New York’s Columbia University resumed its spring semester classes online this week after the coronavirus forced its campus to close. But graduate students at the school’s Visual Arts Program doubt how much they can learn about painting and sculpting through a webcam.
In a letter sent yesterday, nearly 60 M.F.A. candidates demanded that Columbia administrators refund tuition for studio courses, create an additional free semester for affected students, produce year-end degree exhibitions in the fall, and possibly defer the incoming class of students.
“As artists, our education is necessarily an in-person, on-site practice that cannot be conducted remotely,” wrote the students. “This deeply compromised version of the curriculum we signed up for is not a suitable replacement, and damages Columbia’s legacy. In the days and weeks to come, as Columbia plans its next steps in the midst of this health crisis, we hope the university will not let the education of its artists fall through the cracks.”
Students sent an initial letter of protest to school administrators on March 17, stating that the loss of equipment, facilities, and studios would damage their education, and that online classes would be no replacement. Carol Becker, School of the Arts dean, responded by email four days later, outlining the administration’s guidelines for Covid-19. Like many universities across the country, the school decided to implement a pass/fail grading system, waive some graduation requirements, and move all classes online without adding extra time to the end of the semester.
“It scarcely needs to be said that we are consumed by concern for our students’ welfare, including the continued progress of their education,” Becker told ARTnews. “We are fully engaged in the project of developing contingency plans and alternatives to our standard practices that we hope to adopt for the remainder of this semester and into the fall.”
But students paying more than $68,000 per year for Columbia’s M.F.A. programs are displeased with the Ivy League institution’s response. The Visual Arts Program, which U.S. News has ranked among the best of its kind in the country, currently has 61 students enrolled; 60 of them have signed the most recent letter in protest of the administration’s policies.
“With its price tag, people understood that they were paying for programs like mentor week, multiple exhibitions, and access to top facilities,” said one Columbia M.F.A. student, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “Without these things, the entire degree is compromised. Our classes cannot be translated through a screen.”
“The termination of in-person classes and studio/shop closures has been rough, but the university’s refusal to pledge swift or definitive support for its vulnerable students has been excruciating,” said another student. “Because Columbia has yet to respond to our requests for support or information, I’m not sure what this summer or this fall will look like, or where money for rent or food will come from.”
Columbia University joins a growing list of schools where students have protested coronavirus shutdown policies. In March, more than 100 M.F.A. students from the Yale School of Art called for a partial tuition refund after the New Haven university’s campus closed. Students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts launched an online petition for reimbursements, which now has more than 4,000 signatures. (The dean’s response, which included a dance to the REM song “Losing My Religion,” became the subject of national headlines.) Similar petitions have been created by students at the School of Visual Arts in New York and the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. And students at the San Francisco Art Institute recently learned that the school planned to close, and would not be accepting new students for its fall semester.
But, unlike other letters by graduate students at major art schools throughout the nation, the Columbia M.F.A. students’ missive outlines a number of specific points for how best to potentially make up for lost education and financial resources. It urges the school to pay a need-based scholarship of $3,123 per month, and it demands a 50 percent refund for all classes taught online. (According to the letter, that refund should be exactly $3,147 per three-credit course.) The letter even outlines a timeline for the school to follow featuring rescheduled dates for thesis exhibitions that the students say were canceled because of coronavirus closures. (In an email, Becker denied that any thesis shows had been canceled.)
Graduate students facing an uncertain future because of the coronavirus outbreak are wondering if their investment in a Columbia education will be worth the money after a semester of online courses.
“To uphold the integrity of its education, fulfill the requirements of its Visual and Sound Arts programs, and support its most vulnerable students during this devastating crisis, it is vital that School of the Arts make the accommodations proposed in this letter,” the students write. “In doing so, Columbia University ensures its legacy in two generations of artists, and has the opportunity to set a precedent among top-tier MFA programs. We implore you to rise to the occasion.”