New leaders up for the challenge

By Katy Nielsen

Columbia appointed new chairs this summer for the departments of Arts, Entertainment and Media Management and Fashion Studies.  Philippe Ravanas was named chair of AEMM, and Michael Olszewski was chosen to head the new department of Fashion Studies.

Ravanas is the former vice president of communications for Euro Disney and worked for Christie’s Auction House in both New York and London.

He has taught all over the world and lectures on subjects ranging from marketing to pricing and sponsorship.

Ravanas started teaching at Columbia in 2000 as an adjunct faculty member.

He became tenured two years ago and was named associate chair last September.

“I’ve had time to build a thorough judgment of what works and what doesn’t in this department,” Ravanas said.

As a chairperson, Ravanas said, one gets to shape the culture of the department.

“It requires a mix of listening skills and decisiveness,” Ravanas said, “Ultimately, the chair makes the decision.”

Olszewski was appointed chair of Fashion Studies after an international search, which concluded this summer. He was chair of the Textile Department at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia for 12 years.

“The challenge for any new chair is learning a new program,” Olszewski said. “It’s learning a new way the institution functions.”

Olszewski is an artist and teacher who brings extensive experience in textile, design, fashion and painting to Columbia.  He has exhibited his own work for 25 years and he began teaching at a young age.

“My philosophy is to integrate my personal experience and my personal interest into what I’m teaching,” Olszewski said.

According to Olszewski, improving education at Columbia means “helping the students bring to fruition their imagination, their ability to speak through their work.”

He would like to see Fashion Studies become extremely current by looking at fashion design as a fine art; not simply as a business or commercial venture, but to ask the students “what they are trying to convey when they’re creating their work.”

One way the department has become more current is by combining fashion retail management, a concentration in the AEMM major, with fashion design, a major in the Art and Design Department, to create one Fashion Studies Department.  The merger allows students who are more design-oriented to get a business education.

“Students who are interested in business [will] understand the conceptual aspects of creating clothing,” Olszewski said.

Olszewski and Ravanas said they would like to see more interaction between departments, allowing students from different programs to network.

For AEMM, Ravanas has set clear goals and some changes have been made this summer.

“We’ve already reviewed and completely disassembled our graduate program,” Ravanas said. “It’s the type of review we do only every 20 years.”

Now the department has started to review its undergraduate curriculum.  Another improvement Ravanas is pushing for is adding more experiential courses to the curriculum.

This means more field-based curriculum in the city and more classes where students learn by doing.

“We should allow students to experiment before drawing them to conceptual classes,” Ravanas said.

This fall, students will manage and run the Quincy Wong Center for Artistic Expression in the Wabash Campus Building, 623 S. Wabash Ave. and Manifest, the annual year-end culminating festival celebrating student work, will also be managed by AEMM students.

One challenge Ravanas faces as chair of AEMM is the department’s size.  The department has nearly 1,500 students and more than 150 faculty members.

As an educator, Ravanas wants to encourage and inspire his students.  “I was drawn to academia because of its clear sense of purpose,” Ravanas said. “It’s more than a job to me.  It is what I was meant to do.”

Dr. Dennis J. Rich, former department chair of AEMM for 18 years, said he thinks Ravanas will do a terrific job.

“Philippe is a man of intelligence, of great experience, of enthusiasm and energy,” Rich said.

The transition into Columbia has been smooth for Olszewski because he said everyone has been extremely warm and helpful here.

“That’s really rare to experience in higher education,” Olszewski said.

As the fall semester starts, Olszewski and Ravanas say they are working to improve their departments, re-evaluate their curriculum and build partnerships with other Columbia programs.

“There is a sense of community at Columbia, there’s a spirit,” Olszewski said.  “I sense that in the students, as well as the faculty and the staff.  That’s a wonderful surprise that’s continuing to reinforce how much I’m excited to be here.”