Lansaw got up and followed the smoke out the back door and down Whitaker Street. A black cloud billowed up from behind a wooden fence. Lansaw climbed a flight of town house stairs, stood on her tiptoes to get a view, then saw it: a crumpled body, burning atop a pile of rags. Because of the body's location, and the blackened remnants of a cardigan sweater and wire-rim glasses, she immediately recognized the man as Juan Bertotto, an affable architecture professor at her school. Later that day, the college's president, Richard Rowan, called a meeting in response to the professor's suicide. "The initial inclination was how can we keep this quiet?" recalled a faculty member who was at the meeting. "But there was simply no way to do that in a town like Savannah."
Bertotto's death, and the nervous reaction of administrators at the Savannah College of Art and Design-or SCAD, as it's known locally-prompted Lansaw and her student colleagues to question their school and the eerily paranoid atmosphere on campus. Their subsequent prying into administration dealings set in motion one of the more bizarre tales in contemporary academia, one replete with pipe bombs, surveillance campaigns, and multimillion-dollar lawsuits. When the unrest ultimately led a competing art school to open a campus in Savannah's moss-draped historic district-just blocks away from SCAD-the result was, in the words of one participant, "all-out war." SCAD administrators reacted with a ruthlessness more becoming to a corporate behemoth than to an institution of higher learning. In doing so, they set Savannah on its ear. "It's the story of a school that tore a town apart," said an attorney involved in the dispute.