Frederick “Fritz” Steiner made national headlines in late February with the announcement that he will leave the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture (UTSOA) to become the dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design, effective July 1, succeeding Marilyn Jordan Taylor. Steiner cited a state law allowing students to carry guns in classrooms as one of the factors in his decision to leave UTSOA. (A recent item in Architect’s Newspaper’s “Eavesdrop” column claimed Steiner left over a disagreement with the university president over a new architecture building; but Steiner denies that, saying the small article was “full of inaccuracies.”)
During his tenure at UTSOA, beginning in 2001, Steiner inaugurated new< degree programs in both landscape architecture and interior design, and increased the school’s endowments by over 71 percent. Among other initiatives, Steiner expanded the school’s course offerings in Latin American architecture and urbanism. RECORD spoke to Steiner about his decision to leave, the challenges facing architecture education, and the need for a more diverse profession.
Architectural Record: How did the campus carry legislation affect your decision to leave UTSOA?
Frederick Steiner: The passage of the campus carry legislation was a factor but certainly not the factor in my decision to leave UTSOA for PennDesign, my alma mater. A bigger factor for me was the state of general support of higher education in Texas. Campus carry, as it was directed to public universities, is indicative of my broader concerns. There was much discussion by the university about the law before it was enacted, but I don’t think UT could have done anything more to stop this legislation. President Gregory Fenves publicly expressed his concern, and UT System Chancellor, Admiral William McRaven, former head of the U.S. Special Forces, publicly testified in opposition to the bill during the legislative session. It is a topic that greatly concerns university faculty, students, and staff, and it is being raised in discussions involving the recruitment and retention of faculty and students. We don’t know yet how that will play out.
What is the debate surrounding lack of support for research at UTSOA?
State appropriations for UT—and all public universities in Texas—have eroded significantly over the past 40 years. Today, less than 13 percent of UT’s budget comes from the state, while in the 1970s, it was 50 percent. This unfortunate trend of declining state support for public higher education is not unique to Texas. It’s happening across the country.
Why was PennDesign the right choice for you at this moment?
Returning to Penn is like going home. The University of Pennsylvania is a great institution with a deep heritage of leadership in architecture, city and regional planning, landscape architecture, historic preservation, and fine arts. There are giant shoulders to stand on at Penn, and the PennDesign faculty have consistently been among the key voices in our field for generations. While I would be remiss not to acknowledge this legacy, it is important to maintain a forward-thinking approach . . . The moment is right for me to help launch the next generation of leaders within this already well-established framework.
Can you describe your vision for PennDesign?
We need to find ways to distinguish PennDesign from other schools of architecture and planning. The school already has areas of excellence, but I think we can make the programs at PennDesign even more distinct. The university has already made great progress on its goal of applying inclusion, innovation, and integration of knowledge to achieve social impact. The challenge will be to bring this message to a larger number of future undergraduate and graduate students across the nation and world.
What are the primary challenges facing design educators today?
There are several drivers of change that could pull design in different directions or make it more cohesive. Those overarching forces are global climate change and the urbanization of the planet. Ever-changing digital technologies, resilience, design enterprise and entrepreneurship, and public-interest design are all important as well. Perhaps the most significant challenge facing architecture in the U.S. today is the paucity of African-Americans in the profession, especially black women. The profession needs to look more like the nation as a whole.