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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