Remembering Dr. Richard A. Stephens


Dr. Richard A. Stephens with one of the many cars featured at the Academy’s Automobile Museum—the Talbot Lago T150-C Coupe.

Academy of Art University suffered a great loss this past month with the passing of our beloved Chairman Emeritus Dr. Richard A. Stephens on June 6 at the age of 92.

Dr. Stephens was born in San Francisco in 1925 to Richard S. Stephens and Clara Stephens. He travelled with his parents to Paris, where his father studied art at the Académie Julian. In 1929, the Stephens’ returned to the city, where Richard and Clara founded Académie of Advertising Art, which would later become what we know today as Academy of Art University.

He attended McKinley Grammar School, Burlingame High School and Menlo College before joining the United States Navy in World War II. He served for three years. Following the war, Dr. Stephens attended Stanford University, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949 and a Masters of Arts in education in 1951. That same year, he was appointed president of the Academy. Under his leadership, the curriculum was expanded to include photography, illustration, fine art, graphic design, industrial design, fashion, interior architecture and design, animation, motion pictures and television, and acting. Enrollment blossomed from 50 students to 5,000. In 1966, the school became the Academy of Art College. 

Dr. Stephens' son, Scott Stephens, joined him at the Academy from 1981 to 1988. Scott currently works at the Academy of Art University Automobile Museum. Dr. Stephens' daughter, Dr. Elisa Stephens, joined him at the Academy in 1988, during which time he mentored her before she was appointed as president in 1992. Upon his retirement, Dr. Stephens became chairman of the board and was later named chairman emeritus.


Dr. Richard A. Stephens, April 13, 1925 – June 6, 2017

During his time as president, there was the business side of Dr. Stephens, who was expanding his father’s legacy by acquiring the necessary real estate to support the curriculum and provide the best facilities to the growing school. However, the Academy community knew “Dick Stephens,” the charismatic and always smiling president with a great sense of humor, who was very dedicated to his students and professional staff and kind to everyone whose path he crossed. He was passionate about art education and a dedicated instructor at the school in art history. He was considered a visionary by many for his risk-taking decisions to ensure that all students had equal access to an art and design education at the Academy.

“His concern and his ability to be a leader was fantastic,” said Elan Santiago, School of Motion Pictures & Television technical director. “I never saw him not believe in what you were doing. He respected everybody and gave the opportunity to everybody to say something, to communicate ideas.”

Santiago arrived at the Academy in 1984 as a burgeoning photography student. Following his studies, Dr. Stephens asked him join the school as part of the photography faculty. “That, for me, was an honor for him to recommend me to stay,” shared Santiago, who, at the time, taught photography and studio lighting. “I teach because of him, because he’s the one that encouraged me to do it.”

“Dr. Stephens' irreplaceable vision, drive, wit and warmth embodied the Academy since 1950; it was family then, and is family now, all pointed towards the university mission. He embodied the Herb Caen-era San Franciscan—smart, witty, snappy dresser, avuncular, fierce in his causes and loving his family. He always celebrated the pleasures of life, and made you feel that you were part of that family, simply, larger than life. I will miss him greatly." — Chuck Pyle, School of Illustration director & Academy alumnus

Former Academy student Ming Gee, who began taking classes in the fall of 1956, met Dr. Stephens during orientation. Gee said that Dr. Stephens made a very good first impression and made him feel comfortable being an older student in his early 20s. During his time at the Academy, Gee said that in conversation with Dr. Stephens, they would “talk about how to improve our staff, the teachers they admired and how to better ourselves.”

Talking with students and receiving their direct feedback was something Dr. Stephens continued to do over the years while he was president. When issues arose, Publications and Special Projects Manager Bob Toy, who began his academic career with the Academy in 1966, shared, “Dick would never say, ‘I’m going to fix it.’ He’d never say words like that. He’d say, ‘Uh huh, uh huh,’ and turn around, the next day everything was completely taken care of.”

Toy expressed that he misses their many talks from “those old days,” and that one of the things Dr. Stephens would discuss with him was the importance of doing the work to turn your creative dreams into reality. “[He] taught me that artists like to dream, but dreams don’t make any difference if you don’t put it in action,” said Toy. “So he’s the one that put things in action—he showed me how to put things to action.”

In 1990, Dr. Stephens brought on Executive Vice President of Educational Support Services Kate Griffeath to work on a game-changing move that would challenge traditional college norms. He saw that the school’s international students were struggling to pass their language classes, which were keeping them from beginning their art and design courses. In other schools, students need a certain language proficiency before they can begin their major course studies. He posed the question of international students being able to study both English and begin their foundational drawing courses. Griffeath said what he was asking about was called “content-based language instruction” in her field. However, at that time, no one had tried this type of instruction with beginner students. 

“What he really wanted to do was groundbreaking,” said Griffeath. 

This unheard of course of action led to a growth in the number of international students, who went on to become some of the top students in the school, with their work getting into Spring Show and winning awards. 

His vision fostered the Academy’s reputation as “a very supportive place to learn English at the same time you were learning art and design,” according to Griffeath.

Working closely with Dr. Stephens over the years, Griffeath shared that one of her greatest memories of him was his amazing sense of humor.


Dr. Richard A. Stephens with daughter Dr. Elisa Stephens at the Academy’s Automobile Museum.

 “He would go from this very serious, intense, smart, directed [side]. He could be very tough, like, ‘You’ve got to do this.’ But he’d go from that extreme to the other end of the continuum, which was just silly. I thought that was something really endearing.”

What is not lost on any of his colleagues is how much he cared for his students and his faculty. 

“Dr. Stephens’ irreplaceable vision, drive, wit and warmth embodied the Academy since 1950,” said School of Illustration Director Chuck Pyle. “It was family then, and is family now, all pointed towards the university mission. He always celebrated the pleasures of life, and made you feel that you were part of that family, simply, larger than life.”

“He was my friend and mentor,” shared Chief Academic Officer Sue Rowley. “I will never forget two things he said: No. 1, ‘The students may not know it, but they are the reason we all are here—it’s our job to help them make their dreams come true.’ No. 2, ‘When the students come to the Academy of Art University, we first teach skills, but then we ask them to have the courage to reach deep down into their souls and create art or design that makes a statement.’”

The unprecedented work accomplished under the leadership of Dr. Stephens continues to shape the Academy of Art University as we know it today. 

“Richard Stephens is the one who [brought] light to this school,” Santiago said. “I believe people were working here because he encouraged the people to be here, meaning the dedication that was created here wasn’t just to gain a salary or money for a job. People came here to enjoy it. We were building a future in art for students.”