How this 'preacher of the arts' plans to save Cornish College

The Seattle art school's first Black president is on a mission to revamp the century-old institution.  

Raymond Tymas-Jones with students at Cornish in Seattle

Raymond Tymas-Jones, president of Cornish College of the Arts, talks with students at the school. Tymas-Jones has been on the job since the summer of 2018 and plans to make bold changes. (Winifred Westergard)

The expectation had always gone largely unspoken: Raymond Tymas-Jones would follow in his father’s footsteps as the pastor of their Baptist church in Washington, D.C. Instead, Tymas-Jones became, as he likes to say, a “preacher of the arts” — as president of Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle.

“I have a different pulpit, in a different congregation,” Tymas-Jones says on a recent wintry afternoon. His boisterous, slightly raspy voice serves him well as a sometime opera singer and vocalist, and gives him an air of cheerful directness. Behind him, a peekaboo view of the Space Needle is visible through the window of his top-floor office at the school’s Denny Triangle headquarters. “I really believe in the power of the arts and education to change and transform one’s life for the good.”

Case in point, he says: himself. Tymas-Jones grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood as the son of a Pentecostal pastor and the congregation’s pianist/choir director. Church seeped into every part of daily life, and music took up any space that was left. His parents encouraged him to take up piano, singing, trombone and, eventually, conducting (Tymas-Jones started leading choirs at age 14), but school was barely a priority.

At 29, Tymas-Jones became the first person in his family to finish college, when he graduated magna cum laude from Howard University with degrees in music and piano (after dropping out for a few years to raise kids and briefly return to ministry). He later added a master’s and a Ph.D. in music and conducting to his resume, and would go on to lead arts departments at universities across the country, including Ohio University and the University of Utah. His many leadership positions, he says, are thanks to his music education: “I attribute my interpersonal skills from the time I started conducting choirs when I was 14, 'cause you have to learn how to deal with people,” he says.

Cornish president Raymond Tomas-Jones
Cornish College of the Arts design student Jessica Red (left) with Raymond Tymas-Jones, the school's president (known for his attention to sartorial detail) at the Cornish BFA exhibition in 2019. (Winifred Westergard)

In 2018, Cornish tapped Tymas-Jones to be the school’s 10th president and first African American to hold the position. Early in his tenure, it became clear Tymas-Jones was expected to bring big changes. He inherited a 104-year-old school with declining enrollment and retention rates.

A year ago, to much fanfare, he unveiled a plan to “lower” the school’s tuition to attract more students, a move hailed as “bold.” That, he says, is just the beginning: “Cornish is in a position where it needs to make change for its own survival.”

A year after the tuition reset and at the start of what will likely be another pivotal year for the now 106-year-old school, Crosscut caught up with Tymas-Jones to see what other changes are in store for Cornish.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

What kind of change does Cornish need to make to survive?

[Cornish] has a huge deficit budget and has been, for a while, spending more money than it takes in. It’s a tuition-driven institution: If enrollment goes up, we have money. If enrollment goes down, we don't. And it has been going down. So the idea … is to stop the bleeding, stop the decline of students and grow the enrollment.

And adjusting tuition was part of that strategy?

We hired a national firm to do a survey, and their data showed that if we adjusted our tuition we would be more attractive. And there are indicators that that has proven to be true. We had more students return than we had anticipated from last year. I had statements from parents saying that the difference made it possible for them to send their children back.

But 2019 enrollment is still lower than last year.

That's correct. But resetting tuition is only part of the solution. It's not the solution. The other part of the solution is curricular change and expansion. Offering programs that are trending across the country. We will be offering animation, illustration, object design this coming fall, and we're right now working on a major in gaming.

Given the deficit, where are you getting the funds to create new programs?

We have a cash reserve ... that will not [only] go towards fixing that deficit but towards expansion. We would be in a better position if some of the things we are trying to do had been done five years ago, but it wasn't done five years ago. So we've come in at a very critical time to try to do things as expeditiously [as possible]. We have to make decisions that may be perceived to be drastic, but perhaps necessary.

Does that mean cutting programs?

That's a tactic that's been used in higher education before. I can tell you there is no discussion about cutting a program, but there are discussions about moving monies around and reassigning monies and positions and looking for other avenues of revenue.

Does moving positions around mean that some people will lose their jobs while you hire new people who can teach animation and other new specializations?

There may be people retiring. Those lines may not go back to the same department. It may go to a department that has a greater potential for enrollment growth.

Will there be job losses?

I don't know. There is no plan [that] says, ‘We're going to cut this,’ and ‘This position is going to go,’ no.

You mentioned other streams of revenue. What would those be?

We're talking to businesses, corporations around [here], in terms of continuing education programs. We're looking at and talking about increasing online instructions.

Youre talking about adding a major in gaming, working with local corporations. How does this play in to Cornish's presence in a city profoundly changed by its tech companies?

Within the last 10 years, Cornish has had relationships with Amazon, Microsoft and we are in the process of trying to rekindle those relationships. Not from the point of view of asking them what they can do for us, but more from the point of view as to what can we do to support their workforce.

What else will change?

Historically, we've only been offering a professional degree. We're looking at [whether] it’s possible for Cornish to offer a bachelor of arts degree. We are also looking at, would it be easier for transfer students to come to Cornish…. Is there an offering that we can provide a certificate program or bachelor of arts program that would make us attractive without compromising our quality or our standards as an institution?

How do you see the challenges given that other private art schools face similar troubles?

Our challenge is the fact that we are so tuition-driven, and that will be a challenge until we are able to develop a significant level of endowment funding that can relax some of the tension of the operating budget. That takes time. If we had an endowment, if we had property where we were getting rent or any other source of income ...  but it takes time to establish those relationships that lead to transformative gifts that would allow us to create an endowment. If we lose five students [now], that's equivalent to someone's salary.

The year 2019 was the year of a bold” tuition change. What kind of year will 2020 be?

Sustainability is my issue. I think we have a lot to build on. The name of Cornish is a good brand, has a good reputation. People feel good about knowing that Cornish is here.  [But] the students that I taught back in 1983, when I started my career, are not the students of today, not even the students of 2000. So if we're not evolving and really being attentive to the demands and needs of our current student population, then, yes, we will be irrelevant and we'll go out of business. I'm very interested in making the adjustments that keep us relevant and provide pathways for the artists of today to be able to find a meaningful living and contribute to their community.

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