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Art Students Demand University Accountability and Reimbursements During Pandemic

Students at some of the most renowned art universities in the country, including the Rhode Island School of Design, Yale, and NYU Tisch, are sounding alarm bells about their schools’ handling of the COVID-19 crisis.

Memorial Hall at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, Rhode Island (photo by Daniel Penfield via Wikimedia Commons)

Laser cutters, lithography presses, sewing machines, and glass blowing pipes: these are only some of the tools students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) will not have access to for the remainder of the semester, says a petition demanding partial tuition refunds. “We are entitled to compensation for the resources we are missing due to lack of studio access,” it reads. “With over half the semester left, there is a potential $12,950 of tuition at stake for each student.”

RISD is one of many universities across the country that have temporarily shuttered in an effort to contain the coronavirus, and its students and staff are among the growing number to take a stand against their school’s handling of the outbreak. The pandemic seems to have exposed the weakest points of the United States’s higher education system: as campus residents, urged to vacate dormitories on days’ notice, scurry to secure plane tickets or pricey off-campus sublets, faculty are scrambling to adapt classroom curricula to a laptop screen, prompting anger over unchanging tuition costs. The eminent San Francisco Art Institute, home to an original Diego Rivera mural appraised at $54 million, announced this week it would not reopen its doors in the fall, crushed under financial pressure exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.

In the case of studio art programs, the usual woes of virtual learning are compounded by considerations such as specialized facilities and equipment and the hands-on nature of technical instruction. Concerns that online learning will fall short of in-person teaching have spurred nationwide calls for concessions. At Yale School of Art (Yale SoA); Columbia University School of the Arts (Columbia SoA); the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC); and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA), students have written to their respective leadership requesting partial tuition refunds or other adjustments; an online petition asks New York University (NYU)’s Tisch School for the same.

In some cases, the deficiencies of online courses are hardly the only cause for distress. At RISD, a private nonprofit college in Providence and one of the country’s premier art schools, students and faculty alike have expressed alarm, claiming administrators failed to evacuate the campus on time, potentially putting faculty at risk.

Sara Park, an undergrad senior majoring in graphic design, says the first email from RISD president Rosanne Somerson came on March 12, days after three students at Brown University, also in Providence, had to be tested for the coronavirus. Friday, March 20 would be the final day of in-person classes, it said. “This meant that students and faculty would have to risk their health to continue attending and teaching classes,” Park told Hyperallergic. “It felt like they were disregarding the general wellbeing of their community and were putting the institution’s needs first.”

Some students suspected that by staying open for another week, the university was attempting to circumvent its withdrawals and leave of absences policy, which guarantees a 20% refund of tuition fees for withdrawals during the fifth week of the semester, but not beyond.

Two days later, Somerson backtracked, canceling in-person classes and asking students to move out of all studios and facilities by 5pm on March 17. Brown University had confirmed that a member of its campus had tested positive for the virus. The next day, however, RISD provost Kent Kleinman informed the school’s academic coordinators, support staff, and technicians that they would be considered “designated personnel” for the next week. As such, they should report to work in person the following day.

“Brown and RISD students comingle almost symbiotically: we can enroll in Brown classes, and Brown students can enroll in RISD classes,” said one RISD graduate student, who preferred to remain anonymous. “So, when a case of COVID-19 showed up at Brown, the school should have evacuated everyone effective immediately.”

In an email shared with Hyperallergic, Kleinman noted that exceptions could be made for those with underlying medical conditions and said managers should be “flexible and creative” in navigating staff’s personal circumstances. “The deans have been informed that I am asking you to report for work next week,” he added.

An outraged letter of protest, sent March 15 and addressed to the RISD community, garnered nearly every division head and graduate program director’s signature. “To order staff to work on campus at this time is to risk the health and well-being of them, their families, and our community,” reads the letter, authored by an anonymous group of faculty members. “It compounds an ongoing breach of trust that began when the administration failed to take decisive, medically-informed action to close campus when the best window of opportunity presented itself.”

“Preserving a ‘RISD-worthy education’ does not trump the health and safety of any individual community member,” it continues, quoting Kleinman’s email. “COVID-19 is not a design challenge; we are in triage.”

Later, a RISD spokesperson told Hyperallergic that “all faculty and non-essential staff are now working remotely, as of March 16.”

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a RISD spokesperson confirmed that the school’s remote learning will commence March 30 and that at present, “No tuition reimbursements are planned.”

Saying that the college has “needed to be nimble and flexible” in the face of an unprecedented pandemic, the representative continued, “Accommodations were made for students unable to leave campus and we have about 160 remaining through the semester.”

“All decisions RISD has made, and will continue to make, are in line with the most recent guidance from the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the World Health Organization. RISD is committed to providing an environment where all students can complete their coursework for the spring semester and meet graduation requirements,” the spokesperson concluded.

Winslow Funaki, who is in her final year of RISD’s MFA Furniture Design program, believes the university should have acted sooner.

“I really think in-person classes should have been canceled after March 12, if not before, allowing students more time to move out and make plans for travel/accommodations. Instead, we had three days,” she told Hyperallergic. “Despite the fact that no one would be using any of the facilities for the rest of the semester, many of us were told to completely clear out of our studios — that anything left behind, including artwork that wasn’t properly labeled or stored in specific spaces —would be trashed.”

Another student, speaking anonymously, said he had to throw out or give away over $1,000 worth of art materials, tools, and equipment that he could not fit in his small apartment off-campus.

The school offered students who receive financial aid $150 to defray moving costs, said Funaki, “which would barely cover the cost of a U-Haul in most situations.” The stipend did not apply to international students, who are not eligible for financial aid. (A RISD spokesperson confirmed the $150 stipend and said that “additional funds are being made available via our existing RISD Student Emergency Fund on a case-by-case basis.”)

Along with an undergrad task force of five other students, Park launched a fundraiser that secured over $130,000 for low-income and immigrant students whose status and housing were in jeopardy. Notable RISD alumni, including Kara Walker, Julie Mehretu, Nicole Eisenman, and Jenny Holzer, donated to the fund. Park said the New York-based gallery Sikkema Jenkins & Co. (which represents Walker as well as artist Jennifer Packer, who is an assistant professor in the painting department at RISD, and Deana Lawson, a RISD alumna) donated $35,000.

Park added that the GoFundMe was only mentioned once in an email by RISD’s president, “after much pressure from students for her to acknowledge our efforts.”

“Any institution with a $350 million endowment and 2,500 enrolled at $51,800 per annum should have the means and infrastructure to deal with a crisis like this,” said a graduate student speaking anonymously. Administrators, he told Hyperallergic, had responded to their calls for tuition reimbursements with “stonewalling.”

As art students elsewhere are asked to settle for online classes for the remainder of the spring semester, they are invoking similar arguments in their demands for tuition cuts, emphasizing that the costly nature of their programs is partly justified by access to onsite equipment that is no longer available.

“My parents are always reminding me that Tisch is more expensive than a normal school,” said Keara Sullivan, a junior in NYU Tisch’s MFA film program. According to Sullivan, Tisch Dean Allyson Green sent an email explaining why it would not be financially feasible for the school to offer refunds. “One thing she said was that they don’t have large endowments like other schools, and I just don’t think that’s true,” Sullivan told Hyperallergic. (As of August 2019, NYU’s endowment stood at $4.3 billion; a 2014 study found that only 62 institutions in the US had endowments exceeding $1 billion.)

“At the end of the email [Greene] said something like, ‘Go outside, keep a journal, take time to appreciate the small things!’ I understand NYU’s hands are tied, but it makes me a little mad,” said Sullivan.

In response to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, a spokesperson for NYU said, “NYU is committed to ensuring that learning proceeds and that students remain on track to graduate on time; tuition will remain the same for remote courses.”

At the Savannah School of Design (SCAD), PINK, a junior studying sequential art who is an international student, said he lost their job at a campus café when the institution closed. In order to legally retain his student visa and stay in the US, PINK must remain enrolled at SCAD, but he is not allowed to work off-campus — meaning he has no other source of income while the university remains closed.

PINK’s own catch-22 motivated him to launch a platform for students to share their individual experiences anonymously. “Our objective is to get a partial refund of our tuition,” PINK said in an interview with Hyperallergic. “We’re not asking for a full refund or additional sums, we just want to meet in the middle, since it’s a stressful time for all.”

SCAD has not yet replied to Hyperallergic’s email. An update on its website confirms all on-ground education have transitioned to virtual courses.

Jennifer Gulgren, a first-year MFA student at PAFA, told Hyperallergic she also unexpectedly lost her job, at a coffee shop off-campus, which provided most of her income. She reached out to her fellow students on Instagram to see how they had been impacted and found that many were experiencing financial hardship and expected some form of compensation, especially for the temporary loss of their studio spaces.

Gulgren formatted their input into a letter sent to PAFA deans, administrators, and president on March 19. “All students demand respectful compensation for these lost resources and a clearly defined plan that individually addresses each concern with the student’s best interest in mind during this difficult time,” it reads.

In an email to Hyperallergic, Clint Jukkala, dean of the School of Fine Arts at PAFA, said that the university “is committing to making accommodations for students who may have missed shop or studio-based class experiences, and allowing them access to the PAFA shop and other on-campus artmaking spaces once we are able to safely and responsibly reopen our doors.”

Last Saturday, March 21, a missive signed by 106 students was sent to Yale University president Peter Salovey and Yale SoA dean Marta Kuzma. It not only outlined arguments for financial remuneration, citing the drawbacks of online learning, but also asked that studios and art facilities be closed immediately.

A group of students who helped draft the letter told Hyperallergic that studios were officially closed a few days later. “For a week before the studios officially closed, we were strongly encouraged to work from home, but the decision to work from home or in one’s studio was left to each student’s discretion,” they said in an email. “We were relieved that SoA finally closed studios on the 23rd, in accordance with the governor’s ‘Stay Safe, Stay Home’ policy, which took effect the same evening.”

Currently, the students’ most pressing concerns include securing universal emergency subsidies, an extension of graduating students’ health coverage, job security for all adjunct faculty, and implementation of an “early pass system” to gauge students’ participation in online learning, as well as advocating for the community beyond the university.

“The matter at hand is larger than us and it is larger than Yale,” they told Hyperallergic. “We are well aware that this pandemic is affecting the larger structures of the world, hitting those in marginalized communities the hardest.”

Yale SoA has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment, but a statement on the university’s website reads, “There will be no refund of tuition fees as credits and degrees are still being earned.”

At the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), where 82 graduate teaching assistants were laid off after months of graduate strikes demanding cost of living adjustments, the coronavirus pandemic has added fuel to the fire.

“I don’t want the quarter to be canceled because I want students that I’ve worked with to graduate,” Dorothy Santos, a PhD student in film and digital media at UCSC who works as a teaching assistant (and has contributed to Hyperallergic in the past), told Hyperallergic. “But what I would prefer is that they give undergrad and graduate students a free quarter or at a discounted rate,” she added, suggesting that money from fellowships such as her own, which covers tuition costs, be reshuffled to support students who are struggling financially.

“Get creative,” she said. “Take those funds and re-distribute them. This is one of those times in history where we learn from catastrophe.”

Several graduate students and faculty Hyperallergic spoke to worried that the mass migration of studio art classes to online platforms during the coronavirus pandemic, especially without tuition adjustments, would set a dangerous standard.

“On the one hand, it’s been extremely inspiring to see how other faculty have creatively solved the problem of teaching art online in the span of only one week’s time,” said Melissa Brown, who teachers in the art department at Lehman College in the Bronx and currently serves as acting department chair.

“On the other hand, it stirs some of my deepest fears: now that the precedent has been set, on-line education could become the norm, not the exception. Or, that in-person versus online could eventually become the difference between private and public education, which would only serve to exacerbate the wealth and access-to-culture gap between the haves and the have-nots,” she told Hyperallergic.

“I didn’t pursue a graduate degree to be a 2-D image to a student,” added Santos. “I’m not just scared about devaluation of in-person instruction. I’m scared of the devaluation of scholarly practice.”

“After one week of teaching remotely, I’m already mourning in-person, face to face interactions with my students, and with everyone else,” said Brown. “You can have a conversation over Zoom but it doesn’t satisfy the deep human craving for social camaraderie; I hate living in the Matrix.”

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