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The sudden closure of the University of the Arts (UArts) has sent shockwaves through the Philadelphia art community and the US arts education field. Outcry over the suddenness of the closure—announced on 31 May, taking effect on 7 June—has led to the resignation of school president Kerry Walk, community protests and a class action lawsuit on behalf of former employees.

UArts, a 150-year-old institution boasting programmes that ranged from theater to game art, has produced a number of notable alumni, including the painters Charles Sheeler and Bo Bartlett, conceptual artist Alex da Corte, photographer Irving Penn and the graffiti artist and muralist Steve Powers. The school reported a total enrollment of 1,149 students for the 2023-24 school year, down nearly 2,000 students from the previous decade.

In its 31 May announcement, the institution cited a “fragile financial state” brought on by factors including “declining enrollments, declining revenues and increasing expenses”. One trustee told The Philadelphia Inquirer that it would have taken around $40m to “save” the university. (Many UArts students and staff allegedly found out about the closure through the Inquirer’s initial report rather than administrative communications.)

University leaders’ sudden announcement and fleeting responses to inquiries have left many community members feeling jilted. Union officials toldThe New York Times that a promised meeting to start layoff negotiations with the school’s around 450 employees was cancelled on 4 June, a parallel experience to that of former students who learned that a town hall meeting scheduled for 3 June would not actually take place. Reeling from the news, hundreds of students, parents and former faculty have responded to university administrators’ decisions with protests and demonstrations starting on 2 June. (In February, after more than two years of negotiations, unioinised UArts employees had reached a tentative contract agreement with administrators, averting a then-imminent strike.)

Many community members have been left scrambling for new jobs, schools and housing since the closure announcement. In a comment to NBC Philadelphia, teacher and alumnus Laura Frazure said: “We are getting very limited information. […] I filed for unemployment today. I’ve never filed for unemployment before in my life”. It also remains to be seen when, if and how students who paid for future classes will be reimbursed. “The previous administration with David Yeager as president had a capital campaign that supposedly raised $67m. The question is: where is that money?”, Frazure added.

Many public officials in Philadelphia have made public statements criticising the handling of UArts’ closure, including mayor Cherelle L. Parker, who said she was “saddened” by the news, and state senator Nikil Saval, who called administrators’ comportment “shocking and unacceptable”. State representative Ben Waxman called for an independent investigation into the school’s closure.

“University of the Arts is a pillar of both education and arts in a city where both are very, very important,” Bradley Philbert, an adjunct professor in critical studies at the school and union vice president, told the Inquirer. “This news is shocking and certainly anger-generating.”

As of this writing, UArts has released three public statements about its imminent closure. The first, dated 31 May and attributed to Walk and chair of trustees Judson Aaron, stated that the institution “could not overcome the ultimate challenge we faced: with a cash position that has steadily weakened, we could not cover significant, unanticipated expenses”. The second statement, published 2 June on behalf of the entire board of trustees, briefly explained their failure to “identify a viable path for the institution to remain open and in the service of its mission”. The third statement, date 4 June and attributed to Aaron, disclosed the board’s decision to engage the law firm Alvarez & Marsal in the wake of Walk’s departure, and to help the institution “through complex challenges”.

Around the time news of the closure first became public on 31 May, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education withdrew the university’s accreditation, stating that the school was “out of compliance in all areas”.

Ways forward?

According to Aaron, UArts’ next steps include “developing a teach-out plan to enable our students to seamlessly continue their degrees at other high-quality institutions”, a commitment that has already been met by schools like Muhlenberg College, which is opening ten seats in the upcoming autumn semester and making $2,000 dance and theatre scholarships available specifically for UArts students. Point Park University released a statement on 3 June offering “automatic acceptance to those interested in attending Point Park beginning this fall”, along with a semester of free housing in its residence halls for up to 75 incoming UArts students.

Nearby Temple University is exploring a potential merger with UArts as a means of saving the beleaguered school, according to the Inquirer. “I’m working with their chair to see if we can put this genie back in the bottle,” Mitchell L. Morgan, Temple’s board chair and founder and chairman of Morgan Properties, told the Inquirer.

Art schools

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On 5 June, a class action lawsuit against UArts was filed in federal court by nine UArts employees, including various professors and a college librarian, accusing the school of violating the Worker Adjustement and Retraining Notification Act (Warn Act), a 1988 law that requires most entities with more than 100 employees to provide a minimum of 60 days notice prior to closing or mass layoffs. The plaintiffs also allege that UArts violated the Pennsylvania Wage Payment Collection Law, Philadelphia Magazine reported, alleging that the school owes compensation for hours taught and unused vacation time. UArts has not commented on or responded publicly to the allegations.

“This situation reflects a complete failure of leadership,” Eric Lechtzin, the lawyer representing the UArts employees in the lawsuit, told the magazine. “It is incomprehensible how they could announce the closing of the university within seven days, with no prior warning to anyone. In fact, I’ve heard from people who recently left tenured positions at other schools to join the faculty and staff of UArts, only to learn mere weeks or months into their new position that UArts is closing.”

While the still-unfolding UArts saga appears uniquely dramatic, according to a recent investigation by the Hechinger Report, a non-profit newsroom covering education policy, on average one university or college closes every week in the United States, and one in ten higher education institutions are in “financial peril”. Fewer than half of students suddenly boxed out of their education experience transfer to other colleges. UArts joins the ranks of recently closed schools such as University of Antelope Valley in California, Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama, Fontbonne University in St Louis and Eastern Gateway Community College in Ohio thus far in 2024, hot on the heels of the similarly scandalous shuttering of the Art Institute network in 2023.

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