Paula Wallace: Meet the Woman Behind the Savannah College of Art and Design

January 31 - On The Dot
FIRST THOUGHT: Elevating Education to a Fine Art

When the film Mona Lisa Smile, about a free-thinking art professor who emboldens students at an all-girls college to open their minds, was released in 2003, I watched it as many times as I could. I was entranced by the idea of being a member of the all-female college in the 1950s. Sure, there were your classic ups and downs, but in the end, the characters were inspired by one another. They relied on one another. And they lifted each other up. Boys or no boys, a nourishing academic setting can fuel creativity like none other.


When it comes to coed colleges, it can be tough stuff for women to climb the leadership ladder. According to the American Council on Education, as of 2011, only 27 women held the position of president at institutes of higher education throughout the United States. And for those women who do hold the position of president, chances are, unlike their male counterparts, they aren’t married and don’t have kids. Oh yeah, and they’ll likely be making less money, of course. At public institutions, men out-earn women by more than $13,000, and at private institutions, men earn almost $18,000 more.

WOMAN TO WATCH: Paula Wallace, President and Founder of the Savannah College of Art and Design

One way to rule a college the way you desire is to create it yourself. Does that sound wild to you? Well, it happens today’s Woman to Watch did just that. Paula Wallace is the founder and president of the Savannah College of Art and Design, the independent, nonprofit university that offers more degree programs and specializations than any other art-and-design college and was recognized by U.S. News and World Report as One of America’s Best Colleges.

Back in 1978, Paula was teaching grade school when, at 29 years old, she quit to follow her dream of opening a college focused on the arts. At the time, art wasn’t necessarily considered a career to encourage. Paula had to find funding, a location, curriculum, teachers and, of course, students. Her family scraped together some money and Paula used her background as an educator to figure out the rest.

Dabbling in preservation helped Paula figure out the location equation, and she repurposed an array of historic buildings—from a former jail to one-time mills, a coffin factory and even a medieval village—into revitalized spaces for learning. Ultimately, the college found its home in the former Savannah Volunteer Guards Armory. Additionally, creating a board of trustees was key, so Paula called on everyone she knew, from doctors and lawyers to community leaders and fellow educators. And when it came to creating the curriculum for SCAD, Paula tackled that enormous job herself, consulting artists and checking out what other accredited arts colleges offered to define SCAD’s catalogue and coursework.

So, how do you get students to come to a brand spankin’ new college? With a whole lot of ingenuity, a characteristic Paula has in spades. She sent catalogs to high schools throughout the country and personally called schools to let them know SCAD offered a viable arts education. That first year, 71 students enrolled, despite that SCAD offered no previous student work for them to view or statistics to reference.

It’s been nearly 30 years since the Savannah College of Art and Design opened its doors. The school now offers more than 100 degree programs, has more than 45,000 alumni working in creative fields and about 2,600 students graduate every year from its four campuses in Savannah, Atlanta, Hong Kong and Lacoste, France.

Paula’s inspiring story is one of believing in yourself, of asking for help, of never giving up. And we think she’s a real work of art!


With Paula Wallace and the Savannah College of Art and Design in mind, I’ll leave you with this quote from President Barack Obama:

“The future belongs to young people with an education and the imagination to create.”

This is Melinda Garvey signing off until next time. Remember, ladies, empowered women empower other women. Share On the Dot so more women can have a voice. Thanks for getting ready with us.

To learn more about our conversation, check us out at and talk to us @OnTheDotWoman on Twitter and Instagram. We’d love to hear your voice.

Get On The Dot in your inbox each day.
Copyright 2018 © On The Dot Woman - All Rights Reserved Privacy Policy