In an interview accompanying the 2016 rankings, RECORD asked James P. Cramer, editor in chief of the publication DesignIntelligence (DI) and the chairman of the Design Futures Council, to address these and other changes he sees confronting architectural education today.

RECORD: What changes are you seeing overall in the top 30 rankings?

JAMES P. CRAMER: We live in a time of hyper-evolution. The profession is reinventing itself and expanding its definitions of responsibility in construction. It is developing new business models and technologies, and public/private partnerships that result in new forms of team leadership. For example, an architect today may team up with a contractor on a design/build project using modular systems pre-assembled off-site. The delivery time is speedier, yet fees can’t be calculated on a traditional basis. Nevertheless, the architect is still indispensable.

It seems that the same schools remain in the top rankings from year to year. What is the point in doing these annually?
This year’s rankings may seem similar to last year’s, but on closer inspection, certain shifts can be noted. At the graduate level, for instance, the University of Virginia is no longer in the top 10: it dropped from ninth place to 13th. And the University of Pennsylvania went down a few notches from seventh place to 15th. The graduate schools that moved up in the top 10 include Virginia Tech (which climbed from 14th to ninth place), and the University of California, Berkeley, which went from 10th to sixth. The movement has a lot to do with the perception of how well the schools relate to the profession. Look at Virginia Tech: the dean of the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, Jack Davis, has served as the regional AIA president and was active in the national grassroots program. That put him in communication with the profession’s leaders.

How about the changes in undergraduate rankings?
It was interesting to see Auburn move up to the eighth place from the 12th and Carnegie Mellon go up to the ninth spot from the 11th. Cornell and Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo once again are in the top two slots. The architects who recruit graduates of these schools believe that they are in tune with the changes in the profession.

SCI-Arc is out of the top 10. Why?
SCI-Arc and Pratt Institute’s School of Architecture dropped out of the top 10 but are still strong in the top 30.

How serious is the year-to-year change?
Don’t get too concerned about a one-year shift. We should study a trend over three years. If schools dip a bit, they should examine their communications, their leadership, and what they are offering, along with their agility in adapting to the profession’s needs. It is important to keep any school rankings—including our own—in the right perspective. There is no single “best” school but rather a best fit for each student. Our rankings can be helpful, but they are only one of many factors to consider.

Does the tenure system work?
I’m not a fan of tenure. But I’m not an expert either. Nevertheless, in private conversations, educators and students tell us about dead wood that they have in some positions in their schools. Laggard educators cheat students. My advice is to challenge the tenure track. It is set up to protect the faculty, not the students.

Is last year’s emphasis on a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curriculum still going strong?
Many assume that STEM prepares students best for future employment, for top pay, with a good return on the investment in education. This supposition is somewhat flawed and shallow. Architecture curriculums that combine technology and art along with design thinking are better.

Are you including the need to study design theory?
Theory and history are important, but there is so much more. In schools, students are best served when they begin to understand design theory along with business skills. Mix them together. We call this the Design Enterprise Model, which includes finance, operations, marketing, and professional services. Designers need management skills to be successful. Students have to learn about construction contracts, budgets, schedules, and delivery methods. The faculty members who teach design studios have to know how marketing, finance, and operations work with project leadership. Design studio can be the best place to learn this.

Your emphasis on business is strong. What do you see in the economic picture for architects?
Being a professional is difficult. Financial security is dependent on the ability to learn and to accept uncertainty. The economy and changing demographics are going to offer challenges over the next five years to every profession. So resilience needs to be part of every personal game plan. That said, it is ironic that we’re facing a shortage of talent with future professionals. Yet, after studying this over the years, I believe the architecture profession—including architects who choose to work in the construction industry or in development—will have a bright future.

What is the job market for the new graduates?
Today there is zero unemployment. Graduate salaries start at approximately $43,390 (B.Arch.) and $47,449 (M.Arch.) and are rising. A few firms begin salaries for graduates at $60,000. At mid-career, the compensation often includes a base salary plus a bonus. Principal owners of firms currently have a mean base salary in firms of all sizes of just over $142,289, and a growing number make over $200,000. The average salary for managing partners is now approximately $212,240, plus a bonus. Of course, these are averages. Those who desire to be part of large-firm leadership will find the annual compensation, bonus, and equity distributions to be higher. Generally speaking, you can have a respectable compensation in architecture even if you stay in traditional practice. But there are also the options to become a developer, or a construction executive or entrepreneur. DI’s January 2016 issue will report on new research that suggests the profession will be more broadly defined in the years ahead, with more meaningful career choices for architectural graduates. Bottom line: the world needs more architects, and architects will continue to be well compensated.

What is your view about the National Council of Architectural Registration Board’s (NCARB) considering proposals from over a dozen schools to speed up registration through an “integrated path” to licensure—where students fulfill internships and take registration exams by graduation?
There is a lot of talk about these changes with NCARB and the effect on NAAB rules. This dialogue (or controversy) is good for the future of the profession. And it is important for teachers to be licensed—fewer than 50 percent are now.

What about online education in architecture?
With a huge growth of information and knowledge, every school should have a strategy for adapting quickly, and online education is one important component. This is not an overall solution but a crucial part of total education. The paradox is that face-to-face relationships and human collaboration are increasingly important for architects.

How should you teach design leadership in school?
Again, mix business and design. Teach design thinking in business schools and business leadership in architecture schools. Make it a cross-campus collaboration model. There could then be a shifting to the new realities of professional practice. Call it a reinvention strategy benefiting the entire future of higher education.