New Penn dean explains why gun law drove him from Texas

Frederick Steiner, dean of the School of Architecture at UT Austin. He will become the dean of Penn's School of Design on July 1.
Frederick Steiner, dean of the School of Architecture at UT Austin. He will become the dean of Penn's School of Design on July 1. (MARSHA MILLER)
Posted: February 29, 2016

All things being equal, Frederick Steiner probably would have stayed in Austin as dean of the University of Texas' prestigious architecture program. But last week, he announced he was leaving to take the identical job at the University of Pennsylvania's somewhat less-stellar design school.

The deciding factor? Steiner didn't want to police a new Texas law allowing licensed gun owners to bring concealed weapons to class.

Although gun-rights advocates have promised that the looser rules will keep college campuses safe from mass shooters, Steiner concluded that he would be better off in Philadelphia, where - let's be honest - the homicide rate is nothing to brag about. So after 15 years of working to make the Texas architecture school an academic powerhouse, he is heading to Penn, starting July 1.

The move is something of a sentimental homecoming for Steiner, 66. He earned a master's in landscape architecture and a doctorate in city planning from Penn.

As he rose through the academic ranks, becoming one of the most respected architecture deans in the United States, Steiner said, he was often approached by recruiters, hoping to lure him away from the Lone Star State. He always rebuffed them with a polite "I'm flattered, but no thanks."

Then the Texas Legislature enacted its concealed-carry law, which makes it legal for students to take guns into any building on a state university campus.

"I knew I would have to enforce the law even if I didn't believe in it," Steiner explained in an interview. "If a faculty member put a sign on the door saying, 'No guns,' it would be my responsibility to say, 'You can't do that.' " The prospect was distasteful, he said.

Steiner isn't the first Texas academic to voice alarm over the concealed-carry law. In October, economics professor emeritus Daniel Hamermesh announced he was leaving UT Austin, saying he feared the presence of guns in the classroom would have a chilling effect on free-flowing exchanges.

As a group, the faculty at Texas' state universities is deeply opposed to the law. Several professors have predicted it will hamper the state's ability to attract top talent. Jonathan Snow, president of the university senate at the Houston campus, told the Guardian newspaper that he expected a "brain drain" as more professors and top students leave for other states.

Steiner said he was particularly bothered by the way the law targeted state universities. Private universities have been allowed to opt out, and most have done so. He also noted that it was still illegal to take guns into Texas hospitals and courthouses.

But the gun law was just the latest in a series of troubling policy decisions that bothered Steiner, he said. The state had been cutting funding to education for years, he said, and "then there is one more thing, with public universities being singled out for this law."

So, when his alma mater came calling, Steiner couldn't resist. "It happened at just the right time for me," he said. "I saw an opportunity to help an institution I have deep affection and love for."

While Penn is certainly no slouch academically, it has been frustrated by its inability to break into the list of top 10 design schools, even though some individual departments are highly ranked. By comparison, Austin's undergraduate program was No. 7 last year on Architectural Record's list of top architecture schools.

Steiner will take over from Marilyn Jordan Taylor, whose term as dean expires this year.

He certainly knows what he's getting into in Philadelphia. He spent about four years in the city in the late 1970s and early '80s - when crime was much worse than it is today - and has returned frequently to visit.

Like many landscape architects of his generation, he was drawn to Penn after reading Design With Nature, an early book about environmental sustainability by the legendary Penn professor Ian McHarg.

For decades, Penn was the most influential design school in the country, with an all-star faculty that included the likes of Louis Kahn, Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Romaldo Giurgola, and Robert Geddes. Steiner said he believes he can help PennDesign regain its old luster.

His first task, he said, will be to improve the school's problematic building, Meyerson Hall. Under Taylor, many parts of the building were renovated, but funds are needed for an expansion. He said he also wants to seek professors as inspirational as McHarg.

His fund-raising prowess is one reason Penn sought out Steiner. After setting a fund-raising goal of $23 million at UT Austin, he brought in $30 million.

"I'm looking forward to asking people for money," he said. "I like fund-raising, obviously."

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