VCUarts dean retires after more than 40 years in higher education

Photo courtesy of VCUarts
Photo courtesy of VCUarts
Photo courtesy of VCUarts
Photo courtesy of VCUarts

After five years of holding his post as dean of VCUarts, Joe Seipel is retiring at the end of the semester.

Seipel has worked with VCU starting in 1974 when he was chair of the VCU Sculpture Department, and 17 years later became the dean of all graduate arts programs at VCU.

After 25 years in the School of Arts, Seipel moved to Georgia to accept the position of vice president at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Two years later he returned to VCU to take on the position of dean at VCUarts.

“I love VCU, we never even sold our house when we went to Savannah because we always knew we would come back to Richmond,” Seipel said.

Seipel was also drawn back to VCU is because of its value as a multidisciplinary campus.

“I looked back at VCU and realized we are an art school in the middle of a comprehensive research university,” Seipel said. “We can intermingle not just within the school of arts but across the campus.”

Earlier this month, VCU’s School of the Arts tied with the University of California at Los Angeles for the No. 2 spot in the Best Fine Arts Graduate Program in the nation, right behind Yale University’s number one position, according to the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings.

The new rankings for specialty areas include six VCUarts specialty areas within the top 10 spots among private and public universities.

“Our accomplishments are amazing,” Seipel said. “If you look at all our Guggenheim recipients we have — we have three MacArthur genius award winners amongst our alumni.”

Seipel said many alumni are also showing in galleries in New York City and Los Angeles, in addition to theatre graduates starring in major plays around New York.

More than a decade ago, the Sculpture Department first gained its top ranking under Seipel’s leadership as department chair. Last week, the School of the Arts announced Seipel would be retiring June 30, 2016 after five years as Dean of VCUarts and 42 years in higher education.

“He creates an atmosphere where all ideas are entertained and open debate is encouraged,” said Department Chair of the Sculpture Department Matt King. “This gives the faculty and administration license to ‘think big’ and work together toward making our school a vital, exciting place to work.”

Seipel’s time as dean is highlighted by his emphasis on collaboration between art students and other disciplines. From TEDxVCU to the Institute for Contemporary Art, Seipel said he sought to invest in student collaboration and success.

“(He) was able to guide us and mentor us and help us create successful events,” said Brandon Shields, a junior graphic design major. “Really giving us that guidance and making our TEDx events superb and spectacular and enjoyable for the VCU community.”

The Depot, a historic train station recently renovated into a student art exhibition center is one example of many programs initiated during Seipel’s tenure. The center is open for any student to use, regardless of major.

“The Depot building which has just opened up is physically and metaphorically kind of a symbol of the new focus on the interdisciplinary curriculum,” Seipel said, “(it’s) a really important part of what I hope my legacy will be.”

To open dialogue between himself and the students, Seipel started a program he calls “Coffee with the Dean.” Students are invited to come, have coffee and donuts and say whatever they want.

“Coffee with the dean is a way to get direct information from the students,” Seipel said. “Sometimes it’s really specific, sometimes its more general; they can ask me whatever they want and they almost darn-near always tell the truth.”

Seipel has not always been well received by students, however. Earlier this school year fliers plastered several VCUarts building addressing the dean and telling him to take initiative addressing racist faculty.

Seipel said throughout the years he has maintained a vision of student development and transformation and welcomes freedom of thought and expression throughout the School of the Arts.

“I don’t think there’s anything more important for somebody who works in higher education than to watch a freshman student come in, nervous and figuring out what to do, then watch this 21, 22 year old leave this school, transformed into this professional ready to hit the world head on” Seipel said.

So where will you find Dean Seipel after retirement? In his workshop of course, pursuing his love for sculpture.

“I’m really looking forward to getting back into the studio,” Seipel said. “So you may see me more often with jeans on and many, many less ties.”

Joe Johnson, Contributing Writer

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