Daniel Zhao

On March 21, a letter from Yale School of Art Dean Marta Kuzma announced to the school’s 129 MFA students that in-person class instruction would not continue after spring break. 

“We are not living under normal conditions that allow us to continue with a studio-based practice,” wrote Kuzma, “and so at this period of the pandemic remote education is the only alternative option.”

The same day, over 100 MFA students signed a letter to University President Peter Salovey and Dean Kuzma demanding partial refunds for their $39,924 tuition. 

“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 in the letter. “Moreover, it has severely curtailed the viability of the unrivaled visual arts education that [the Yale School of Art] claims to provide. In light of these circumstances, we believe that financial reimbursement must play a part in the university’s forthcoming actions.” 

Yale students are not alone in these endeavors. Art students at Rhode Island School of Design, NYU’s Tisch’s School of the Arts and Columbia University School of the Arts have all written similar letters and petitions with similar refund demands.

As per University policy, no such refunds will take place at Yale’s School of Art, since students will still earn their credits and degrees.

Though the initial letter did not achieve the goal of granting partial tuition refunds, the students continued their collaborative organizational effort. Twenty-five students banded together to form the “Concerned Students of the School of Art,” a letter-writing forum that seeks to ensure the Yale art community’s well-being. In lieu of refunds, these students shifted to advocate for universal emergency subsidies — a stipend for each student to use to assist their individual economic situation. 

Universal emergency subsidies would “grant students agency in attending to their immediate needs,” explained the Concerned Students of the School of Art in a collaborative statement to the News. “Many of us are spending more on materials and utilities, on top of losing dependable sources of income. We are justifiably anxious about our employment prospects and future access to health care, which were already precarious before COVID-19. We are asking for more support because we know that Yale can, and should, do better.”

In an email to the News, Dean Kuzma said that universal emergency subsidies are not feasible under current University policy. 

“Nevertheless, we are actively taking into consideration the urgent needs of our students case by case and student by student,” Kuzma said. She plans to seek out “viable options we have within University policy.”

“I feel a little bit of frustration in these situations,” said a second-year student from the group, who asked to remain anonymous. “In almost every correspondence we have with the administration, we’re being asked to be flexible, and being reminded that this is an unforeseen situation. Everyone has to change their ways, but the University is obviously sticking to all the policies that they had in place before.”

The group has been in conversation with Dean Kuzma to address their concerns. Kuzma has conducted nightly town halls and communicated daily with members of the School of Art’s staff and administration.

Other than universal emergency subsidies, the group’s most urgent requests include extending health coverage for graduating students, more support and transparency from the University at large, job security for adjunct faculty, the implementation of an early pass grading system and greater flexibility in the school’s deferral and leave of absence policy. 

“We’re often told by those in authority that change takes time,” the group said. “If we just wait a little, they say, things will get better. But things won’t get better unless we absolutely insist on them, right now.”

The Concerned Students of the School of Art’s insistence and sense of immediacy has already facilitated positive change. After some students refused to take out additional student loans in order to upgrade their internet, as was initially suggested by the University, the School of Art agreed to reimburse these upgrades.

“We really wanted that letter to open up a conversation about what was possible,” the anonymous student said. “I think it’s been successful in doing that. We’re now having town halls with our dean on a daily basis, she’s meeting with 12 students at a time. We didn’t have that before.”

The group further urged everyone able to support those most endangered by the public health crisis, suggesting actions such as signing an open letter to the Yale administration and Gov. Lamont, and donating to the Connecticut Food Bank and Immigrant Bail Fund.

Serena Puang | serena.puang@yale.edu

Serena Puang is a senior in Davenport College, majoring in American Studies. She previously edited the Investigations Desk at the YDN. Her column "Reading the Room" analyzes culture and other contemporary issues through the lens of books.