As the 2010–2011 academic year begins at SVA, there is a significant new appointment in place at the College. Jeff Nesin joined SVA this summer as Provost, but he is far from a newcomer to the College: Nesin was a member of the faculty and administration from 1974 to 1991, when he left to become president of the Memphis College of Art (MCA) in Tennessee. Following a successful tenure there, he has returned to the city where he grew up and the institution where he began his career in higher education.
Nesin sat down for an interview with Briefs this summer, just as he was getting ready for the new semester.
How did you first come to work at SVA?
I started teaching some English classes, but then quickly moved to a field of personal expertise: a course called The History of American Popular Music. That class, I’m happy to say, is still in the Humanities and Sciences Department curriculum, taught by Billy Altman, a close friend and former student of mine. Teaching each week was an important time for me; I got to really enjoy my students and understand more about why they were here, their goals and dreams. It was crucial to my work as an administrator.
How does your past experience at the College inform your new role as Provost?
What I was doing for the last two decades was being a college president, which helped me build a broad skill set with both interior focus and exterior focus. Over that time, I remained in constant touch with President David Rhodes—he remains one of my closest friends, and my connection to SVA remained quite palpable. So when it was time for me to return home to New York City, SVA was a natural place for me to land. I’m enormously proud and grateful to be back, and I’m really excited coming in to work.
How does your time as president of MCA help you in your role at SVA?
I’d like to think I’ve developed a lot of relationships nationally. I’ve spent many years now helping to build different national associations, particularly AICAD [the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design] and NASAD [the National Association of Schools of Art and Design]; I’ve been on the executive committees for both. I think the most important things that I learned as a college president are to take a long view, to develop and cultivate a really serious vision of the future of a college, and then work over a significant body of time to bring that to fruition. I’m thrilled that what David has done here mirrors that exact pattern, and I look forward to bringing my skills to bear at SVA.
What are the first items on your to-do list?
The most important thing is to get to meet all of the department chairs, the people who are helping the College to grow and bringing their extraordinary expertise. This is one of the most vibrant art and design laboratories on the planet, and I’m going to work really hard to build up relationships across the entirety of the institution; it’s not possible to formulate meaningful goals or preach a kind of institutional unity if I’m not practicing it myself. I’m also going to be dealing with strategic planning and accreditation matters daily, I’m dealing with program development matters through the Office of the President, and we’re dealing with national education policy matters.
A lot of students might ask, “What’s a Provost?”
It’s typically and traditionally the chief academic officer, but SVA has never been bound by tradition. As I did when I was here before and as when I was president at MCA, I’d like to be a hard-working servant—I work every day to make what happens in the classrooms and studios possible. I will be working behind the scenes when possible, and out front whenever that’s necessary, to make the SVA experience of students and faculty as excellent as I believe this College is…which is what they deserve.
What is the most interesting part of your new job?
The first thing is that I really love this place. I’ve spent a lot of my professional life at SVA. I care about the people, and I care about the idea of the institution and the reality of the institution. So I’m excited and engaged by getting to work here again. The other part is being home: I was born on the island of Manhattan, and I love walking to work. I’m so energized and thrilled to be back on the streets of New York, being in my home.