Message from the President: Anticipating My Retirement

A portrait of President Tenny

President Elissa Tenny

President Elissa Tenny

Dear School Community,

Founded by 35 artists 157 years ago, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago has long been a home for generations of artists, designers, and scholars of critical insight and compassionate engagement. Since 2010, it has also been a home for me. Today, after a career in higher education of more than 45 years, I write to share that I will retire at the end of the 2023–24 academic year. I do so with enthusiasm for all you have done to shape the remarkable legacy that you, and I, and so many before us, share. SAIC is a remarkable ecosystem of overlapping communities and friendships, ideas and artworks, teaching, and learning. Here, we prioritize experimenting across disciplines, art making that resonates beyond the studio and classroom, and empowering students to determine their own curricular horizons. This environment has led us to do many wonderful things together.

Since beginning as provost, and since 2016 as president, I have seen so many at SAIC contribute to making our School more responsive to today’s challenges and exemplify an art and design college for tomorrow. Through two strategic plans, countless improvement initiatives, curricular innovations, and fundraising efforts, many have worked to craft a more supportive student experience and reshape how faculty and staff connect with the organization. Together we have built an academic spine; expanded health and disability services for students; brought visibility and support to growing cohorts, such as first-generation students; expanded belonging through dozens of diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives; inaugurated a center for teaching and learning; completed major fundraising initiatives for faculty support and student scholarship; taken significant action to reduce the cost of education, even freezing tuition twice; and weathered the pandemic’s many unprecedented challenges. These are just some of the projects in which I am honored to have played a role alongside you, and I am so thankful for the collaboration with students, alums, staff, faculty, board members, and supporters who have embraced my contributions to the School, sharpened our work with constructive critique, and envisioned a college awake to enough dreams for—at least—another century and a half.

But our work is not done, yet. Not nearly. I look forward to my remaining 16 months as the School’s president, continuing to work with you on projects like these, and celebrating your ongoing creation, achievement, and growth. As we do so, we are not only animating the inheritance of those SAIC artists, designers, and scholars who have preceded us, we are handing down—to all the students, faculty, staff, and alums who will continue to enrich our School for generations to come—an SAIC tradition: to take their talents and make their School, and their shared society, better. I am proud to share this legacy with you.

Gratefully yours,

Elissa Tenny

Dear SAIC Community,

Earlier today, you heard from Elissa Tenny that she will retire at the conclusion of the 2023–24 academic year. After seven years of transformative leadership as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s president—the first woman to lead the School in its 157-year history—and the prior six years as provost, Elissa will leave an enduring and far-reaching legacy. As Board chairs, we speak for many when we offer our sincere gratitude to Elissa for the tenacity with which she advanced the School’s mission of providing a world-class art and design education while making SAIC a more diverse and accessible School.

Elissa has been a lifelong champion of increasing access to an art and design education to anyone who has the desire and talent. As a first-generation student herself, she has a keen understanding of the challenges students without a family history of college face. Elissa often speaks about jumping from program to program, college to college, to find her path, and she launched the First-Generation Fellows program, the inaugural cohort of which will graduate in May, to help first-generation students find their path at SAIC. This program would not have been possible without her stewardship of the most successful stretch of fundraising in the School’s history. During her full tenure, the School raised more than $102 million, and is currently fundraising for student scholarship, wellness, and paid internships through the Make Way: A Roadmap to Student Access, Equity, and Affordability initiative.

Throughout her tenure, President Tenny has led initiatives like these to help create a place of belonging at SAIC. She helped initiate the School’s College Arts Access Program (CAAP), a three-year college preparatory bridge for Chicago Public High School students; since the program launched in 2014, it has had a 100 percent college acceptance rate with 96 percent of CAAP alums attending college within one year of graduating high school. Through increased investment and fundraising, Elissa expanded the scope and variety of health and disability services. She also stewarded incredible gains in the diversity of our student and faculty bodies over the last dozen years, including a 30 percent increase in hires of full-time faculty of color from 2016–19. In 2020, Elissa established the Anti-Racism Committee to address issues of diversity and inclusion broadly, bring changes to curriculum, equity to financial support, and inclusivity to facilities. This is a particular point of pride for us, the first women of color to chair the Art Institute of Chicago’s Board of Governors and Board of Trustees.

Meanwhile, Elissa has strengthened the School’s financial position through an increased endowment, reduction in debt, and more efficient and less environmentally impactful physical plant. Finally, we would be remiss if we acknowledged President Tenny’s achievements without mentioning her leadership throughout the pandemic, navigating significant challenges with empathy and grace.

Given all her important contributions to SAIC, finding a successor for President Elissa Tenny will be a difficult task. Anita, who will lead the search, will build a committee—including student, faculty, staff, and board representation—and employ a firm to conduct this national search. More details about the process will be shared in the coming weeks.

For now, please join us in heartfelt thanks to Elissa, who will be bestowed the honorary title of President Emerita upon her retirement.

With utmost gratitude,

Anita K. Sinha
Chair, Board of Governors

Denise B. Gardner
Chair, Board of Trustees  

Click here for the press release on President Tenny's retirement.