Celebrating 25 Years of Creative Leadership

Guest Correspondence

Photo: Dr. Thompson poses with a student team of President's Award winners at the 2024 Best of Ringling awards ceremony.

Twenty-five years. I can hardly believe it. To say that I feel honored and proud to have served as President of Ringling College of Art and Design for a quarter-century is indeed an understatement. 

In 1999, when I first arrived at Ringling College—or the “Ringling School of Art and Design,” as it was called until we changed the name in 2007—it was a small but vibrant campus of about 800 students. The majority of buildings you see on campus today were not yet built. But what was true then and has remained the same since, is the quality of student instruction by the faculty and the nurturing environment created by the staff.  

Fast-forward to 2023 and this past fall, the College achieved its highest enrollment of all time totaling 1,722 students. In addition to steady enrollment growth, the institution has been able to grow its physical footprint to 60-plus acres, including opening Sarasota Art Museum and the Ringling College Museum Campus in 2019. And that domain continues to expand, outward and upward. In the last 25 years, we have erected 14 new buildings across our campus and renovated several others. 

Ringling College has also experienced a terrific surge in diversity and inclusion, with increased Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programming and a robust international student population: 22 percent of our students come from 60 countries outside of the U.S. Our faculty numbers are at their highest of all time, too. Our 129 full-time and 64 part-time faculty members have allowed us to uphold the College’s intimate 11-to-1 student-to-faculty ratio, in line with our growing student population. Ringling faculty have been industry professionals and leaders in their fields prior to their teaching roles and still maintain their professional standing.

One of my favorite things about Ringling College is that we always look forward. So the question I often ask myself is, how can we continue to succeed AND progress even further? 

For many years, I have discussed the onset of the Creative Age and what it will mean for the future of art and design in a world of automation. 

When I think about the power of (and great need for) creative leadership, I often think back to an article I came across in 2017, 7 Ways Academic Leaders Can Cultivate CreativityMany of the concepts have remained with me. Among them are that creativity and curiosity go hand-in-hand as habits to be nurtured, rather than innate qualities awarded at birth. And that one of the ways to nurture these habits is by normalizing failure, a practice I explored in a column earlier this year. Another way to cultivate creativity is by having many varied firsthand experiences by exploring outside our homes and classrooms, and by traveling outside of our own cultures.

But perhaps most profound to me was the author’s revelation that creativity often manifests not as a brand-new concept, but as a previously overlooked connection between existing ideas. And that we, as institutions of higher learning and creative leaders, must translate this inherently elusive skill into a structured discipline. Our responsibility is to build lessons that exercise and strengthen our students’ curious, connection-finding “muscles.”

Drawing a line between our successful past and a prosperous future is one such connection we, as an institution, can pursue. I believe we can find it in the many facets of creative leadership built into Ringling College’s past, which will continue to be our way forward in our rapidly automating, forever-changing society.

As I reflect on my tenure—the achievements, the setbacks, the silver linings—I remember that it’s all of YOU—alumni, students, faculty and staff, extended family and friends, donors and community members—who have made Ringling College into what it is today. Your success is our shared success, and I am grateful to be part of it. Here’s to another 25 years of continued creativity!

Dr. Larry Thompson is president of Ringling College of Art & Design.

Photo: Dr. Thompson poses with a student team of President's Award winners at the 2024 Best of Ringling awards ceremony.

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