KCAD Names Tara McCrackin as 14th President

Posted March 22, 2021 in Public

In its search for a new president, Kendall College of Art and Design of Ferris State University (KCAD) needed someone with a proven record of leadership, a deep commitment to student success, and an ambitious vision for the future. In President Tara McCrackin, it was clear that they had all three.

Originally hired as Interim President in 2019, McCrackin quickly became the obvious choice for taking on the role on a permanent basis.

“It is impressive to see President McCrackin’s leadership at work,” said Ferris Board of Trustees chair Amna Seibold. ”She has fostered a strong sense of shared purpose at Kendall College of Art and Design and is building robust, productive relationships with the greater university community. With her background, experience and community contacts, she helps Kendall students apply their talents in impressive careers.” 

woman wearing glasses poses in front of a clear glass window with a smileKCAD President Tara McCrackin

Among the strengths McCrackin brings to the role is her time in corporate workplace design, including a decade as an interior designer at Custer, Inc. Upon joining KCAD as an Assistant Professor in the Interior Design program in 2000, she realized that experience gave her a practical understanding of both what employers expect and what students need to know—a knowledge that she says many KCAD faculty share.

 “When you bring that into class, you can talk about practice and not just theory,” she explains. “For years, I taught the materials in interiors class. I got to share my successes, and like any good designer, I could also share what didn’t work so others wouldn’t make the same mistake. As the former president of IIDA Michigan [the International Interior Design Association], I am also tied to the industry and connected in ways that provide opportunities to students. I found that narrative of experience really connected with students.”  

“Tara McCrackin is a dynamic leader for Kendall College of Art and Design,” observed Ferris president David L. Eisler. “Her experience as an alumna of Kendall, her professional work in the design field, and her understanding of the Kendall community as a long-term faculty member makes her the right person at the right time. I very much enjoy working with her.”  

McCrackin continued teaching until accepting the role of Interim President in 2019, also serving as Interior Design Program Chair from 2014-2017. During her tenure, she renovated the curriculum and managed accreditations for the program and the college, coordinating paperwork, site visits, and interviews of students and faculty involved in the assessments to earn the full accreditation. She looks back on this work as instrumental in understanding assessment and the importance of outcomes, two key areas in her current position.

The new president values each of those experiences in preparing her for her current role. She says, “Designers are problem solvers, relationship builders, connectors. All of those things I learned in my design education and career are what make me an effective leader here at Kendall.”

Already, she has helped the college move forward by addressing multiple challenges and opportunities, including:

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion 

“Since the murder of George Floyd, there’s no time to wait,” insists McCrackin. “We at Kendall have made diversity, equity, and inclusion one of our filters for decision-making and priorities. As part of that, I established the KCAD Equity Council, which is a group of Kendall, Ferris, and community influencers here in Grand Rapids. I included a number of people from Ferris so we could connect to resources there to help inform things like recruitment, our brand and message, and our connection to the community. What we’re focused on next is how to diversify staff and faculty with a goal of reflecting the community we’re in.”

As part of this initiative, McCrackin also founded the college’s Diversity and Equity Brown Bag Discussion Series, which invites three speakers per semester to share their perspective in a forum that is open to KCAD students, faculty, staff, and the general public. Past speakers have included Dr. David Pilgrim who spoke about racial imagery using resources from the Jim Crow Museum he founded at Ferris State University, Grand Rapids City Manager Mark Washington who discussed arts equity in government, and corporate strategy consultant Ana Ramirez-Saenz who explained the importance of creating inclusive virtual environments.

Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic

“I’m proud of how we’ve responded to COVID,” says McCrackin. “Being designers, innovators, and creators, we’re poised to look at things differently. We want to be here and keep the doors open, and people are complying. As president, I use videos to communicate, so the students know who I am, and some of them treat me like we’re buddies, which is great. I also try to participate in as many critiques as I can, and they’re all happening on Zoom. I’ve talked to students who said they can’t wait for this to be over, but I reminded them that when they graduate, it won’t miraculously change. We’re still preparing them for the world of work using all kinds of new evolving technologies to connect, communicate, and create.”

The First-Year Experience

New in 2020, this approach creates a shared experience across the entire student body, building a common foundation for every incoming traditional freshman or transfer student without a design background.

McCrackin explains, “We worked as a faculty in identifying the skills and expectations as a student comes into the program, designing the experience so all students are in the same series of classes. It shifts KCAD from a culture-by-program to a culture-by-college. It also exposes them to resources like our Dow Center Flex Lab that they might not have known about in the past.Creating that feeling of welcome and sense of community among students is so important to our success, especially when it comes to collaboration.”

New Product Design Program

Launching in Fall 2021, this new program merges three existing programs at KCAD: Furniture Design, Interior Design, and Metals and Jewelry Design. McCrackin explains, “Industries around the globe are looking for individuals with a broad understanding of design and how to apply it in the world. So, we took the natural step of converging three programs with a common foundation of skills and processes and evolved them into a learning environment that prepares graduates to be big picture thinkers and makers.”  

After the college made the decision to merge the programs, she says, “We’re excited because this allows students to think more broadly. It’s building on our strengths and responding to market demands. We offer a career-oriented education, and we want our students to find success.”

A New On-Campus Home for UICA  

After merging with KCAD in 2013, the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (UICA) is now moving from Fulton Street to the Woodbridge N. Ferris Building on KCAD’s campus. McCrackin says, “The UICA is the arts organization supporting contemporary artists in West Michigan. To have this contemporary arts organization juxtaposed in a historic building is going to be fun and intriguing, and to have students understand curation and installation, be able to learn from professional artists, and have the opportunity to further integrate with the curriculum at Kendall and learn from professional artists is exciting!”

Celebrating 20 Years with Ferris State University

KCAD and Ferris State University completed their merger during the 2000-2001 school year. As the relationship between the two storied institutions turns 20 years old, McCrackin feels the time is right to reexamine the potential for collaboration and resource-sharing.

“Their mission and ours are aligned. It’s career-oriented education. It’s experiential learning. These things help us identify as a part of Ferris State University,” McCrackin says. ”We’re looking for expanding ways to embrace that relationship.

The Importance of Design Thinking  

Looking at the turbulent time in which she serves as president, McCrackin reflects, “It’s never been a better time to be a designer. I’m convinced that it is the creatives who are going to see us through the challenges of the pandemic and the marathon ahead of us with social injustice and racial inequity in our culture. There are some big hurdles that are going to require new and innovative thinking.”

However, she says, “Designers are problem solvers and relationship builders. We’re connectors. Good designers are persistent, not afraid to take risks. We’re systems thinkers and can approach a problem from a variety of directions. We’re collaborators. So having a designer in the role of president at KCAD allows KCAD to do what we do best, and that’s use our creativity to help make things better.”

President McCrackin holds a B.A. in Art Education from Western Michigan University, B.F.A. in Interior Design from Kendall College of Art and Design, and a M.Ed. in Adult and Higher Education from Grand Valley State University.

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