Courtesy of Charles Erickson

After a $150 million gift from entertainment magnate David Geffen, all present and future graduate students at the Yale School of Drama will receive a tuition-free education, the University announced on Wednesday.

The gift, which the University believes is the largest in the history of American theater, will finance tuition for the 200 students studying across 10 degree and certificate programs. The school will go tuition-free starting in the 2021-22 academic year. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the drama school did not admit a new class for the upcoming academic year, but has fully subsidized a fourth year for all enrolled students. In recognition of his gift, the University has named the school for Geffen. The naming rights will last in perpetuity, University President Peter Salovey told the News.

“People tell us that they can’t imagine that getting trained at the David Geffen School of Drama was going to be financially possible for them,” James Bundy DRA ’95, the school’s dean, said in an interview with the News. “We’re confident that the message that the school is tuition-free will enable people to imagine themselves training here, as we can imagine them training, and that that will lead to an increasingly socioeconomically diverse student body that more truly represents the fabric of the nation and the world that we tell stories about.” 

Yale is currently courting additional funding from potential donors to construct a new facility for the school. The efforts are part of the capital campaign, a fundraising push each University president undertakes once during their tenure, which will launch on Oct. 2.

The drama school is currently spread across 10 buildings. Salovey said that he hopes to construct a new facility to bring students and professors from the school’s different programs together under one roof, as well as provide them with a state-of-the-art theater.

Once the University reaches an initial fundraising threshold of $65 million, it will hire an architect to plan the new building, Salovey said.

Geffen is a fixture of the American entertainment industry, producing films, constructing rosters of recording artists and bringing plays to Broadway. He amassed his fortune as a music industry executive, establishing bands including Nirvana, Queen and the Eagles. Geffen also founded Asylum Records, Geffen Records and Geffen Pictures. Additionally, in conjunction with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, he co-founded the DreamWorks SKG film studio.

Geffen has a long history of donations to universities. In 1995 he donated $5 million to the Westwood Playhouse — now the Geffen Playhouse — at the University of California, Los Angeles. Since then, Geffen has given more than $450 million to UCLA’s medical school — which was renamed the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA — making him the single largest benefactor for the University of California system. In 2015, Geffen donated $100 million to the Avery Fisher Hall of the Center for Performing Arts in New York. He was granted naming rights to the David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center in perpetuity.

Geffen is philanthropically committed to the arts and to higher education, Salovey said. His donation to the School of Drama brings the two causes together.

“Yale is well known for having one of the most respected drama programs in the country,” Geffen said in a YaleNews article. “So, when they approached me with this opportunity, I knew Yale was the right place to begin to change the way we think about funding arts education. … Removing the tuition barrier will allow an even greater diversity of talented people to develop and hone their skills in front of, on, and behind Yale’s stages. I hope this gift will inspire others to support similar efforts to increase accessibility and affordability for arts education at colleges and universities across the country.”

Geffen first became involved with Yale as the instructor of an arts management seminar during the 1978-79 academic year. Since then, Geffen has stayed connected to Yale, Salovey said.

While the University approached Geffen about making a gift (consider these gift ideas that can be used on any occasions), it was Geffen’s idea that his money should go towards making the school tuition-free, Bundy said.

“People from modest financial backgrounds often feel the arts aren’t an option available to them,” Salovey said. “They can’t take on a lot of debt, they can’t take the risk involved in an artistic career. By using this gift to go tuition-free for every drama school student forever, we are really opening the school, we are making the school more accessible to all kinds of people from all walks of life.”

University leaders announced the gift in a Wednesday morning Zoom call with the drama school community.

A student at the School of Drama, Sarah Cain DRA ’23, said the call was “pretty shocking, pretty exciting, pretty early in the morning,” adding that she teared up a bit when she heard the news. 

As a student entering her final year at the school, Cain said she is no stranger to conversations about financial aid. She called these conversations “very tricky” and stressful. This gift makes the process far less stressful, according to Cain.  

“This gift is truly extraordinary — not just for current students but for all future students,” Cain said. “This removes one of the biggest barriers of entry to this program and will hopefully lead to a more accessible and inclusive school.”

Yale began offering graduate education in theater in 1925.

Rose Horowitch covers Woodbridge Hall. She previously covered sustainability and the University's COVID-19 response. She is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in history.
Annie Radillo covers museums and visual art. She is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in English.