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Prentis Hall, where many of Columbia’s MFA students in visual art have their studios (photo by Paul Lowry, via Flickr)

Almost all the students in Columbia University’s MFA Visual Arts program have demanded full tuition refunds due to decrepit facilities and absentee instructors. As the Columbia Spectator reported, 51 of the 54 students in the program met with Provost John Coatsworth and David Madigan, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, on April 5 and asked that their tuition — $63,961 for the 2017–18 school year — be refunded. Though Coatsworth reportedly concurred that the program is a “disgrace,” he told the students that the university could not provide them with refunds.

Columbia’s MFA visual arts program is consistently ranked among the 10 best in the US and the world, both by general interest college ranking sites and by arts publications. Meanwhile, one rubric where it often comes first is the cost of tuition. It has far and away the highest tuition rate of the schools on College Choice’s list of the “25 Best MFA Degrees for 2018,” and its fees page notes: “Historically, tuition and fees have risen each year.” Columbia University’s Lee Bollinger is the highest-paid president of a private university; in 2013, his compensation totaled $4.6 million. The university’s endowment is $10 billion.

However, the building where many of the MFA in visual arts program’s students have their studios, Prentice Hall, is in a terrible state. Students with studios in the building have complained of flooding, lack of and excessive heating, and pieces of the ceiling falling, among other issues.

“I came here on the premise that these were the two years of my life that I could fully invest myself and submerge myself into my practice and my work and my career, and a lot of this time was taken by writing letters and meeting with my peers so I could come up with some solution about the most basic [issues] about the roof that we’re under and the temperatures that we live in,” Elsa Lama, an MFA student who is graduating in a few weeks, told the Spectator. “We were promised something that we don’t have and we’re not getting.”

A spokesperson for the University told the Spectator that students whose work had been damaged or who had suffered excessive heat in their studios had been compensated. But in addition to the faltering facilities provided to them, the MFA students are frustrated by the inaccessibility of full-time faculty. As the Spectator points out, of the 11 full-time faculty members listed on the Visual Arts website, three are on sabbatical (Sanford Biggers, Shelly Silver, and Tomas Vu-Daniel) and one is only teaching undergraduate classes at the moment. And the photographer Thomas Roma retired from the Columbia School of Arts in January following allegations of sexual misconduct by former students.

“[The faculty] have gone above and beyond what their role is as a faculty member. They’re in the same boat as us, they’re trying to do the best they can with the restrictions that have been placed from the institution,” Travis Fairclough, a Columbia MFA student expected to graduate in 2019, told the Spectator. “[But] half of the faculty that are listed on the website is actually here, which is a huge blow, because the program is largely based on the connections that you have with your faculty members.”

Indeed, some of the faculty members are equally frustrated with the situation.

“This has gotten worse and worse, and the University has done nothing about it. Now we find ourselves in a crisis, where we would have had a much better position had they done something,” Jon Kessler, a full-time faculty member in the MFA Visual Arts program, told the Spectator. “It’s almost criminal to endebt a student $100,000 to be a painter or a performance artist … and if this program was a third of the price, I don’t think we’d have quite the intensity around the tuition reimbursement.”

Hyperallergic has contacted Columbia’s press office and the office of communications at the School of the Arts, but has not received responses to our questions. We will update this story when more information becomes available.

Many of the students who recently confronted the dean and provost to demand refunds are included in the 2018 Visual Arts MFA thesis exhibition, on view at Columbia’s Wallach Art Gallery through May 20.

The situation of its visual arts MFA students is far from the only current campus drama at Columbia. The school’s graduate workers have been on strike for a week now after the school refused to bargain with the workers’ union, Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers Local 2110.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

28 replies on “Columbia University MFA Students Demand Tuition Refunds”

  1. MFA ha ha ha
    they could have the best facilities in the world and they’ll still never get a job that allows them to pay that tuition

      1. Perhaps you can be more explicit. One would assume that MFA students have acquired an education in undergraduate school, and will continue to do so throughout their lives. As I understand it, an MFA is a ‘professional’ degree, though I’ve never understood exactly what that means. Nevertheless, I hardly think that anyone is attending an MFA program to be get an ‘education’ as an artist, unless there’s an educational component that teaches ‘self-promotion’, ‘sales strategies’, ‘hobnobbing with the rich and famous’, and so forth. For the most part, what I have observed is that, at best, MFA programs offer an important opportunity for students to develope through working in an environment of other artists (both students as well as faculty). It’s not unlike Picasso or Modigliani heading off to Paris in order to associate with other artists. They, of course, didn’t pay tuition, a tuition that isn’t far from purchasing a set of three letters to put behind your name — something I have yet to see any self-respecting, practicing artist actually do, or have a need for.

        1. I apologize for the brevity of my earlier remark. I was merely responding to the obnoxiousness of the OP. What I was suggesting is that “education” comes from the Latin “educare,” which means to bring forth (that which is within). That is, the purpose of an education is to draw from students the potential they already have within themselves. A good teacher is a kind of facilitator for this process. Rousseau’s educational philosophy rests on this premise, as does John Dewey’s, and Montessori’s. The philosophy that undergirds neo-liberal capitalism is the very antithesis of this approach to education, and as a result, many of us have come to monetize education and think of it only in how well it prepares us for a high-paying job. My point is that there are still a few among us who refuse to think of education in the neo-liberal sense of the word and approach it simply for the self-actualization it can offer us. Some of these people can be found in MFA programs, I suspect.

          1. No need to apologize. I suspected you had something in mind, and what you have said is quite cogent, except that it’s not clear (at least to me) what you mean by “education in the neo-liberal sense of the word”.

            Nearly fifty years ago I earned an MFA followed by a PhD. Both of the programs I was in were unquestionably rigorous, but as I have witnessed in recent years, even PhD programs have deteriorated beyond my ken. I cannot believe the quality of thought expressed by many, even tenured, academics these days. It really makes me wonder if artists might do better setting up their own communities, including studio space. It wouldn’t be cheap, but I’d bet that such a place would be a lot less expensive than the cost of an MFA.

        2. When I was there I did not realize what the MFA was for. Later I found out it had been considered necessary for teaching in a private school, whether high school or college. I never got one of those jobs.

  2. MFAs have to be the biggest scam going in education. It is totally insane to pay $120k+ for the ‘privilege’ of getting this degree. Hopefully the students have rich parents or are getting scholarships otherwise it is very sad to think about spending much of your adult life paying back something that offers so little in the long run. Take a fraction of that money and go live in Thailand or Idaho or wherever for 2-3 years making art full time. It will be a more educational experience, because if you discover that you can’t make art without a faculty and institution holding your hand, you surely will not be able to make art on your own. Art of any value comes from developing your personal voice and living real life, not meeting the ‘right’ faculty in an expensive, cloistered bubble.

    1. I agree with you, but sadly, making it in the art world HAS become a matter of “meeting the right faculty in an expensive, cloistered bubble” as you’ve stated. That’s why many young artists want to get into Yale so badly. There are so many great artists across the country that no one will ever see, simply because artists are now chosen by a “machine” of specific MFA programs, curators, galleries and collectors. These are now the people who are deciding what art is instead of the artists who actually make it.

      1. Alternative modes of artistic practice and exhibition are developing, but they aren’t likely to make anybody rich any time soon, which is what most education is about these days. That and class filtering.

  3. Please come to Pratt. Our World-Class program is in the heart of New York, in the heart of the art world. Our professors of fine arts are professional and practicing artists, not theoreticians. Our scientists, architects, and art historians are practicing in their fields, and they are research-focused, student-focused, and actively involved in museum and collection development. Come to freedom of artistic practice, a nurturing community.

      1. International, professional, research-oriented, practicing what we study and teach.

    1. YES. Many students are at Columbia because of its excellence in other fields of study. Compared to these, the MFA program is not as outstanding. And, as of being in NYC…indeed so is Pratt – and much more centrally located. RISD, by the way, is also just a train-ride away…and has a much better MFA program.

  4. I was a MFA student at Columbia in 1978. At the end of my first year I transferred to another school because of the political and bureaucratic nonsense between the students, faculty, and administration that constantly interfered with getting the educational experience I was there for. It appears that not much has changed at Columbia.

  5. Prentice Hall looks the same as when I was there in the late 70’s. Maybe because it is located
    on grungy 125th St it has been easy to ignore. If it had been more centrally located, it would have been a huge eyesore on campus tours. The other factor is that it houses the art studios ,not Science labs.
    It is criminal to charge that kind of tuition. I applaud these students.

  6. Someone remind me where DaVinci, Michelangelo, Gilbert Stuart, Picasso, Georgia O’Keefe and Jasper Johns got their MFAs??

  7. Tim! Stand in solidarity. Success does not come from laying down and hoping the people who walked all over you offer you a job, a show, or a congratulations. Second years should refuse to leave your studios. Demand a third year. do not move out. do not let them do this to another class. They may kick you all out by force, but that’s an image you can give to the world. That’s what art can do. This world respects vision, strength, and unity. James Case-Leal MfA14’

    1. I removed my comment because I don’t believe in having conversations on a comment board. Feel free to email me directly.

  8. jerry saltz said (ugh) when you graduate with an mfa from a school like Columbia (or yale, or etc) it gives you a one year head start above all other competition. any of course have that year pass uneventfully and then they join the rest of masses of mfa graduates just as heavily, or moreso, in debt.

  9. i wonder if they talked to the Art Institute students or RISD for comparison? Hard to imagine their parents paying that much for so shaky an outcome. I found that Columbia was kind of out of it being uptown, back in the day. And when I went to the Studio School downtown it was a better situation .I had a full fellowship to Columbia and I paid the Studio School tuition from teaching sewing. I find that artists who went to school after they started teaching the deconstructionist agenda, & the Marxism – they don’t know what they are doing.

  10. Unfortunately you have to go to Columbia or Yale or Brown to be recognized as a top artist.

      1. Brown has one of the best MFA programs in the nation. It excels in theater, writing, comedy. It has the top writing program in the ivies. And with RISD (you can cross register at each school) one of the top visual arts programs.

        1. Yes, Brown and RISD do actually teach people things and I know of some terrific artists who have been to them. Whereas Columbia? MFA? Hilarious. As someone said up above, I hope they have rich parents.

          1. Well, Columbia has top notch programs in theater, film, writing, performance, music, photography, but not necessarily the visual arts, although all their programs are ranked in the top ten. Columbia has won more Pulitzer’s, Oscars, etc. than all but a couple of schools. Columbia has many facilities including a brand new arts center right across the street from this building that was conveniently left out of this article. This article is rightly criticizing this one facility as old.

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