After the Shocking Closure of University of the Arts, Students and Faculty Are Reeling | Playbill

Special Features After the Shocking Closure of University of the Arts, Students and Faculty Are Reeling

Many are accusing the school's leadership of giving a "middle finger to everyone."

Stearns Matthews (center) and his UArts voice students Stearns Matthews

Students, faculty, and staff of Philadelphia's University of the Arts were left aghast when they learned the school would shut down May 31. Part of that reaction was how suddenly the closure was happening—June 7 is the 150-year-old institution's final day. The other part was how they found out about it, via an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The move has left arts educators without jobs and students without a school—including, most maddeningly, a full class of freshman that had been accepted for the fall 2024 semester. And with the news dropping so suddenly at the end of the school year, it left most with little to no recourse for making alternate plans for the fall.

Initial media reports blamed the school's loss of accreditation, but this has turned out to be an incomplete narrative. In a statement from Board Chair Judson Aaron and President Kerry Walk, the institution cites financial troubles for the sudden closure. The loss of accreditation was due to University of the Arts' failure to provide the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (the governing body that adjudicated UA's accreditation) with a teach-out plan, essentially a path forward for the school's current students to continue their education at different institutions, per a release from MSCHE

Walk has since resigned from UArts.

To find out more, Playbill talked to UArts students and faculty about what happened, and what the future looks like now. Participating in the round-table discussion were Emily Rooney, a musical theatre major and rising senior; Stevie Reynolds, a rising senior and acting major; Aidan Yates, a rising sophomore and acting and DPP (directing, playwriting, and production) double major; Stearns Matthews, an adjunct faculty voice teacher and coordinator of voice study for musical theatre; Maggie-Kate Coleman, artistic director of UArts' Polyphone Festival for new and emerging musicals, and adjunct professor of playwriting and musical theatre; and Charis Duke, a coach accompanist for the musical theatre program.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What made you pick UArts to begin with?

Stevie Reynolds: I actually committed to UArts before I had even been to Philadelphia, because my senior year of high school was all COVID. I didn’t get to tour any of my schools, but I chose UArts because every teacher I spoke to, whether it was through email or Zoom, it was so clear how committed they were to helping us find out individual tracks as artists, to making sure they built relationships with us so they could see us all as individual artists. Even with everything that’s happened now, UArts has made such a massive difference in my life, artistically and as a person. I really found who I am here because of the people here.

Emily Rooney: It was the teachers for me too. It was clear that they had so much to teach. We formed such tight connections.

Aidan Yates: For me, this school really stood out because of the opportunity to be so multidisciplinary. You can be a saxophonist and a writer. You can be a screenwriter and a sculptor. That was amazing to me. I’m a musical theatre minor as well, and I’ve been able to work on five productions in my first year here, both behind the scenes and on stage. There’s nowhere else I would have had that opportunity. Some people even create their own focus, like stage management or stage combat. It’s nothing like anywhere else.

Maggie-Kate Coleman: From a faculty perspective, I did not live in Philadelphia, and I did not come in to this school because I applied for a job as a faculty member. I came as a guest artist in The Polyphone Festival. After spending a semester developing my own musical here, it changed the course of my life. I have moved to Philadelphia. I wanted to work with these students. I felt like this was the place where there was hope for my field. I had taught clases at other universities, but this was just a completely different experience. It gave me hope for the future of theatre.

How did you find out that the school was shutting down?

Charis Duke: I got a text message from a co-teacher I work with asking if I’d checked my email. And then there was this weird email from the union, which made no sense, really. But it was the Philadelphia Inquirer article that spilled the beans, really. That’s how I learned.

Stearns Matthews: None of us knew if it was real. Students were sending me the Inquirer article asking if I knew if it was real. Alumni too. My phone was going nuts.

It’s interesting to me that the news dropped at about 6 PM on a Friday. Working in media, that is when you release something that you want to get overlooked as everyone starts to enjoy their weekend.

Duke: That’s exactly right. They dropped it then because they wanted it to be buried.

But my question is, if the school is closing, who or what is that move even protecting?

Matthews: That’s why I think all of us suspect some very sinister criminal something going on at the tippy-top level of this that somebody needed to hide. Because otherwise it wouldn’t be this. [Now former UArts President] Kerry Walk wouldn’t be in Acapulco, or wherever she is right now. She has skipped town. She’s gone.

There’s been a lot of questions about Kerry Walk, particularly after her sudden resignation days after all of this happened. And, of course, it’s interesting to know she came to UArts after being in charge of Marymount Manhattan, which itself is shutting down following financial issues to become a satellite campus of Northeastern University.

Charis, I know you were part of the faculty committee that got to interview the candidates for her job, and you’ve been public that Walk was your last choice. Can you tell us why?

Duke: Yes, there were four candidates and I got to meet with and interview all four. For personality and what I thought she would bring to the school, she was my dead last choice, and we got to rank them. She kind of ended up in third place after we discussed it as a staff, because the one candidate who was an exciting, dramatic, creative person had very little leadership experience. Kerry did have that, she was coming from Marymount. But when I asked her my question, which was why she was leaving her current institution, she just said she’d been there for eight years and it was time to move on. No vision for the school, nothing. Just time to move on. 

My two favorite candidates had a vision. They had been researching and studying new arts, and had all sorts of ideas that they could actually enumerate. Kerry had no vision. And she had no current creative life. One of the other candidates was a choreographer and a dancer, one was a concert pianist, and the third was an actor. They were all currently involved. You know what Kerry’s creative life was? That 35 years ago she got a Bachelor’s Degree in English. Those were my two largest objections. Plus, she was just extremely noisy and loud and aggressive verbally, and we really wanted someone who would listen. [You can read more of Duke's thoughts on Walk in the open letter Duke posted on Instagram.]

Were the financial troubles and ultimate closure a total surprise, or had you seen it coming?

Coleman: We knew there were financial issues, but not specifically in this way. It was a constant thing being spoken about, that the school is broke, we have to cut this. There were limits on being able to go to conferences out of state. That kind of thing.

Duke: There’s no way you could have seen this coming. We always knew we were on a budget, but there was no overall feeling of it going downhill, at least not in this way. There were things we were unhappy with in our department, but they had to do with personnel, not with finances. There was nothing to suggest we were about to fall off a cliff. No sense of impending doom, no feeling that we were circling the drain, no feeling that I needed to jump ship.

Reynolds: I got an email about applying for graduation about six hours before it was announced that the school was closing.

Rooney: My fall tuition bill came three hours before the Inquirer article came out.

Yates: Same!

Matthews: When we finally got the email from Kerry and Judson, it said something about unanticipated expenses. Reading that, I’m like, are they trying to blame this on the faculty? We fought so hard to get a contract, and we had just finally gotten it earlier this year. And we all got raises, and they committed to raises for the next three years. When they sent me the prorated backpay check for the last two months or whatever, it was, I think, $300. They weren’t tripling our salary or anything.

Coleman: We were all being paid less than pretty much all other universities, definitely for the region. We stayed because of a connection with the student body, a belief that even with flaws our approach, our curriculum, and the humans that make up this space were worth staying for.

Duke: We didn’t have a large endowment, and I’ve read that much of it given for specific uses only. A certain percentage of any university’s endowment needs to be held in reserve for financial emergencies. There is not that kind of availability in our already small endowment.

Matthews: It’s maybe one-percent not surprising to me. What’s most surprising and hurtful and humiliating and embarrassing is how egregiously cruel they’ve been about it. People who run things this way and make decisions this way, your parents didn’t raise you right. Nobody taught you the difference between right and wrong, because this is flat-out wrong.

How do you wish this had been handled?

Yates: With warning, at least 60 days for faculty and staff to get their worlds together, at least. I would want at least a year for the students. The college application process is insane, especially starting in June. The least they could have done was warn us.

I’ve read that they had even accepted an incoming class of freshman for the fall?

Matthews: I had just placed them all with voice teachers.

Coleman: Even in the worst-case scenario, knowing that the extended deadline for many schools was June 1, could they have not sent an email Wednesday or Thursday, and given those incoming students another business day to contact schools they may have been turning down and at least tried? Even in the still-cruel realm, that would have been nicer.

What do you think media reports about all of this have been missing?

Yates: The biggest thing is that the accreditation was lost because of how the school had decided to shut down. We are not shutting down because we lost accreditation. It was that they decided to shut down without the 60-day warning.

I don’t think everyone automatically understands how specifically difficult this situation is with UArts being an arts college. If you’re a computer science major and this happens when you have a few stats classes left to take, you have a lot of options. That’s dramatically less true when you’re studying musical theatre, or any of UArts’ specialized degree programs.

Matthews: I went to school as a college student at UArts for two years before I transferred out, and I had to go to school for four more years. I don’t think anything transferred.

Yates: I’m a DPP (directing, playwriting, and production) major. There’s nothing like it in the country. Most of the places I’ve talked to so far expect me to restart entirely.

Duke: I also have to say when you study the arts, personalities become very important. It’s so important that you find the right fit for a teacher. It’s not even a question of does that, say, voice teacher offer the technique that your unique voice needs. It’s also a personality thing. Teachers speak in certain languages because arts are so subjective. You need to find the teacher whose educational language is a match for yours so what they’re saying will make sense to you. Sometimes that takes a while, and when you find that person, you do not want to let go.

I was a voice major when I went to college, too, and I keep thinking about how you could get really lucky and find another voice teacher that you have a great connection with—but you cannot find someone that you are two years deep into training with. That’s just not possible.

Rooney: I’ve had Stearns as a voice teacher for two years now, and certainly I was not finished working with him. There’s so much to be learned. That’s one of the heartbreaking things, that I’m not going to be able to learn from people like Charis anymore, or Stearns. It’s so deeply upsetting. You form such tight-knit relationships, and the door was just slammed closed on that. It’s just crazy how I’m going to be a senior and I spent the last three years getting to know these people, and now I have to form completely new relationships at a place where my new classmates have all known their professors for three years. They have those relationships. Hopefully my new classmates will be welcoming to me, but it’s a little scary.

So, let’s talk next steps. There’s been some discussion that Temple University might acquire UArts. Several schools—including Temple—have released statements that they’re willing to take UArts students and work with them to finish their degree programs. What do you all think of that?

Matthews: It feels like a deus ex machina, and very unlikely. As I was coming to empty out my office this morning, I thought, "Maybe we’ll get an email and I won’t have to pack up my office and I can put everything back on the shelves." I just don’t think anything is going to reverse this. But the biggest concern is the students. For us, it’s just finding new jobs.

Coleman: The last information that I heard about the Temple merger was Temple’s board president speaking with our board president. I don’t know him personally, but he has not exactly proved to be trustworthy to us. If they move forward with this merger even as a last-minute Hail Mary, are they going to honor the union contracts?

Rooney: Something that makes me feel a little bit more comfortable is that I live here. I just re-signed a lease on my house here. I would love to stay in this neighborhood somehow. I went to Temple to talk to as many people as I could. We don’t have a lot of information yet, but I feel comfortable in knowing that Temple is trying to figure something out with us. I don’t know if that means a merger, but it seems that at least Temple cares about us.

Reynolds: Temple does not have an acting BFA program, so a lot of acting majors have been looking at Arcadia University. They’ve been incredibly generous with us. Part of the problem with going to another school is UArts was a conservatory-style program. I don’t have gen eds. Arcadia has said they are going to waive those credits for juniors and seniors, and maybe sophomores—but they’re still working on that. They’ve been very committed, and that’s probably where I’m headed next. I’m here at least through December. I don’t want to leave Philly.

Yates: As a rising sophomore, any merger only means something to me if the staff and faculty come with it. This school is the people we have teaching us, and as nice as it would be to be haded over and feel safe in that, I want the people I was told I was going to work with for four years. I may go to Point Park in Pittsburgh. That’s looking like a solid option. But even if UArts goes away, this community will not. I’m not ready to say goodbye to that.

What do you want people to know and to understand about this terrible situation?

Matthews: I went here freshman and sophomore year, and then I left. It was not under good circumstances. I did not have a good experience with the faculty 20 years ago, and I left under circumstances where it felt like University of the Arts was giving me a huge middle finger. I never wanted to come back. 

And then I came back and had all these weird full-circle moments, like having this office and teaching in this program, and being in charge of the Summer Program, which I did in high school. And now it feels like it’s another gigantic middle finger to everyone. I feel like everybody’s getting that same middle finger that I got 20 years ago. It’s not to say this place has always been a shithole, but feelings come from the top. I didn’t get that only from the School of Theater in those days. If there’s one thing in this article that I want everyone to know, it’s what a huge middle finger they’ve given us, the students, faculty, staff, and those peoples’ families.

UArts Board Chair Judson Aaron and former President Kerry Walk did not respond to a request for comment.

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