Legacy Interview: Victor Regnier, FAIA
Legacy Interview: Victor Regnier, FAIA
Coinciding with the celebration of 100 Years of Architecture at USC, and the related panel discussion, Legacy of Leadership: The Deans of the USC School of Architecture held on April 2, 2014, architectural writer Guy Horton has been interviewing the deans who took part on the panel. Five deans were asked a series of questions to get their perspectives on what it means to be dean at the School, how they approached the role, and what its greatest challenges are.
Victor Albert Regnier
ACSA Distinguished Professor
Professor of Architecture and Gerontology
Victor Regnier was dean from 1992-1996, a time of great change. He recalls that period as like being in the “wild west”, when the University considered a “re-organization” that could have merged the School of Architecture into another unit (like engineering). Regnier’s leadership helped turn the situation around. He credits his success at that time, in part, to being plugged into the greater University community through his contacts with faculty in other disciplines and his experience as a researcher working with USC administrators.
Guy Horton: How would you define the role of dean at the USC School of Architecture? And is there anything distinct about the role compared to other architecture schools?
Victor Regnier: Deans have enormous power at USC because they can make decisions at the school level without the need for faculty approval. Also, in a private institution there is a lot of autonomy--no state budget to worry about. This makes it easy to pursue ideas, but raising funds to pursue new initiatives is always a challenge.
GH: How would you describe your leadership style as dean?
VR: I was very open to our faculty and students, but tough-minded with USC administration. The architecture school was in a vulnerable position with a sizable inter-center debt. USC was thinking about consolidation. I asked, them what was needed to remain a self-sufficient, separate school? They said simply--balance the budget and create a reserve. My allegiance was to the architecture school and my colleagues. I was very involved with student and faculty organizations as well--always seeking their perspective on our situation and our future.
GH: What was it like being dean during the period you held the position? What were the major issues, objectives, challenges?
VR: Our decades long budget deficit was turned into a surplus. That was the major achievement (especially hard for architecture). That set us up for a decade of expansion when Bob Timme arrived.
GH: How did you become dean?
VR: The faculty met, nominated me and forwarded that request to USC administration. I thought it would be for one year--but it turned out to be closer to 4 years.
GH: You are well known for your work in the field of elder housing. How do you think this informed your approach to being the leader of an architecture school?
VR: I really understood the university. Gerontology has 25 joint appointments. I had colleagues all over campus so I had a broad perspective of the place and how it operated. I’m a very methodical person. I made decisions with our interests in mind but presented them in a way that was attractive to USC higher-ups.
GH: You seem to work in the terrain between different disciplines. What have you learned from other disciplines like gerontology that could inform the discipline of architecture? For example, could the School leverage models from the sciences, say, to go after grants to fund research?
VR: My degrees are in architecture and engineering. How you are trained, affects the way you think about everything. Not making connections is a missed opportunity. For example, architecture can and should affect public policy. Having more knowledge is usually helpful. It provides a better foundation for affecting the world. Also--USC prides itself in being multi-disciplinary. Showing them how architecture can make a difference is powerful.
GH: Following this, should architecture collaborate more with other disciplines on campus to carry out funded research? Is there potential for this?
VR: Yes. USC is a major research university and some of the best research happens between disciplines. My work focuses on how the environment matters in the area of elder care. Small changes in the environment can help in significant ways to improve independence. The government also provides research funding for studies that are beneficial to society. Other disciplines can provide tools that help us mine our knowledge base.
GH: Should architecture be more interdisciplinary at the academic level?
VR: We have to focus on teaching architecture, but students also need more understanding of human behavior.
GH: How did you get interested in elder issues and housing in particular?
VR: I was awarded a grant from the Administration on Aging for graduate study. After visiting a number of buildings--I knew I could make a difference. The multi-disciplinary exposure I had to ideas was specific but could also be broadly cast. This introduced me to power of theory building and the satisfaction of application.
GH: Did serving as dean change you or your perspective, the way you practice, view the profession, etc?
VR: It made me more sympathetic to the practice of architecture. My involvement in the (USC Architectural) Guild introduced me to a broad range of practitioners. I became more interested in helping students acquire the skills that would make them more self-reliant and successful.
GH: Do you think the challenges of being dean today are different from when you held the position?
VR: The job is totally different. There is less emphasis on day-to-day management and more focus on fund raising and "glad handing". When I was dean, there was no associate dean or multiple department chairs. I had ten people on staff. Today we have more administrators and there are twenty-five staff members. Ironically--it worked better with fewer people who were more engaged and focused.
GH: What do you perceive to be the current challenges facing the dean and the School?
VR: Money will always be a challenge. We have a huge amount of space (every student has a desk), low student-teacher ratios, very few major donors, and very little research overhead. The University also needs to be constantly reminded that architecture matters in the city/world. In Forbes recent “30 Under 30 Who Are Changing The World 2014”, there are no architects. It is not on society's radar either. We need to demonstrate the utility of what we do in areas like sustainability. We need to show that our work matters and is important to the future of the environment.
GH: What three words best describe you as an architect?
VR: Disciplined, hard working, and obsessive. I am committed to finding creative solutions to complex problems.
GH: What three words best describe you as dean?
VR: Bold, creative, tough-minded. I am impatient with people/ideas that waste my time.