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Raising Change


Photo: Dyan Sublett

If this weren't a college, I wouldn't be here": Dyan Sublett '78G at the Art Center College of Design

She was young, Dyan Sublett acknowledges, to be in that role – chief development officer for Hampshire College, which in 1978 was quite young itself. (The campus in rural Amherst welcomed its first class in 1970.) Her preparation was also unusual - the degree she'd just finished at UMass was an M.F.A. in poetry.

     And then there was her gender. "There were doubters," she says. "People who just thought, 'How is this girl going to be able to pull it off?'"

     Yet with a tiny staff, a still-minuscule alumni base, "and sheer tenacity and passion," pull it off she did. So credible a fund-raiser had Sublett become, after eight years at Hampshire, that she was hired away from the college by Robert Redford, who was "looking for a magician" to get his Sundance Film Festival on a firmer financial footing.

     She wasn't certain she wanted to go. Or rather, she wasn't certain she wanted to go to Sundance. Sublett, who's now senior vice president for institutional advancement at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, believes in long-range plans that involve not staying too long: "You begin to get stale; the ideas stop coming so easily," she says. She was reluctant to leave higher education, however. "I am passionate about education," she stresses. "I believe it's the most fundamental change-agent for progress of all kinds."

     Indeed, she says, "If this weren't a college, I wouldn't be here" – even though the "here" is almost paradise, at least for anyone who likes California and loves creative activity. The College of Design is a long modernist bridge across the top of a canyon in the hills above Pasadena. It has long views across the valley and near views of dry, pungent stands of eucalyptus and sycamore and other native vegetation. Its studios, workshops, labs, and classrooms fizz with the energy of aspiring young illustrators, photographers, filmmakers, graphic and automotive and furniture and packaging designers.

     Sublett came to the College of Design from UCLA, where she was recruited in 1989 after the three years Redford persuaded her to spend at Sundance in Utah. (She's the only person she knows, she says, who's gotten a company horse as part of a hiring package.) Sundance was "another little place you could believe in," she says. It also exposed her to an entirely new level of wealth, power, and celebrity, in which "You learn never to be starstruck, never to be intimidated; to make your case clearly, strong, briefly, every time."

     She'd learned similar lessons, though, in her first forays for her first institution. She credits the strong women she worked with, especially Hampshire's then-president, Adele Simmons, and professor of history Penina Glazer: "Going into offices in New York, in Boston, I always felt those women behind me," says Sublett. Similarly again, she is quick to mention to a visitor from UMass the strong women who were "outstanding, inspiring mentors" to her here: especially Lee Edwards, then-professor of English, now dean of humanities and fine arts, and professor emerita of theater Doris Abramson.

     "Without the example of Lee and Doris, I can't imagine living the life I do now," says this champion of education with characteristic intensity, of the women who were change-agents for her.

– Patricia Wright

 
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