David Stull’s Culture of Achievement

Mark MacNamara on November 27, 2018
David Stull

Life is good for David Stull these days. Even in these politically tumultuous times. Life is good, the future is promising. And, at least for the moment, the 51-year-old president of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music can lean back in his chair, clasp the back of his head with both hands, and dream up ever bluer skies.

The 100-year-old conservatory is flourishing in earnest just now. On every level. Last semester alone, nine students earned major orchestra positions; in 2016 the Telegraph Quartet won the prestigious Naumburg Competition. Moreover, applications have set records for five years in a row; the new curriculum Stull brought in is working better than imagined and attracting new students. Meanwhile, graduates are off not only to orchestras, but also to Google, Facebook, Merrill Lynch, and Stanford University Medical School.

Telegraph Quartet

And then finally there’s the newest apple in Stull’s eye, the Bowes Center for the Performing Arts and dormitory, a 12-story building on Van Ness Avenue, set to open in the summer of 2020. Among its charms, a street-level, live performance space, behind glass. It will be the ultimate clean, well-lighted place downtown to see musicians at work.

All this progress, despite the thunder rolling through academe in the last decade. Thunder from “trigger warnings,” immigration policies, identity politics, diversity issues, the ‘unwanted gesture,’ and the Me Too movement, the ominous burden of tuition, along with questionable lending practices, allegedly by Navient most recently. Add to all this the extraordinary pressure on colleges to create what sometimes feels like a very expensive country-club atmosphere.

And what about the thunder rolling through music academe? Above all, the question of relevancy and the debate in private schools over liberal and professional curricula, or as Stull puts it, between a curriculum oriented toward “exploration” and one oriented toward “achievement.”

Josesph Polosi

Which brings to mind Joseph Polisi, the long-time head of Juilliard who gave up his post last June and went off to develop a Juilliard campus in Tianjin, China. In his 2005 book, The Artist as Citizen, Polisi wrote about the concern among some faculty members early on that he was going to change Juilliard “into another Yale,” where he’d run the music school previously; that he was going to force a curriculum “emphasizing intellectual values over performance values.”

“What I was looking for, in fact,” wrote Polisi, “was a better balance between the two.”

A new gospel

The need to balance values has become a common credo and is certainly an enduring quest for David Stull, although he frames the dialectic between intellectual and performance a little differently. Moreover, his “Yale” is Oberlin, where he got a B.A. in tuba performance and English literature in 1989, and went on to become conservatory dean in 2004, as well as professor of brass studies. As he left for San Francisco in 2013, he described the Oberlin Conservatory as “truly the best undergraduate training program of its kind in the world.”

And that’s been much of Stull’s challenge since then: “how to get conservatory students to think critically, to explore — how to look left, right, behind, up, down. How do we open up the world to them?”

Lately, he’s begun to preach a broader kind of undergraduate training, which has significance for traditional liberal arts schools. He calls it “the culture of achievement.”

Stull’s notion is that any reasonable education should teach you to think critically and creatively; write and speak effectively; work alone or on a team; translate constructive criticism to advantage, and, no matter the obstacles, continue to succeed. In sum, from a proper education, you should learn to embrace versatility, failure, and the desire to innovate. You should also know how to create a 501(C)(3).

As an aside, there’s something else going on here as well. From a student’s point of view — admittedly at some of the elite schools — it’s no longer so much about getting a job as inventing a job, and the focus is not on grades but on “projects.” Finally, the goal is no longer security, but freedom.

But what’s implied in all this is unrelenting self-discipline and resolve. Such is the province of Stull’s conservatory, where you can’t get in without having mastered an instrument; done your 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, over and over; and otherwise been forged by recitals, juries, and auditions, and then by the habit of success itself. Stull put it this way:

Every week students are told, “you have to do better.” And the next week you have to be even better, and the week after that better still, and if you look at it from this perspective, your best is where you begin, but that’s nowhere near your potential. What you begin to realize is that it doesn’t matter even if you play in the San Francisco Symphony; you’re still practicing as much as ever. It’s that life-long pursuit of perfection, which never stops because, of course, you never get there.

This is the heart of Stull’s conviction about values and one answer to the question of relevancy. Asked how he would create the culture of achievement at a place like say, Oberlin, he replied, “I would say you need to connect directly with highly professionalized organizations while students are in school. If I were to suggest a model, it would be the winter term model. Every January offer a highly professionalized, achievement-based experience, something that acts as a foil to the exploration experience.”

The secret behind a debt-free education

In America, 650 music schools offer a degree in music and are accredited by the National Association of Schools of Music.  The schools are broken up into categories, including “Schools of the Arts” such as Juilliard; private secular universities such as Yale; secular liberal arts colleges like Bard and Oberlin, and independent conservatories, like Berklee, Curtis, and San Francisco.  Top 10 lists combining all categories often start with Julliard and Curtis and finish with San Francisco and Peabody (Johns Hopkins).

The San Francisco Conservatory serves just over 420 students: 11 percent are African American; 8 percent, Latino; and 8 percent, mixed heritage. Just over half are women. The graduation rate is close to 88 percent. Thirty percent of students come from abroad, and so far, the conservatory has not lost any students, or faculty, to new immigration policies.

Students in the S.F. Conservatory of Music's Roots, Jazz, and American Music program jam

The tuition at SFCM is $45,000, plus another $13,000 in room and board. Ninety-nine percent of students receive some kind of financial aid. On average, the school gives back 54 cents of every tuition dollar collected. Stull’s blue-sky goal is to provide a debt-free education.

“The questions that interest me now in education,” said Stull, “are about financial access, and providing a debt-free education. And how do you do that? A large endowment is the secret.”

Stull notes that for Oberlin’s conservatory, raising money can be difficult, partly because the demand is to support 2,827 students. But for a small school like SFCM, building an effective endowment is not such a climb. 

“Scale is critical,” he said, “and also, of course, we’re working with a very generous community.”            

The Bowes Center

It’s this very generous, and culturally-tuned community, that’s helping finance one of Stull’s biggest projects, the Bowes Center for the Performing Arts, a $185-million dollar building at the corner of Van Ness and Hayes. It’s a low crime neighborhood that includes Civic Center, Davies Hall, SFJAZZ, and Hayes Valley, an increasingly trendy area. The new, 12-story building, set to open in the summer of 2020, features two performance halls — Stull is particularly proud of the penthouse recital hall, which seats 210 . There’s also a recording studio, teaching spaces, guest faculty housing, a restaurant, and housing for 420 conservatory students. The architect is Mark Cavagnero who designed the SFJAZZ Center and the Wilsey Center of Opera.

Architect's rendering of the Ute and William K. Bowes, Jr. Center for Performing Arts at 200 Van Ness Avenue (view from the north) | Credit: Mark Cavagnero Associates Architects

Financing is founded on a $46 million gift from the William K. Bowes, Jr. Foundation.  Bowes, who died in 2016, was a venture capitalist and a trustee of the conservatory. The city is not a partner in the project.

The project actually includes two elements: the performing arts center with student housing and also 27 apartments for those tenants living in the old building. There will be a common entrance to the building but separate elevators to the dorm and the private residences.

The cost to students will about $1,100 a month, which is two percent more than they’re paying now. The dorm includes two- and three-bedroom apartments; most bedrooms serves two students. Accommodations include full fridge and a microwave oven.

Stull, ever a pragmatist — and, as he put it, “never the hopeless sort” has taken a hands-on role in designing the nuances of the space, just as he did with the Bertram and Judith Kohl Building at Oberlin in 2010.      

Architect's rendering of the The Jewel Box Recital Hall on the lobby level of the Ute and William K. Bowes, Jr. Center for Performing Arts | Credit: Mark Cavagnero Associates Architects

The other housing problem

When we spoke to Stull, in October, he was all excited about another big idea, which grows out of the “centerpiece of so many conversations” — recruiting faculty and staff. Again, the problem is housing. “We pay well relative to nonprofits,” he said, “but not for San Francisco.”

His proposal is based on the idea that the middle class is leaving San Francisco because it’s too expensive but also because the public schools are so uneven in quality and slowly disappearing. He was drawn to the notion that the city collects a lot of money from developers to build middle and lower-income housing; meanwhile, the public schools have all a lot of very valuable land.

Why not say to the public schools, we can build high rises here, here and here and we the city are going to fund it for middle and lower-income families. We’re going to build the housing and give them to the public schools. So you’re going to own them and maintain them. And you’re going to take all the revenue from those buildings and support public education.

Stull said he hadn’t fully explored the idea, but someone should. However, the city and the school board have been in conversation about housing, and the school district actually has a real-estate person on staff. And, as reporters who look into the situation find out, generally speaking, the cost of new, middle income housing is greater than the funds the city receives.

The administrator

David Stull is the consummate promotor and idea man. He’s reminiscent of Don Draper, has that polished confidence, but not one for small talk, and all conversations, no matter how low-key the dinner, inevitably lead to some abstraction he’s been thinking about. He enjoys exploring a perspective rather than offering a reaction. He’s a builder by nature, and also a moralist who, on the topic of sexual relations, for example, acknowledges changing mores but remains pledged to strict standards and well-defined policies. He wants to take away the gray areas.

On the subject of trigger warnings, he said in reply to proponents who suggest it’s better to have warnings than discussions that might be considered offensive, “my view is that those discussion are not a bad thing. What is a bad thing is that it’s possible to comprehensively offer warnings and yet teach a class of substance. That’s simply not a reality.”

Stull also laments the way many schools have devoted so many resources to offer what sometimes seems like “resort packages,” and have inadvertently created a sense of entitlement — to certain curricula and teaching styles. He has often noted the widening knowledge gap in education and posed the question: “As costs rise and the expectation of entitlement rises simultaneously, how does the college manage expectation relative to what they know they can deliver? That’s the question that has yet to come into focus.”

As the Conservatory takes on his persona, you wonder how it will reflect the sometimes conflicting mix of both his values and the city’s.