Over one hundred MFA students from the Yale School of Art (SoA) have called for a partial tuition refund following the university’s decision to empty its campus and shift curricula online in order to help stem the global outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has infected at least one member of the Yale community. “We are deeply troubled by the far-reaching repercussions of this event, which has tangible and unfathomable implications for our physical and mental health, financial security, professional careers, housing, and immigration status,” the students wrote of the closure in a letter addressed to Yale president Peter Salovey and dean Marta Kuzma. “Moreover, it has severely curtailed the viability of the unrivaled visual arts education that SoA claims to provide. In light of these circumstances, we believe that financial reimbursement must play a part in the university’s forthcoming actions.”
As the United States emerges as an epicenter of the pandemic—the country has more than thirty thousand cases and three hundred deaths—hundreds of universities nationwide have transitioned to makeshift online classrooms using services like Zoom. This has proven a pedagogical overhaul for art schools, where courses largely revolve around studio practice and in-person critiques. Amid the scramble to restructure, thousands of thesis shows—considered a milestone culmination of an art student’s education—will be canceled, postponed, or consigned to virtual exhibition.
Like many art schools, Yale has temporarily shuttered its studios and art facilities—effective March 23—without which students claim they cannot continue their educations. In a March 21 letter sent to Yale art students, who were returning from spring break, Kuzma urged them to remember that “we are part of a larger national and international community of peers within graduate programs of visual arts who are also facing these challenges, and who will also share in this method of instruction, mentorship and revised engagement.”
But the Yale signatories, while expressing their appreciation for their school’s necessary precaution, argue that this change will break a promise between the institution and its tuition-payers. “The reasons why many of us have chosen to come here—to take part in a spirited community of artists who create together, to hone our powers of observation and sensitivity to each other’s work, to interact meaningfully with renowned faculty and visiting artists, to showcase our works in public exhibitions—just to name a few—are no longer tenable,” reads the letter, also dated March 21.
The Yale Art School is just one among a growing number of arts student bodies insisting on reimbursement. Students at New York University’s Tisch School of Arts launched a change.org campaign last week after its dean, Allyson Green, announced that no refunds would be offered to spring semester students; it has over fifteen hundred signatories. A similar petition exists for New York’s School of Visuals Arts and the Maryland Institute College of Art’s LeRoy E. Hoffberger School of Painting.
“This is an unprecedented disaster,” Deborah Obalil, the executive director of the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design, told Artnet, speaking of the pandemic. “While institutions have many disaster plans in place for immediate disruptions to the campus, such as earthquakes, fires, floods, or tornadoes, the constantly changing directives from local, state, and federal health authorities mean that institutions are having to quickly adjust for the safety and well-being of their campus communities.”
The letter from the Yale School of Art students concludes: “Like you, we are devastated that our semester will not conclude as imagined. More than anything, we value transparency and empathy from the university, with the understanding that everyone is still finding their bearings in this unfolding crisis. We hope that this letter will be a fruitful point of departure.”
This story is still developing. Check back later for updates.