institution south of Cal Poly Pomona that offers a full professional degree program in architecture. Its graduates are snapped up by local companies, who are collectively engaged in a major period of expansion and redevelopment downtown and beyond.
NewSchool was founded in Chula Vista in 1980 by Richard Welsh, a local community college instructor who was frustrated that many students found it difficult to gain entrance to architecture programs around the state.
The program grew and was moved to San Diego’s East Village in 1988. At the time, the village was a drab industrial zone composed of warehouses, factories, storage buildings and little else.
NewSchool’s move proved to be a smart one. It came as artists, architects, designers and other creative people were beginning to move into East Village, changing the look and vibe of the area. Eateries also popped up along with single-occupancy residential hotels. Voters supercharged the boom in 1998, approving construction of a new home for the Padres in the village. Petco Park opened in 2004.
“NewSchool’s location gave its student a ready-made opportunity to do all kinds of analysis and planning on what should be done with land in the area,” said Roger Showley of Scripps Ranch, a former Union-Tribune reporter who also is a historian and growth and development expert.
“They were right in the middle of a new frontier in downtown San Diego,” he added.
The school’s focus wasn’t limited to East Village. Over the years, its students have become involved in dozens of development projects in places such as Balboa Park and Mission Valley. It also attracted visits and lectures from some of the region‘s top minds, including Rob Quigley, who conceived the design of San Diego’s new Central Library, and Don Norman, the former Apple executive who founded UC San Diego’s Design Lab.
“This is the kind of community we want to keep at NewSchool,” said Mike Stepner, who has taught there on and off for about 35 years, and previously served as San Diego’s city architect.
That opinion is shared by Steve Altman, who was president of NewSchool from 2006 to 2013.
“If the school wasn’t here students would have to go elsewhere, which would be inconvenient for most of them and bad for many,” he said. “And it would be bad for San Diego. We’d lose their talent and skills, which we rely on to refresh ourselves on a regular basis.