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May 1, 2018

Columbia University Visual Arts MFA Students Demand Full Tuition Refund

NEW YORK—Fifty-one of the fifty-four students enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts Visual Arts program at Columbia University School of the Arts met on April 5 with university provost John Coatsworth and dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences David Madigan to demand a full tuition reimbursement. Students cited absenteeism among professors, a lack of transparency, and inadequate and dangerous conditions at the program’s Prentis Hall studio facilities, including freezing or sweltering temperatures, poor air quality, flooding, and crumbling ceilings, Juliette Verlaque reports for the Columbia Daily Spectator. Tuition for the 2017–18 academic year is $63,961, with a planned increase expected in 2019–19.

The Visual Arts program website lists eleven faculty members, of which three, Sandford Biggers, Shelly Silver, and Thomas Vu-Daniel, are on sabbatical, and another, Nicola Lopez, teaches undergraduate courses. In January, photography professor Thomas Roma retired from the program amid allegations of sexual misconduct by former students at Columbia and the School of Visual Arts.

“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,” second-year MFA candidate Elsa Lama said. “We were promised something that we don’t have and we’re not getting.”

Current second-year students first held meetings with university administration and School of the Arts dean Carol Becker last year, time that they argue would be better spent in their studios. The university said in a statement that it had reimbursed students for the cost of damaged artwork and was working on a long-term solution to the issues at Prentis Hall. Provost Coatsworth said the university would not issue full refunds but acknowledged that the state of the Visual Arts program was a “disgrace.”

Infrastructural issues have been an issue in the program for more than a decade. “This has gotten worse and worse, and the university has done nothing about it,” Visual Arts program professor Jon Kessler said. “Now we find ourselves in a crisis, where we would have had a much better position had they done something. [Every year], the new class comes in with all of this optimism…and within their first month, they see a school in crisis, and we’re scared. We worry about bringing another class in.

Kessler added, “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.” Annual tuition at the Yale School of Art was set at $36,359 for the 2017–18 academic year.

“A system like this thinks on the fact that the people are only here for two years, so you spend your first semester figuring out what the issue is, the second semester getting all riled up, and by the end, they think that you’re worn out and you’re quiet, or that you graduate and it doesn’t matter anymore,” second-year student Samantha Nye said. “I kind of get the sense that that’s not exactly how this class is going to deal with it.”

News of the tuition reimbursement demand from students in the Visual Arts program arrives at the conclusion of a weeklong strike Columbia’s graduate student research and teaching assistants demanding unionization recognition. The university plans to fight the December 2016 union vote in court, and student organizers have pledged continued disruption in the next academic year.

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