GHOSTS AND GOBLINSIn the autumn of 1991, a pall fell on SCAD. From her position at the coroner's house, Julie Lansaw, the graduate student, was privy to the macabre details. In addition to finding the burning body of Juan Bertotto, Lansaw got firsthand accounts from her employer of the murder of a female SCAD student who'd been shot in the head. A student was raped in her dorm room; another killed himself by leaping from the roof of the downtown DeSoto Hilton; and Mike Walsh, a senior, went to the roof of SCAD's Habersham Hall, took off his clothes, and jumped to his death. Lansaw saw the photographs of that gory scene-the kid's nude body, sprawled next to a flower bed-mixed in with the coroner's family pictures. From her perspective, death was everywhere: "I started seeing Savannah as the typical Southern town where everyone smiles but carries a knife-you know, a city of ghosts and goblins."
Coping with the deaths was made more difficult by SCAD's uneasy responses. When the young woman was murdered, a SCAD staffer poked her head into classrooms and told students to keep quiet and not talk to the papers. When a student merely told the Savannah News-Press that Walsh "will definitely be missed," he was detained by SCAD security guards and confronted by administrators. He signed a letter of apology for commenting publicly about the incident and promised not to do it again. "He violated policy," says SCAD spokesperson Avis Coleman. "Before anyone talks to the news media on campus, the director of communications needs to know about it."
Alarmed by the school's ostentatious secrecy, Lansaw and some fellow students went straight to SCAD administrators with pointed questions. They wanted to know about the deaths-and also where their $115,000 worth of student activities fees was going. Other students complained of dubious catalog descriptions; for example, the administration misleadingly promoted a studio arts degree in art history as a first step toward a liberal arts doctorate. Then there was the perceived high turnover rate among the professors, who labored without the security of tenure. (SCAD offers only one-year contracts.) Once emboldened, the students even questioned how the Rowans could live so lavishly off a nonprofit's salary. In return for tax exemption, SCAD is supposed to be run in the public interest by a board of trustees. Although the Rowans deny the charges, some critics have called the board a "bunch of hand-picked flunkies"; according to the critics, the board turned a blind eye to the couple's extravagant salaries even while the school stood on shaky financial ground. Pat Conroy says that during his time on the board "nothing substantive was ever discussed at meetings." He resigned in protest, saying he'd rather "fight a pit bull with his genitals" than work with the Rowans.
Student prying put the administration in a panic. Paula Rowan called an emergency faculty meeting and told her staff that students were obviously "bored." She ordered professors to assign more homework. But the Rowan's condescension only energized the students, who now focused their energies on forming a student government to help them press their concerns on the administration. Soon, SCAD was transformed into a mock-up of a Vietnam-era college campus. The students held rallies in Savannah's lush Forsyth Park, and, because Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer was a sympathizer, at the Mickve Israel synagogue, a 120-year-old stucco building overlooking Monterey Square. A graduate student named Rick Fisher videotaped the fiery rallies and zealous student-planning sessions for a possible documentary on the movement, creating a record of events that would later loom large.
On April 6, 1992, as Lansaw and other student leaders were at a late-night meeting, putting together a draft of a proposed student government constitution, an astonishing event occurred: A pipe bomb exploded in front of the Rowans' offices in a town house at 201 West Charlton Street. When agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms arrived, they found scant evidence-a piece of metal lodged in a door, burn marks on the sidewalk-but SCAD administrators eagerly directed them to the student leaders. As word of the investigation spread, nervous students again mobilized. More than six hundred showed up for a constitutional rally at the Savannah Civic Center that week. Only one speaker, an architecture professor named Emad Afifi-Paula Rowan's brother-in-law-criticized the student movement, articulating for the crowd what was becoming the administration's hard line. "Let's say no to the hate," he said, "the hate that made a bomb explode in front of the administration building!" Angry students jeered.
Then a bearded, soft-spoken video professor named David Stout approached the lectern. "To come here tonight is to risk my job," he began, presciently. "This is a school, not a conspiracy," he said. The students roared-they would adopt the phrase as their slogan. "SCAD has a dark side," he continued, in a ministerial rhythm. "You can't put your finger on it, but the symptoms are everywhere. Ask the faculty who have been intimidated for speaking out. Ask the students who have signed documents guaranteeing their silence!" The students stood and cheered. Their initiative was gaining momentum. Later that week, the student body passed the constitution with 97 percent of the vote.
EXTRAVAGANT DESIGNSThe vote did nothing to placate the Rowans. Shaken by the bombing, they rejected the student constitution and in late April blocked the registration of three student leaders "pending completion of the investigation by the various government authorities of the vandalism that has occurred." According to the ATF, these students were no more suspects than any other students or administrators, but the Rowans, it seemed, had prejudged their guilt and refused to let them re-enroll. The students learned about the administration's decision by chance-when the cryptic annotation DO NOT REGIS.PROB appeared in their computer files-and were formally notified only when they pressed for an explanation.
Furious and feeling cornered, the student leaders only broadened their agenda: They wanted the Rowans out. In their late-night planning sessions (many videotaped by Fisher), they plotted the couple's undoing in occasionally fantastic terms. To pay for a media campaign publicizing their cause, students sold t-shirts with a photograph of Richard Rowan on the front and the word DICTATORSHIP on the back. Savannahians who disliked the Rowans snapped up the shirts and wrote checks to the students, which Lansaw collected. "Everyone in the community was slipping documents under our doors," Lansaw said. The ground swell of community interest soon lured Batman Varnedoe back into the fray. Since his firing, Varnedoe had kept his distance from the student movement, still busy trying to salvage Surfside Six. But he had followed the developments through some faculty friends and an undergraduate named Rick Averitt, whom he knew from his days at SCAD. Varnedoe increasingly felt that he had to do something, and when the students were implicated in the bombing investigation, he moved into action. He called Averitt, saying he wanted to talk, not on the telephone-he feared his line might be tapped-but in person. Averitt agreed and headed over to Varnedoe's house. He returned with some interesting news, which he related to his colleagues at a kitchen-table gathering that Rick Fisher caught on videotape.
"Gordon is off the fence," Averitt announced. Varnedoe, he told them, had predicted that under the Rowans, SCAD would collapse in less than two years, or, Averitt paraphrased, "We can move in for the quick kill-"
"I love it!" someone interjected.
"-and get rid of the family and turn this school into a real institution," Averitt continued. "The guys who have loaned Richard [Rowan] the money, from the bank, are Gordon's fraternity brothers from way back when." Averitt raised his eyebrows.
"Oh, shit!" someone said exuberantly.
"He's doing everything he can to get them to foreclose on Richard." Averitt told them that Varnedoe believed "this can happen very quickly."
Batman Varnedoe did indeed talk to one of his banker friends-as a shareholder, Varnedoe later said, he simply wanted to inform the bank of what he believed were SCAD's financial problems. Like Varnedoe, the banker was a member of Kappa Alpha-an elite old Southern fraternity-and perhaps out of brotherly obligation, he heard Varnedoe out. But the chances that the loan officers would foreclose on SCAD's loans were slim; all they'd get in return, a Savannahian explained to me, "was a bunch of buildings useless for anything but an art school." Still, the conversation with the banker represented a further escalation in the campaign against the Rowans, a point of no return. An angry coalition of Savannahians, students, and professors had mobilized; together, they transformed a limited campus dispute into a grave contest, with the city itself as the prize.
THE GREAT PURGEWhen the Rowans suspended the three student leaders after the bombings, they hardly knew what they were getting into. The students-Richard Averitt, an art history student named Marissa Magaz, and Rick Fisher, the videographer-believed that by implicating them in the bombing investigation, SCAD had defamed them. Through the ACLU, they located an attorney who agreed. Two days before graduation that spring, the students filed a $12.4-million lawsuit charging SCAD with slander and defamation.
Meanwhile, SCAD professors, inspired by the students, began to press for their own representative body. Faculty had to tread lightly in their reform effort-or risk not being "renewed"-so secret meetings were held off campus, some beneath the bowers of Savannah's old squares. A faculty senate was formed in late May and almost immediately passed a resolution in support of the blocked students. The Rowans had no sympathy for the professors' act of solidarity and reacted with swift fury: A week before graduation, they sacked twelve professors active in the faculty senate movement-including David Stout, who had first proclaimed, "SCAD is a school, not a conspiracy." (The firings eventually prompted the American Association of University Professors to censure the school.)
Again the campus fell into chaos. In response to the faculty purge, students held a rally in Pulaski Square, in front of the Rowans' offices, where they mockingly waved paper masks of Richard Rowan's face. They chanted "Rowan, you're fired! Rowan, you're fired!" He was out of town, but Paula was inside, frightened. The Rowans were feeling increasingly beset. They had hired a bodyguard for their children, and thought that on one occasion someone had tried to run them off the road. "I think we lived daily with the threat of physical harm," Paula said.
The next day, the mayhem continued: another pipe bomb went off. This one blew out six doors at the Civic Center, the planned venue for the graduation ceremony. The Rowans were outraged; they canceled graduation, citing safety concerns. Never at a loss for organizational zeal, the students leaders planned their own graduation ceremony. They rented the Civic Center for $4,500 and convinced the Savannah Symphony Orchestra to send a quartet for free. Hats were passed around to help defray the cost of renting the building. Julie Lansaw gave a speech. Batman Varnedoe read the names of the graduating students, handing them pink roses instead of diplomas. The ceremony was particularly satisfying, he said later, "because I got to play Richard Rowan."
The alternative graduation received triumphant front-page billing in the Savannah News-Press and increased public pressure on SCAD's trustees to censure, or perhaps even to remove, the Rowans. Joyce Maynard, who had been a trustee for eleven years, attended the alternative commencement. The columnist was so moved by the testimonials of students and fired professors that the next day she pressed for a board meeting to discuss the Rowans' fate.
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