By Gayle Guynup / Portrait by Matthew Holler ’11
An indelible legacy at Ringling College of Art and Design
There is no denying that Jim Dean changed the face of Ringling College of Art and Design during his 35-year career, building not only its overall student body numbers, but also the College’s international student population.
In his first year in admissions, Ringling College had 189 applicants, compared to 2,844 this past fall – a more than 1,400 percent increase. In that same year, there was only one international student from Thailand, whereas today, Ringling College has more than 287 students from 55 countries.
“Jim’s accomplishments during his tenure are innumerable,” said Dr. Larry R. Thompson, president of Ringling College of Art and Design. “Quite frankly, words cannot begin to express the immensity of my gratitude to Jim for all he has done to help Ringling College reach the status it enjoys today, as one of the very top colleges of art and design in the world.”
Dean is originally from West Virginia, and attended West Virginia University, where he majored in landscape architecture before switching to fine arts (painting). After graduating, he taught for eight years at a private college in West Virginia and absolutely loved it. “After my mother passed away, my sister and her husband moved to Sarasota,” he said. “So, I was down here vacationing a lot. And you know what happened next – I fell in love with the place.” His sister, who worked for what is now Bank of America, had some people she wanted her brother to meet.
“Luckily for me, one of those people was Ringling School of Art and Design President, Dr. Arland Christ-Janer,” he said.
“We hit it off right away,” Dean said. He was hired as director of community relations and that involved a six-month stint in the development office and six months in admissions. After two years, he had to choose, and he opted for admissions. Dean said he felt having worked with young people as a teacher, and knowing the language of art and design, admissions would be a better fit.
“I liked energizing young people, and seeing their eyes open to possibilities,” he said.
The College, in those days, bore almost no resemblance to the Ringling College of Art and Design you see today. As Dean said, “There was a lot of work to be done if we wanted what was then Ringling School of Art and Design to grow into a world-class institution.”
One of the most important changes in those early days, Dean said, was accreditation. “Once we were accredited, we could play in the same league as the big boys in the world of art and design – Pratt, Parsons, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and so many more.”
“Back in those days, admissions was largely about who you were seen with. Be invisible and you got nobody. Be seen and you would get some people. Be seen with the right people and you would get more and more of the right kind of student,” Dean explained.
Offering a four-year degree that included liberal arts made a huge difference in terms of public perception, and it mattered to high school counselors, teachers, parents, and the students themselves – all of those that Dean would meet with on his many travels.
“I traveled a lot (more than 80 countries in all) during my time at Ringling College – and I would be gone for weeks and weeks at a time, some trips lasting 20 days or longer. I would come home, do a lot of laundry, and leave again on the next trip,” he said. “If Dr. Christ-Janer or Dr. Thompson would see me on campus, they would stop and ask me what I was doing there.”
In the 1980s and early ‘90s, Dean said, all that most people outside of our area knew about Sarasota was that it was the home of the circus. “An art and design school was still a hard sell at that point,” he said, adding that it took many years before Ringling College began to develop its own stellar reputation.
Ringling’s star started getting brighter and brighter as the College began adding new degree programs. “There were plenty of fine arts schools and graphic design schools from which to choose, but when computers came along, that changed everything. Initially, our first computer program was called computer design, but it was the seed of what evolved into the Computer Animation program,” Dean said. “It was a real game changer for us.”
Around this same time, Ringling was identified by the Walt Disney Company as a place where they could find talent in the illustration program. They would then train these illustrators to become Disney animators. “Once Ringling was attached to the name Disney, everything changed once again. Students wanted to come here,” he said. This also led to relationships with other major media companies, including Pixar, DreamWorks, and so many more.
Slowly, Ringling College began developing a national and an international reputation for excellence, and for being a stepping stone to a career in art and design
Ultimately, Dr. Thompson and Dean set a goal for Ringling College admissions: The school population should be 50 percent students from U.S. states and territories (excluding Florida), 25 percent students from Florida, and 25 percent students from countries from around the world.
“When I first started, our student body was 89 percent Floridian, and one student from Thailand,” Dean said. So, Dean focused on making Ringling College a national force, by building the school’s coast-to-coast enrollment. He then expanded his travel from national to international, building that part of the student body. While he would sometimes travel with other schools, he had one hard and fast rule. “I would never travel in groups with other art and design schools. I didn’t think that Ringling should ever be presented as one of the pack,” he said. “It is a totally unique institution.”
Dean said that he had the privilege of working with two remarkable leaders at Ringling College, Dr. Arland Christ-Janer and Dr. Larry Thompson. “They were very different, but I so appreciate both of them,” Dean said. “CJ laid the foundation from which the College grew, and then Larry and his team built the College into what you see today – an institution that continues to fly high.”
When asked what he is most proud of over his 35-year career, Dean said it goes beyond growing the numbers, though that is an immense source of pride. “I think the most rewarding thing is helping young people find their way to a career in which they will be happy, and seeing our campus grow from a little, tiny Florida school into an international force in art and design.”
“I have also been fortunate to work with an incredible group of dedicated team members in admissions over the years,” he said, some of whom he worked closely with for nearly 30 years like Laurie Strothman, admissions’ administrative manager. “They too, deserve so much credit for the institution’s success over the years.”
Since retiring, Dean said “I’ve been on lockdown, like everybody else,” but I knew it was time for me to retire. If Ringling College needs me, they know I will always be there for them and am only a text or an email away.” In his spare time, he has resumed his former love of landscaping, gardening, and building, and spent the summer finding creative projects to work on at his summer home in New England. “I guess you could say I got back to my artistic roots,” he said.
1985 – February 1, 1985 Dean begins his career at the College as director of community relations
1987 – he became director of admissions
2006 – in addition to serving as director of admissions, he also became interim director of marketing and communications
2009 – Dean was appointed dean of admissions and executive director of marketing and communications
2013 – he returned to his role as dean of admissions full-time
2020 – Dean announced his retirement from Ringling College