The most enthusiastic person at SCAD, the arts university begun in Savannah, Georgia, some 42 years ago, just happens to be its longest-serving employee: Paula Wallace SCAD, the college's founder and president. Wallace has worn many hats across the years, as academic dean, secretary of the college, provost, and of course, president, a role she has held for the last 20 years, but that impressive list of roles and titles do little justice to the scope and breadth of her contributions to the university since 1978.

"I've done a little bit of everything at SCAD, especially in the early days when we had but a few employees," Wallace said, when we spoke just a few hours before being inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame at the Jacob Javitz Center. "I've hung art, curated shows, vacuumed, polished banisters, written catalogs and just about everything else—accreditation reports, press releases, speeches, you name it,” she said. “I used to bake cookies for all the exhibitions. I've ferried guests and subbed for professors with sick children. I've dived in dumpsters with students looking for lost projects. And all that was in the first year or two!"
One of her crowning achievements, there's little doubt, is her leading the design and rehabilitation efforts of SCAD to adaptively repurpose more than 100 historic properties across the world—all for use as classrooms, studios, residence halls, museums, and more. The buildings in the SCAD portfolio astound and amaze. Consider that the university's students now study in a former 19th-century railroad depot, synagogue, marine hospital, wagon wheel factory, dry goods warehouse, power station, and many private homes and former public schoolhouses, not to mention some impressive 20th century buildings that include a former NBC affiliate TV station and former Equifax corporate headquarters in Atlanta, where SCAD operates a second thriving degree-granting location. In Southern France, where SCAD Lacoste opened in 2002 (a story Wallace endearingly tells in The Bee and the Acorn, her 2016 memoir), the university operates in many medieval (and much older) buildings that include a farmhouse once belonging to the Marquis de Sade, now home to what must be the world's most inspiring and storied residence hall, Maison Basse.
During her tenure as president since 2000, Wallace has also overseen the development of the SCAD interior design program into the number-one ranked programs in the world, a ranking bestowed by Design Intelligence on SCAD year after year, for both the B.F.A. and M.F.A. in interior design, offered at both SCAD Savannah and SCAD Atlanta. Design Intelligence has also ranked the university's B.F.A. in architecture highly over the years.
How has she managed all of this in a single lifetime?
"I never get tired," she said, smiling. "Maybe that's it. Also, when you've been doing the same job for 40+ years, you get better at it, and better and faster and more focused."
Wallace began her career as an elementary school teacher in the Atlanta public schools, where her mother had enjoyed a long career. In the 1970s, while teaching second grade, Wallace helped her mother in authoring a language arts textbook for Houghton-Mifflin, the proceeds from which actually served as seed funding for SCAD in 1978. "My parents were always my biggest supporters," she said. "If I could dream it, they would help. I have tried to instill that sense of giving and support at SCAD, among our professors and staff. That's what we're here to do: inspire and support and champion the dreams of our students, just as my parents did for me."
Among the most inspiring learning spaces at SCAD are Ruskin Hall (Savannah), home of SCADpro, where students collaborate with Google, Gulfstream, Uber, Volvo, Samsung, Microsoft, and other companies on real-world assignments; the SCAD Museum of Art (Savannah), inside the oldest extant railroad depot in the U.S. and home to the Walter O. Evans Center for African American Studies; and Ivy Hall (Atlanta), one of the most notable examples of Queen Anne, or "New South" design in the Southeastern U.S., now home to the SCAD Screenwriting Center and most SCAD Atlanta writing classes.
A corollary of SCAD's remarkable interiors is the vast collection of art on display. "All of the art is purchased from SCAD alumni and students and faculty," Wallace said. "It demonstrates for all guests the power and expansiveness of a SCAD education." Wallace also curated art—much of it by SCAD alumni—for the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, home to the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, and as a result of that project's success launched SCAD Art Sales, a full-scale art sales and consultancy service, featuring work by members of the SCAD community.
In her remarks at the Interior Design Hall of Fame event, Paula Wallace said: "I have given my life to the discovery of new knowledge, because I believe the duty of SCAD is to regenerate the creative professions. SCAD creates more than unforgettable interiors: We create next-gen designers. We are helping to build and grow the future of these professions we so dearly love and need in this world. The pursuit of knowledge is existentially important. It is my hope that we all continue to learn and to grow: all of us here, our 15,000 SCAD students, and our 43,000 SCAD alumni. It is to them and their futures that I dedicate this tremendous honor."