This Entrepreneurial Pair Built a Four-Year College From the Ground Up

Lynne Dixon-Speller and her colleagues have devoted countless hours to making Wisconsin’s first four-year fashion school a reality.

If you had asked Lynne Dixon-Speller at 21 what she hoped her life would look like in 40 years, she wouldn’t have said anything about founding or running a college. In fact, she wouldn’t have told you that she wanted to pursue a career in academia at all. Instead, she might have said that she’d been interested in fashion design since her grandmother, Edessa Meek Dixon, had taught her how to sew, and that she had decided to keep studying the subject in grad school.

That decision ultimately led her to her first teaching position – at the University of Delaware – and to the realization that she wanted to spend the rest of her career working with students. “You get this one job, and then it’s like, ‘Oh, this is my life,’” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t want to do anything else.”

Eventually, Dixon-Speller moved to Milwaukee and began teaching in the city, first at Mount Mary University, then at the Art Institute of Wisconsin – a now-shuttered four-year college with an art and design focus. After about a year at Ai Wisconsin, she accepted a position as the coordinator of the school’s fashion program.

She loved her job and the people she worked with. So when she learned that the college (which was privately owned by a company that had racked up more than a billion dollars in debt) would be shutting its doors in 2017, she panicked. “We didn’t want to start over,” she says. “We had built something good, and we wanted to continue.”

 

 

At first, she hoped that she and the other faculty members might be able to find a way to keep the college open. But as the months passed, she saw that there was nothing that anyone could do to stop the school from closing, and she began to agonize over what would happen to her. And her colleagues. And her students.

Some of them could transfer to Mount Mary, which has a robust fashion program. But because the school is religiously affiliated, and only admits women, Dixon-Speller knew that not all of her students would be a good fit there. And no other university in the area offered a fashion program quite like the one at Ai Wisconsin.

Then, in June of 2017, an idea came to her in a dream. Literally. “I woke up at three o’clock in the morning,” she says, suddenly sure that she and her colleagues would be able to continue working with the students they cared about so deeply – if they stuck together and built their own fashion school from the ground up.

The idea seemed so painfully obvious, so perfect, that she couldn’t resist punching her husband Jeffrey in the arm, the hour of the night be damned, to share the good news.

Naturally, he wanted to go back to sleep. But he didn’t doubt for a minute that she had what it took to found a college. Or that it ought to be called the Edessa School of Fashion in honor of Dixon-Speller’s late grandmother, the woman who had taught her how to sew and instilled in her both a love of fashion and a sense of entrepreneurial spirit.

THE PATH TO LAUNCHING a nonprofit institute of higher education is a long and winding one. Founders must apply for government program approval. They need to secure a campus and hire professors and faculty members. And, if they want to receive accreditation, they have to undertake an extensive auditing process, too.

And even though Dixon-Speller had decades of relevant experience and an address book full of professional contacts, she understood that she’d need a lot of help to get where she wanted to go. Fortunately, she knew who to turn to.

For years before Ai Wisconsin closed, Kim Dunisch, now 43, taught many of the university’s marketing classes. She also helped oversee its annual student fashion show. And she was known, both among students and faculty members, for her extensive industry connections, which she often tapped to help alumni land interviews with local companies like Kohl’s and Harley-Davidson.

“Job searching is Kim’s superpower,” Dixon-Speller says. “She was the first person I ever hired. Our interview lasted a good three hours.”

“But two of those hours were just us talking,” Dunisch chimes in, adding that she knew right away that she wanted to be a part of the four-year, nonprofit university that Dixon-Speller had dreamed up.

Dixon-Speller works with a student in her previous job at the Art Institute of Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Lynne Dixon-Speller

The two women also recruited several other people to their cause, most of them professors or faculty members who had worked with them at Ai Wisconsin. Together they began drafting a course catalogue, which they would need to submit to officials at the state’s Department of Safety and Professional Services before they could start recruiting potential students. “We were a small team of about five or six people, trying to do it all between us, trying to decide what the school was going to look like,” Dunisch says. “We wanted it to be as close to perfect as possible.”

They spent countless hours on the catalogue, outlining each of the courses they’d offer. Each student will declare a focus on either apparel design or fashion marketing, with Dixon-Speller chairing the design program and Dunisch chairing the marketing track. Each would also have to complete at least one internship while at Edessa, and work with faculty members to create a professional portfolio of their work.

Eventually, the Edessa team finished their first draft of the catalogue and submitted it to the DSPS, hopeful that they’d soon get the go-ahead to begin admitting students. “We were told that the process could take about four months,” Dixon-Speller remembers.

They ended up waiting two years.

The administrators at the DSPS typically work with applicants who want to open satellite branches of existing universities. In fact, as far as the Edessa team could ascertain, all of the state’s existing independent, non-profit, four-year colleges (like the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design) were founded before the department had formalized its approval process. So they and the members of the state department had to figure out together how to fairly assess an institution like Edessa. And they spent a lot of time exchanging emails and passing paperwork back and forth. “The process was new for them too,” Dunisch says.

Dixon-Speller admits that, as she waited months, and then years, for the DSPS to finish reviewing Edessa’s application, she grew increasingly frustrated. She didn’t look for new work when Ai Wisconsin closed because she wanted to be able to focus on Edessa full- time. And while her husband was able to cover all their family expenses, losing her source of income was a significant blow.

Dixon-Speller named her new fashion school after her grandmother, Edessa Meek Dixon. Photo courtesy of Lynne Dixon-Speller

Still, there was at least one upside. “We learned a godawful lot,” she says, adding that she’s pretty sure that she knows as much as anyone else in the state about how to run a private, four-year institution of higher learning.

And, late last year, Edessa did receive its program approval. A DSPS administrator, Carl Hampton, says that he and his coworkers are duty-bound to carefully review each application they receive, to “ensure that everyone who is involved, the students as well as the schools, are successful,” and that the department is now con dent that Edessa had met every criteria for success and is ready to open its doors to students. When it does, it will become the state’s first four-year fashion school.

Receiving program approval isn’t the same thing as receiving accreditation. The Edessa founders won’t be able to apply for that final stamp of approval until at least one student has graduated from their program and the school has gone through a rigorous auditing process by a federally approved accreditor.

Edessa is now recruiting students; at the time this story went to press 19 had enrolled for the first semester – a number they’re happy with but looking to build on. And they recently reached an agreement with the Milwaukee School of Engineering’s University Scholars Honors Program to collaborate on coursework. Program Director Michael Carriere says that he’s excited to partner with Edessa on cross-disciplinary coursework with real-life applications. “The idea of asking my students to think about design is intriguing,” he says, adding that he looks forward to “having engineering students work with fashion students to create something that we could all benefit from.”

Dixon-Speller and Dunisch and the others still need to secure a location for their campus. But momentum is finally on their side. And Dixon-Speller says that they’ll finally be able to open their doors later this year, just over 100 years after Edessa Meek Dixon graduated from college herself. At the time, a Black woman sitting in a university classroom would have been forced to stare down scorn and ridicule every day. And whenever Dixon-Speller second-guesses her decision to found a fashion school, she thinks of her grand- mother, and the example she set. That’s reminder enough that she possesses the strength of character needed to succeed.


This story is part of Milwaukee Magazine‘s March issue.

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Lindsey Anderson covers culture for Milwaukee Magazine. Before joining the MilMag team she worked as an editor at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and wrote freelance articles for ArtSlant and Eater.