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University of San Francisco to Acquire SFAI

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The entrance to the San Francisco Art Institute’s Chestnut Street campus. (Courtesy of SFAI)

The San Francisco Art Institute and the University of San Francisco announced today a plan to “integrate operations and academic programs.” USF, a private Jesuit university with a student body of just over 10,000, will pay an undisclosed amount for the sale of the 151-year-old art school.

The sale will include SFAI’s historical buildings, art and film collections, and assets. A program called SFAI@USF will begin in the fall semester, offering continuing SFAI students access to USF’s “academic and co-curricular services, opportunities, and support.”

Today’s announcement is the first official mention of long-rumored merger negotiations between the two schools. In 2020, SFAI explained that talks stalled with an unnamed larger institution when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The “integration” follows a similar move at Mills College, which will become “Mills College at Northeastern University.” That change will take effect around July 2022.

In a statement provided to KQED, USF says faculty and staff are a priority during this period of due diligence before the sale is finalized. “Part of the potential framework would allow current SFAI full-time faculty to join USF as members of the USF (full-time) Faculty Association,” USF says, “and to retain their rank and tenure status.” SFAI adjunct faculty would need to apply for open positions at USF, with no guarantee of employment.

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SFAI’s future has been in question since March 2020. Facing budget shortfalls and decreased enrollment, SFAI announced that it would not be enrolling new students for the fall 2020 semester. The art school began encouraging students who could not complete their degrees before May to transfer elsewhere, preparing their staff and faculty for mass layoffs.

In the nearly two years since, SFAI has remained open in a limited capacity, offering classes to a greatly reduced student body. Current enrollment is just 56 students. In a statement provided to KQED, SFAI said, “Joining with USF would provide new opportunities for SFAI students while stabilizing SFAI’s future.”

In October 2020, the University of California Regents saved SFAI from foreclosure by buying SFAI’s $19.7 million debt from a private bank. Per that agreement, the UC Regents are currently the landlords for the art school’s Chestnut Street campus. If the sale to USF proceeds as planned, USF will assume responsibility for the Chestnut Street campus and its assets, including the Diego Rivera mural, which the Board of Supervisors voted to bestow landmark designation upon in January 2021.

It is unclear if the tenant agreement with the UC Regents will continue after the sale. USF said the school “is in communication with the UC Regents regarding their ongoing organizational relationship with SFAI and the resolution of any outstanding financial obligations going forward.”

SFAI also holds a 60-year lease on a Fort Mason campus, a space that has been rented out since the pandemic to other nonprofit organizations, including the Hamlin School, and used for temporary exhibitions by the Svane Family Foundation and Gallery Wendi Norris. USF said the school will explore options for the property in consultation with SFAI and Fort Mason Center. According to SFAI, “The intention is for all students and faculty to benefit from the quality assets and facilities at SFAI, including Fort Mason in the future.”

SFAI Board Chair Lonnie Graham is quoted in the announcement saying, “This union would create an innovative confluence of the arts and academics to advance a curriculum that reinforces the value of the arts in changing the world.”

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