UArts President David Yager on Creativity, CSR and the School’s New Ed Satell Scholarship


David Yager isn’t a typical college president. Over the course of a multi-decade career, Yager has successfully worn many hats, often simultaneously. He’s an accomplished visual artist, photographer, and designer, as well as a respected academic, researcher, administrator, consultant, corporate leader, and entrepreneur. Since 2016, President Yager has transformed the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

There is a unique characteristic that links all these roles together: Yager’s belief in creativity. He sees this as crucial not only in the arts, but also in business, philanthropy, education, and improving communities.

Yager will step down from his presidential role at the end of the school year. Here, he talks about lessons he has learned as a nonprofit leader; why it’s in a corporation’s self-interest to support creative institutions like UArts; and why the University is honoring Ed Satell with its 2023 Excellence in the Arts Hamilton Award and launching a scholarship in Satell’s name.

The accomplishments I’m most proud of at UArts…
…are the ones that have been student-centric: new graduate program in dance, new Ph.D. program in creativity, new student center, renovation of our residence hall, acquisition of the Art Alliance, the continuing focus on high-quality deans, faculty and staff, and the creation of the Immersive Lab. I think it’s really important for our students to understand augmented reality and virtual reality, which are going to play a role in their creative lives and also in their normal lives.

But I’m not really a person who looks back. I’m always thinking, okay, what am I going to get done next?

I’m focused on creativity because…
…I think creativity is one of those things that will rarely, if ever, be outsourced. There are a lot of things that can be outsourced, but the creative thinking process of companies —if you look at the success stories of Apple or Nike or Google, yes, they provide certain things, but their creativity is what propels them to be at the top and allows them to think differently. I think the biggest gift we can give our students is the tool and the freedom of being creative thinkers throughout their lives. Creativity will always add value to corporations and companies.

At the end of the day, our students are coming to us to be the most creative in their fields. We’re trying to figure that out. What are the tools they need to be the most creative, and how can we give them the confidence to be part of a team and have a creative voice, and to move the discussion forward in many different ways? As a country, we’ve given away a lot of our manufacturing. To me, human creativity is the most valuable asset.

One experience that spurred on fresh and creative thinking is…
…working in the for-profit world. I learned so much. I wish I had done that 20 years earlier in my career. I was consulting with mostly Fortune 50 and Fortune 100 companies, and it gave me a real sense of how they operate, and how they think. It just gave me really really distinct insights into the operations of the academy and the way the business world works. I’ve always built my models in between these two worlds. I recommend this to everybody. This really has helped me as a nonprofit leader, and it’s influenced the way I speak to donors and corporations because I understand a little better about their motivations.

One way I get donors to support UArts’ mission of creativity…
… is by emphasizing that we change students’ lives, especially students who never would have had an opportunity to get an education, certainly not at the level of the University of the Arts. We have such a high number of students who can’t afford to pay. A private non-profit arts school is among the worst businesses in the world. But it’s a business that changes students’ lives, and we support their talent whether or not they can afford to attend. And we’re changing society. These are the creative thinkers of the future.

Someone with an arts education and who comes from a diverse background can work across different disciplines and ask the tough questions. Our students see life through a different lens. Even if students don’t have answers immediately, they will pose some of the difficult and challenging questions on the table that the C level never talks about because corporations tend to do exactly the same thing.

When it comes to the symbiotic relationship between nonprofits and business…
…I’ve been saying to supporters for years that I am not transactional. I want support because it adds value to the donor and it adds value to UArts. This is about who we partner with, why they choose to give us money or time, what we’ll do with this money, and how it reflects the culture of a company. We help engage companies who are trying to change their image or working with employees to feel enthusiastic about their company through their philanthropy.

UArts is honoring Ed Satell…
…because of his thinking. His creativity is what convinced me to honor him. His creativity leads him to be a change-maker. Here is someone who comes out of an industry that’s not particularly creative, gets into philanthropy, and becomes very creative. Satell made a great decision both by himself, and by surrounding himself with other creative people.

One example is the idea of corporations moving from single donations to multi-year giving. Every year we waste so much time retelling our story. We cannot plan well, and we waste time when we do not have multi-year  commitments. The Satell Institute comes up with a simple solution – for members to make four-year commitments to nonprofits. This is a simple, but incredibly culture-changing, advancement for nonprofits. Through the Satell Institute events, Ed brings together a variety of experts from both the corporate and nonprofit worlds to create a healthy dialogue for the future.

After this, my plan is to…
…I think I’ve worked since I was 15 years old. Right now, I’m just looking for a break— to have an espresso in the morning and read the paper without having to worry about answering emails. And I want to take a look at where I might be of help to other nonprofits. I’m just going to take my time.

The University of the Arts will honor Ed Satell with its 2023 Excellence in Arts Hamilton Award on April 13th. To offer others who would like to celebrate Ed an opportunity to do so, UArts has established the Ed Satell Scholarship Fund. You can support this fund here.

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