Chatham Shuts the Door

After barely a decade, Chatham University’s landscape architecture program gets the ax.

By Katarina Katsma, ASLA

The decision, announced in a posting on the web page for Chatham University’s Master of Landscape Architecture (MLA) program, was rather sudden: “As of June 2014, Landscape Architecture degree programs at Chatham have been closed.” David Wilson, Associate ASLA, a 2014 graduate of the MLA program and a past ASLA student president, says there had been rumors the closure would happen, so it wasn’t a total surprise, though the speed with which a decision was made “did come as a bit of a shock.”

The MLA program at Chatham, located in the heart of Pittsburgh, is relatively new, having first been accredited by the Landscape Architectural Accreditation Board (LAAB) in 2007. Many people considered it fitting, even inevitable, to have a landscape architecture program at a school that headlines its environmental ethos and that, when it was the Pennsylvania College for Women, had counted Rachel Carson, the environmentalist and author of Silent Spring, among its graduates.

Chatham had long offered a master’s degree in landscape studies, and in 2000, members of ASLA’s Pennsylvania–Delaware Chapter began talking to administrators of Chatham College (the school achieved university status in 2007) to see whether they would be interested in hosting a landscape architecture program, recalls Lisa Kunst Vavro, ASLA, the current trustee for the chapter. The program won approval in 2003; Michael Leigh, who was faculty at the landscape studies program at the time, worked with the college to develop the program. Shortly afterward, in January 2004, Kunst Vavro became the acting director and won accreditation in 2007 after three years of what she describes as “blood, sweat, and tears.”

Richard Hawks, FASLA, a former ASLA national vice president of education, who is a professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, says he was rather surprised by the program’s opening, especially because the state was already home to reputable programs at Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Penn State. “[Pennsylvania] is the only state in the country that has seven, and that’s double-counting some institutions because they have both undergraduate and graduate. They were bigger than California or New York,” Hawks says. Yet Chatham’s MLA program aimed to fill a niche by gearing toward older, second-career professionals, with classes offered in the evenings. Kunst Vavro recalls that Gary B. Kesler, FASLA, the associate dean at Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture, once said such students represented the future for graduate programs, because people often discover landscape architecture after working in other fields. “He always felt we were going to be the prototype,” she says.

Because Kunst Vavro had worked in the public and private sectors for roughly 20 years, she had an idea about what firm principals wanted out of new graduates, which gave the program a strong practical orientation. “A great thing that happened early under Lisa was she had adjuncts teaching real-world experience,” says Richard Rauso, ASLA, a current Chatham MLA adjunct faculty member and a past president of the Pennsylvania–Delaware ASLA chapter. It was an aspect that many alumni admired as well. Kary Arimoto-Mercer, ASLA, and her husband, Rick Mercer, ASLA, had started in the landscape studies program but quickly switched to the MLA curriculum once it was established. “I thought I was getting very specialized training from people who had more than a book-learning background,” Arimoto-Mercer says. Others, however, thought the program’s emphasis on practice put Chatham graduates at a disadvantage against those who came from backgrounds that had a balance of practice and research. In 2007, the LAAB gave 12 recommendations for reaccreditation; one was to “increase student exposure and awareness of academic research methods and contact with faculty who have experience in academic research.”

Within two years, Kunst Vavro was replaced by Safei-Eldin Hamed, who was then an associate professor at Texas Tech, though she stayed on an additional year as an assistant professor to help transition Hamed into the program. The change in directors reflected the extreme of LAAB’s recommendation, as the job would be Hamed’s seventh academic appointment in his career, a departure from Kunst Vavro’s practice-based background.

“The culture [of the MLA program] was relaxed and more preparing the students primarily to work as junior landscape architects in offices,” says Hamed, who is now president and CEO at International Environmental Consultants. “There was no real focus on the diversity of the program.”

Chatham increased students’ exposure to the academic side of landscape architecture, but it may have done so at the expense of practice studies. To some, what had seemed unique and valuable about the program was completely lost. A few classes shifted to daytime slots, which made them inaccessible to the type of second-career student Chatham had initially sought, and many of the adjunct faculty who worked under Kunst Vavro were replaced, Hamed says.

The global recession in 2008 certainly didn’t help, as it created new problems for landscape architecture programs across the board. As at other universities, Chatham’s MLA program saw a decrease in student numbers. But as the economy began to improve and graduate enrollment picked up, according to a 2014–2015 ASLA Committee on Education student enrollment survey, Chatham’s did not.

“I had around 15 students each year coming in for five years,” says Kunst Vavro, a number she says slowly began to decline starting around the time of her departure. In the spring of 2014, just before the closure of the program was announced, three students were accepted as MLA candidates; only one of them decided to attend starting in the fall of 2014. Bringing in new students, Hamed says, was a huge concern for the program. “That was a challenge I was not informed of when coming from Texas Tech,” he says. “There was a great competition from surrounding universities like Penn State…. Chatham is private, so competing with public [schools] is difficult because it is expensive.”

There was also little economic incentive for students to attend, as few financial aid options existed specific to the MLA program to help offset the hefty tuition and fees, which for the 2014–2015 academic year were estimated at $24,000 per year, according to the Chatham website. “The only opportunity was to work on the grounds crew,” says Sara Madden, a 2011 graduate of the program who participated in one of the student employment opportunities offered on campus. “It didn’t necessarily help the common misconception that a landscape architect is someone with a lawn mower.”

Even with tuition as high as it was (an MLA degree at Penn State for 2014–2015 costs an estimated $20,000 in in-state tuition and fees, according to the school’s website), few amenities justified the expense. In 2009, the landscape architecture department was moved a mile north from the arboretum setting that it once called home to Chatham Eastside, a dreary LEED Silver renovated building, “surrounded by a sea of asphalt, chain-link fences, and barbed wire,” Kunst Vavro recalls ruefully. “I said, ‘Oh, this is great for LA.’” The only related department in the building was interior architecture, with which the landscape architecture students shared a plotter. The software essential to a landscape architecture curriculum was lacking as well, Wilson says. “The ArcGIS system would constantly crash. Even some of the other programs like Revit and other 3-D modeling programs—those courses weren’t even offered.”

After the MLA program’s reaccreditation in 2010, Hamed was left in relative peace as he began to refine the changes he had made to the curriculum. But that process was short-lived because in 2012, Hamed was told by the administration that the landscape architecture and interior architecture departments would be consolidated for efficiency under a single director. “There was a decision that was made without my consultation to merge the two programs because the student enrollment was not, according to them, substantial,” Hamed says. The decision led him to resign, leaving Kyle Beidler, Associate ASLA, a full-time faculty member since 2010, as the acting director until Chatham found a replacement.

After Hamed’s departure, word spread of Chatham’s plans to look for a director who would head both departments. In response, 19 alumni, led by Trisha Crowe, who received her MLA from Chatham in 2010, wrote a letter to President Esther Barazzone in February 2013 to express their apprehension about the administration’s plan and to list the diverse careers of the landscape alumni with hopes of showing that the program still had merit. “When I heard the director was going to be an interior person, at that point I knew that we were in danger of [not] keeping the accreditation,” Crowe says. “The fact that they got put under the same umbrella wasn’t a good sign.”

In March 2013, just a little over a month after the initial alumni protest, the president responded with a letter stating that the school was fully committed to landscape architecture as “the needs of the region, the strengths of the program, and the related Chatham programmatic initiatives make it worthwhile to offer this program.” By the fall of 2013, Thelma Lazo-Flores, a design educator who previously taught at Ball State University, had become director of both programs. “It’s very rare for landscape and interiors to be in the same department, so there’s a lot of good opportunities, a chance for cross-pollination of the two disciplines,” Lazo-Flores said. Initially there were concerns that the program would lose its accreditation since the director of the department was no longer a landscape architect. However, LAAB found that the program was not in violation of accreditation as Beidler was named the “Landscape Architecture Program Coordinator” in charge of overseeing and managing the program, says Bill Campbell, the vice president of marketing and communications at Chatham. It turns out non-landscape architect program directors are not all that unusual, either, according to Ron Leighton, Honorary ASLA, a retired LAAB administrator. The current chair of the Department of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, Charles Waldheim, Affiliate ASLA, is an architect by training.

Despite the apparent hardships ahead, Lazo-Flores says she was ready for the low enrollment challenge and worked with the university to come up with possible recruitment strategies, including attending career and graduate fairs, placing newspaper ads, and even opening student critiques to public view. One incentive to attract more students was a graduate research assistantship that would grant around $9,000 per academic year starting in the fall 2014 semester, Lazo-Flores says. But the one student who had chosen to attend Chatham that year did not qualify.

After allowing only a short amout of time to see the fruits of their recruitment labor, and with student numbers dwindling stubbornly, the university announced in June 2014 that the program would no longer continue in its current form. It established a teach-out program for the remaining students to finish their degrees, despite the program’s success in beginning to establish itself in the landscape architecture community. James Pashek, ASLA, a practitioner with a firm in Pittsburgh, has worked closely with the MLA program since its beginnings. “I was really impressed with how the work was progressing,” he says. “As you would expect, they got better and better students the longer they were in business, and the better students were putting out better work.”

Yet the program’s rising status wasn’t enough to offset the numbers problem. In just one year, the university had fully withdrawn the support it had promised in its 2013 letter to alumni. “The institution, like any business, is constantly looking at what the different programs are doing, how they’re performing in the marketplace, and making decisions based at the end of the day on what’s feasible,” Campbell says. “Institutions have to make very hard and very tough decisions throughout the year, and they can change as enrollment shifts.”

In 2011, just before Chatham’s own problems began, the fairly young landscape architecture programs at both the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) and Florida A&M faced closure as well, though with two different outcomes. Florida A&M decided to pull the plug on its MLA program as the university was looking to close low-enrollment programs, says Rodner Wright, the dean of the School of Architecture at Florida A&M. And since two of the program’s three full-time faculty were leaving, it didn’t make sense to advertise the positions in case the MLA program was announced to close a year later, Wright says.

At almost the same time, UNLV notified its landscape architecture faculty that their program, along with others at the university, were under consideration for closing. However, unlike the case at either Chatham or Florida A&M, the department was given the opportunity to make an argument for why it should stay open, allowing it to survive the cuts. “It was very stressful,” Daniel Ortega, the program coordinator of the landscape architecture department at UNLV, says, “but a good refresher course on how important [landscape architecture] is.” And although the numbers of alumni were few, as the program had only been established in 1998, they rallied in support of the program through letter-writing campaigns, says Ortega.

Slaving over a desk in a studio for three to five years is enough to make anyone bleed the colors of the alma mater, and it creates a strong base that many universities are eager to call upon after graduation. Yet it was a tool that Chatham seems to have completely overlooked. “I never felt like they reached out to me…. It made me feel like they were never interested in us,” says Jennifer Cristobal, a 2009 graduate of the program. In fact, she says, Crowe, who led the alumni protest against the department’s consolidation with interior architecture, was the only one ever to contact her in an MLA alumna capacity.

For all the many difficulties faced by the MLA program, the biggest blow came when the landscape architecture department wasn’t linked with Chatham’s new Falk School of Sustainability. Just as the MLA program was transitioning from Kunst Vavro to Hamed, Chatham announced plans for a new sustainability school that would be located in the Richland Township on the Eden Hall campus, a 388-acre farm given to the university by the Eden Hall Foundation in 2008.

With continual tributes to the memory of Rachel Carson, Chatham has built a reputation for undertaking numerous sustainability initiatives, including pledging to work toward carbon neutrality on campus. This legacy, coupled with that of Eden Hall, which is touted as the “first campus in the world built for sustainability from the ground up,” should create an environment where any landscape architecture program would feel right at home. “I cannot for the life of me understand how you can have that conversation [about Eden Hall] without including landscape architecture,” Crowe says.

In December 2014, Peter Walker, who has spent the past 25 years working on crisis response and disaster relief around the world and is a past director of the Feinstein International Center at Tufts University, was named the new dean of the Falk School of Sustainability. His experience has shown him how easy it is to get sustainable development wrong, he says, so he is eager to help guide the school’s direction. “The heart of the Falk School of Sustainability is understanding systems—natural, economic, social—and understanding how to apply that systems knowledge to specific places and times,” says Walker, a vision some might see as rather similar to the landscape architecture planning and design process.

But maybe the core of all the issues the MLA program has faced is that no one outside the program really understands landscape architecture to begin with. “I can see landscape architecture as being one feature as part of [the Falk School of Sustainability], out of 10, 15 different areas of study,” says Walker, when speaking on a possible landscape future for the sustainability school. “We’ve got 250 acres of woodland here…. We have vague ideas of putting in trails and the like, but it would be great to get a landscape architect to work with us on just how can we…make an area of land that works for us, for the students and for the population around here so they can use it for recreation.”

2 thoughts on “Chatham Shuts the Door”

  1. Wow I think I might have been one of those 3 accepted for fall 2014, so glad I chose to go elsewhere.

  2. I was accepted for 2010; went elsewhere to an MSLA program…actually wish I’d gone to chatham for the MLA, but let’s be frank, poor decisions were made. Kunst Vavro seemed very capable and talented, and a strong director; I’m sure she’s not thrilled about the poor decisions that were made (moving from a really unique old renovated building in a beautiful green campus to a much less pleasant location; not associating the program with Eden Hall Campus, etc. It would be neat of there were at least one school in Pittsburgh with great landscape / architecture/ planning master’s programs in the near future. Oh, and one more thing. I didn’t apply to transfer to chatham (2013) after receiving a really rude response from Kyle Beidler! (funny how revealing that might be…that somebody that shouldn’t have been in power was sending rude e-mails to potentially very strong students that already had academic credentials and simply needed an MLA for professional accreditation …lol… that so much comes down to human relationships and putting well-rounded and strong-thinking people in positions of power).

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