Finding out more information proved difficult, mostly offhand mentions but nothing detailed. Then I came across an article in the web archives by Warren St. John, published in a 1993 issue of Lingua Franca. It is incredibly in depth, and incredibly bizarre. It ranges from the Rowans' founding of SCAD in 1978 to the "war" with SVA and the subsequent (and numerous) lawsuits. The article is long but engrossing, and well worth the time to read for those interested in the history of SCAD. I offer quoted excerpts below to hopefully entice you into reading the whole thing.
This is posted purely for convenience and factual information sharing. The article is freely available on the internet through a quick Google search. I do not endorse its claims, I'm simply reposting that which already exists.
The full article can be found here: http://web.archive.org/web/19980128004930/linguafranca.com/9607/Savannah.html
JULIE LANSAW WAS GAZING OUT THE BACK WINDOW
of an elegant antebellum mansion in Savannah, Georgia, when she saw a plume of smoke. It was October 1991, the fall semester of her second year as a graduate student at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and Lansaw was living as a nanny-or as her employer liked to say, a "governess"-at the home of the Chatham County coroner. It was a suitably morbid place from which to view the disturbing events that would soon take place around her.
Lansaw got up and followed the smoke out the back door and down Whitaker Street. A black cloud billowed up from behind a wooden fence. Lansaw climbed a flight of town house stairs, stood on her tiptoes to get a view, then saw it: a crumpled body, burning atop a pile of rags. Because of the body's location, and the blackened remnants of a cardigan sweater and wire-rim glasses, she immediately recognized the man as Juan Bertotto, an affable architecture professor at her school. Later that day, the college's president, Richard Rowan, called a meeting in response to the professor's suicide. "The initial inclination was how can we keep this quiet?" recalled a faculty member who was at the meeting. "But there was simply no way to do that in a town like Savannah."
Bertotto's death, and the nervous reaction of administrators at the Savannah College of Art and Design-or SCAD, as it's known locally-prompted Lansaw and her student colleagues to question their school and the eerily paranoid atmosphere on campus. Their subsequent prying into administration dealings set in motion one of the more bizarre tales in contemporary academia, one replete with pipe bombs, surveillance campaigns, and multimillion-dollar lawsuits. When the unrest ultimately led a competing art school to open a campus in Savannah's moss-draped historic district-just blocks away from SCAD-the result was, in the words of one participant, "all-out war." SCAD administrators reacted with a ruthlessness more becoming to a corporate behemoth than to an institution of higher learning. In doing so, they set Savannah on its ear. "It's the story of a school that tore a town apart," said an attorney involved in the dispute.
Student prying put the administration in a panic. Paula Rowan called an emergency faculty meeting and told her staff that students were obviously "bored." She ordered professors to assign more homework.
On April 6, 1992, as Lansaw and other student leaders were at a late-night meeting, putting together a draft of a proposed student government constitution, an astonishing event occurred: A pipe bomb exploded in front of the Rowans' offices in a town house at 201 West Charlton Street.
The vote did nothing to placate the Rowans. Shaken by the bombing, they rejected the student constitution and in late April blocked the registration of three student leaders "pending completion of the investigation by the various government authorities of the vandalism that has occurred." According to the ATF, these students were no more suspects than any other students or administrators, but the Rowans, it seemed, had prejudged their guilt and refused to let them re-enroll.
When the Rowans suspended the three student leaders after the bombings, they hardly knew what they were getting into. The students-Richard Averitt, an art history student named Marissa Magaz, and Rick Fisher, the videographer-believed that by implicating them in the bombing investigation, SCAD had defamed them. Through the ACLU, they located an attorney who agreed. Two days before graduation that spring, the students filed a $12.4-million lawsuit charging SCAD with slander and defamation.
Meanwhile, SCAD professors, inspired by the students, began to press for their own representative body. Faculty had to tread lightly in their reform effort-or risk not being "renewed"-so secret meetings were held off campus, some beneath the bowers of Savannah's old squares. A faculty senate was formed in late May and almost immediately passed a resolution in support of the blocked students. The Rowans had no sympathy for the professors' act of solidarity and reacted with swift fury: A week before graduation, they sacked twelve professors active in the faculty senate movement-including David Stout, who had first proclaimed, "SCAD is a school, not a conspiracy." (The firings eventually prompted the American Association of University Professors to censure the school.)
Batman Varnedoe, together with Jim Rogers [...] figured there were enough disgruntled faculty and students at SCAD to form their own school. Rather than start from scratch, they decided to court an established college to open a branch in Savannah. They called a number of colleges to propose the scenario and drafted a letter that promised prospective schools a ready-made faculty and student body if they came to town. Under the heading CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION, the letter stressed that SCAD's "painting faculty has voted unanimously to come over to the new school. They believe they can bring all 250 of their students."
The School of Visual Arts is a New York institution with a sophisticated cosmopolitan image. [...] But then [David Rhodes, SVA president] began to look into an expansion of SVA, and for ways to provide an intimate, personalized atmosphere, which was absent from the cramped and hectic New York campus. An affiliated campus in a more quiet locale, he thought, might be the remedy. [...] On May 24, 1993, Varnedoe set up a press conference at which Rhodes announced his decision to open an SVA campus in Savannah. To Paula Rowan, the news was "a total surprise."
If the Rowans could definitively link the activities of all their critics, perhaps they could be eliminated by a single atomic bomb of a lawsuit.
In February 1993, SCAD filed a $103-million lawsuit against SVA, alleging the New York school had masterminded or at least benefited from the elaborate scheme. SCAD sued for conspiracy and "tortious interference," the same legal theory tobacco companies have used to threaten the media and whistle-blowers.
"The students had been told they were criminals," he said. "But we told them they had done what the Constitution of the United States mandates." Leonard Minsky gave them moral support, while Beth, an attorney, proposed a strategy. Rather than simply defend the "conspirators," she would charge that all of SCAD's quirks-the questionable role of the board of trustees, the absence of tenure, the offering of an allegedly specious degree in art history, the false promise of a functioning student government-amounted to a "racket" set up for the personal gain of Richard and Paula Rowan. And she would do so using a powerful legal instrument-the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Under Georgia RICO laws, damages are tripled, and the beneficiaries of a RICO enterprise can be removed from their positions.And so much more.
SCAD administration has already shown that it is receptive to changes, so add your voice to the discussion!