When Samuel — or Sammy — Hoi, president of Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), was awarded the Ford Foundation’s Art of Change Fellowship with a cohort of poets, musicians and multimedia artists, he realized something about his work.
“I think it gave me a kind of epiphany that actually art and design education has been my medium in a metaphoric way,” he says.
Hoi began to understand that his decades of work as a leader in art and design education have allowed him to flex both his creativity and problem-solving skills to create something beautiful in the arena of higher education.
Hoi’s own education is a mosaic in itself. He received his undergraduate degrees in psychology and French from Columbia University, graduating summa cum laude. He then returned to Columbia for law school, but he quickly realized that a legal career was not a good fit. However, instead of leaving law school, he was determined to see it to the end.
“In a traditional Asian American family, you’re brought up to finish what you start,” he says. “So I went to law school, and I told myself I would finish the law school journey.”
After passing the New York Bar Exam, he pivoted and applied to Parsons School of Design for an associate degree in illustration, a passion he had cultivated since his mother enrolled him in pencil drawing and Chinese ink brush painting classes as a boy growing up in Hong Kong.
“Even though I continued with art classes throughout high school and college and even when I was in law school, that was never really something I thought to do,”
he says, adding that, at an early age, he fell in love with the act of creating.
“In law school, I was intellectually very stimulated,” Hoi says. “It was almost like playing a puzzle, figuring things out legally and strategically. It just left me pretty empty as a human being. The practical path did not lead me to a fulfilling life, so I thought I would take a risk and follow my bliss.”
Hoi found that bliss almost immediately after starting at Parsons.
MICA President Samuel Hoi
“When I went to art school, on the first day of school, time just disappeared,” he says. “All the personal void I felt in law school was completely fulfilled, and I was driven by a rush of creativity, a sense of passion, and I knew within the first days of art school that I made the right decision for myself.”
Not wanting to accrue any additional debt, Hoi leveraged his law degree and worked full-time at Parsons during the day so that he could attend classes at night for free. After finishing his degree, he was eager to start a freelance career as an artist, but Parsons eventually offered him the position of director of its Paris program.
“It was just an opportunity I couldn’t refuse,” he says. “Everything sort of came together for me when I was in Parsons Paris.”
He discovered the rewards of a profession centered around student success. It brought together his knack for strategic thinking and his passion for art as well as what he describes as his Confucian values of helping people advance in society.
“Things converged, and I realized that I found my life’s calling in a way.”
Since then, Hoi has embraced art education. After Parsons Paris, he served as the dean of the Corcoran College of Art and Design in Washington, D.C. He then went on to serve as the president of Otis College of Art and Design for 14 years.
Reflecting on his past positions, he says, “I have chosen to work at small to mid-size institutions because I actually like a very full plate and like to be involved in all aspects of the presidency.”
At Otis, he pioneered The Otis Report on the Creative Economy. Since 2007, the institute has produced an annual report that measures the impact of the creative sector on the state and regional economy. During his time at Otis, he also led an initiative called the Otis Integrated Learning Program, which trains students to apply skills in art and design to address social and environmental problems.
At MICA, he has primarily focused on how entrepreneurship and today’s start-up business culture can empower the field of art and design.
“I think as our economy moves into the multiple-career, freelance lifestyle, art will be the leader in that movement,” he says.
In 2015, he created the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Globalization Task Force to assess everything from MICA’s curriculum to its hiring practices. For Hoi, art and design must be driven by a commitment to expanding one’s perspectives, especially in a field that is becoming more collaborative. He hopes MICA can be the inclusive space where students of this sensibility thrive.
“This is where diversity, equity and inclusion comes into play,” he says. “It’s the discovery of one being confident in knowing what one knows, but also having the ability and humility to know what one doesn’t know.”
As he continues in his work at MICA, Hoi hopes to spread the fulfillment he has discovered through his own path.
“I define success as having a life of compassion, purpose and impact,” he says. “Passion can be self-indulgent unless it’s rooted in a sense of purpose, and that purpose has to be larger than oneself.”
Do you believe affirmative action will soon be outlawed?