Concerned that Art Center College of Design is putting too much money and energy into expanding its campus and promoting itself to outsiders -- and not enough into scholarships and instruction -- hundreds of students and alumni of the elite private college in Pasadena are petitioning its trustees to suspend plans for a $50-million building by Frank Gehry.

Art Center graduates have been weighing in over the Internet from as far away as France and South Korea, adding their names and comments to the Education First! petition that some students posted on the Web. Among the alumni calling for change are executives at Microsoft, the Walt Disney Co., Mercedes-Benz and Johnson Controls Inc., a designer of auto interiors.

Casting President Richard Koshalek as an empire-builder, the petition asks trustees to ignore "the legacy needs of one man" and "take immediate action to again make education the school's top investment." Launched May 31, the petition contains nearly 800 digital signatures, many of them from "anonymous" supporters.

A counterpetition in support of the new building -- "Vote for Art Center’s Future! Put Honesty First!" was launched last Friday. That petition notes that the project will use only funds donated specifically for the new building. As of midday Tuesday, there were 80 digital signatures, about a third without names displayed.

Koshalek said Monday that the chance to work with cutting-edge technology in Gehry's Design Research Center would be an educational boon for students. And in a global economy, he said, building a network of corporate and international contacts for Art Center will pay off in opportunities for its graduates. Educational quality and student performance have not slipped, Koshalek insisted, even as "the tension between short term and long term priorities . . . causes a lot of discussion."

That discussion has grown more urgent since mid-May, when Nate Young, the college's second-ranking administrator, suddenly resigned as executive vice president and chief academic officer.

Young, a 1987 Art Center graduate and a former board member, would not comment Monday on why he left after five years as the top academic administrator. He said Art Center needs to move quickly to offer new skills that a rapidly-changing design world demands. "We were starting to make these adjustments and move forward.""Right now, the entire school is in an uproar," Mike Rios, director of issues for the Art Center student government, said Monday. "Nate was a great advocate and resource for the students, and losing him really hurt."

Through an Art Center spokeswoman, board chairman John Puerner, a former Los Angeles Times publisher, said he would not comment until after the trustees' regularly scheduled meeting on June 19.

Nestled into a verdant hillside overlooking the Rose Bowl, Art Center long has been among the nation's leading gateways to careers designing automobiles and consumer products. Undergraduates also can major in film, fine art, graphics, illustration, photography, advertising and environmentally-conscious design.

Alumni include film director Michael Bay, landscape painter Thomas Kinkade and a large cohort of highly placed car designers, including J Mays, who designed the new Volkswagen Beetle.

A plan for the future

Koshalek, the former director of L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, has been president since 1999, spearheading the drive to enlarge Art Center's facilities, visibility and wealth. In February, he announced that the school had reached the halfway mark of a $150-million fundraising and expansion campaign begun shortly after he arrived. So far, the money has yielded the renovation of a former aircraft testing plant that now serves as a satellite campus about five miles south of the main one, and has boosted the endowment from $17 million to $43 million.

The Gehry building -- a combination library and high-tech design studio complex -- would be built on the main campus, where the existing facilities are strung along the hillside in a long, bridge-like structure by Modernist architect Craig Ellwood.

Koshalek's other initiatives include hosting semiannual, nicely catered design conferences that bring outside eminences to the campus to discuss current themes and challenges, and an Art Center-led "global dialogues" series that began with a March event in Barcelona, Spain.

Some alumni regard these as unnecessary public relations gambits -- peripheral to what they see as the traditional mission of turning out ace designers who emerge skilled and ready for the working world. That heritage, some say, is jeopardized by tuition costs that have been rising annually by leaps of 5% to 6%, producing a current price of $135,000 for an undergraduate degree.

Orrin Shively, a 1984 Art Center graduate who is Disney's vice president for educational product development, wants donors' money channeled to scholarships instead of construction and promotion. The school, he said, risks being forced to admit students "based on the quality of their pocketbook more than the quality of their work."

Speaking up

Paul Kirley, a project designer for Stuart Karten Design, a Los Angeles industrial design company, said he regularly evaluates prospective new hires -- and that his firm, which has many Art Center alumni like himself, is now looking more often to competing schools such as the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Cincinnati's College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. Kirley, who graduated in 1991, said he found nobody he wanted to hire about eight months ago after interviewing 14 prospects at Art Center (eventually, he said, the firm did find one well-qualified new Art Center graduate who filled the spot). Over the last five or six years, he said, "I'm not seeing the consistency that used to be there."

Damien Vizcarra, a 2003 graduate who works at the Continuum design firm in Boston, said he signed the petition hoping to solve problems he experienced as a student: wasting time waiting for a turn with high-powered design computers, modeling tools and work spaces. "Toward the end of the term, at crunch time, people just knew that it was going to be a long night," Vizcarra said.

Art Center administrators say that the Gehry building -- which won't be built until fundraising permits -- is not the problem, but a key solution to work space crowding. Undergraduate enrollment reached 1,482 last year, but has dropped to 1,400, they say, because of the poor economy. Plans call for capping undergrads at 1,500, and turning for growth to the south campus, where it's hoped graduate student enrollment can be boosted from about 125 to 350.

Educational departments overspent their budgets by $1.1 million in 2007, Koshalek told student government leaders in a recent meeting that was videotaped and posted on the Internet. "That is not acceptable," he said.

Other recent high-level departures include Glenn Baker, who was chief financial officer for five months in 2006, and Emily Laskin, who had a similarly short tenure as chief fundraiser in 2007. Neither would comment on reasons for leaving.

Koshalek held an open meeting Tuesday afternoon during which he answered questions and announced that there would be a websiteto address further queries from students. Student leader Rios said the student government will decide what issues and requests to take to the trustees. It's not certain, he added, that the board will allow a student emissary to attend its meeting and make a presentation.

Students need to be heard, Rios said, because "you'd be hard-pressed not to find somebody expressing displeasure with where the school is now."

mike.boehm@latimes.com