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Columbia University’s Visual Arts MFA Students Demand Tuition Refunds

Juliette Verlaque of the Columbia Daily Spectator reports that fifty-one of the fifty-four students graduating this May from Columbia University’s visual arts MFA program are demanding full tuition refunds for the 2017–18 academic year, claiming that they were cheated out of a real education due to decrepit studio facilities and the absence of some of the school’s high-profile faculty members.

Studios have been flooding and ceilings crumbling; as a result, artwork has been damaged. There also seems to be a lack of proper climate control (spaces are either extremely hot or unbearably cold). Students have been forced out of their workspaces due to these conditions. “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,” said Elsa Lama, one of this year’s graduates asking for a refund. “We were promised something that we don’t have and we’re not getting.”

Provost John Coatsworth and David Madigan, the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, met with the students on April 5 to discuss the issues with the program. Coatsworth said that the university would not be able to give the students their money back, even though he thinks the condition the program is in is a “disgrace.”

Artist John Kessler, a professor in the MFA program who has been teaching at the school since 1994, said the art department’s facilities have been suffering for more than a decade and the administration has done nothing about it despite years of complaints. “Now we find ourselves in a crisis, where we would have had a much better position had they done something,” said Kessler. “[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.”

There also seems to be a lack of teachers in the graduate program. Sanford Biggers, Tomas Vu-Daniel, and Shelly Silver are faculty in the art department who are now on sabbatical. That’s three of the eleven professors currently listed on the department’s website. Photographer Thomas Roma resigned from the program in January after being accused of sexual misconduct. Nicola Lopez, another faculty memeber, is only working with undergraduate students this semester. “[The faculty] have gone above and beyond what their role is as a faculty member,” said Travis Fairclough, an MFA student who is set to graduate next May. “They’re in the same boat as us, they’re trying to do the best they can with the restrictions that have been placed from the institution. [But] half of the faculty that are listed on the website is actually here, which is a huge blow, because the program is largely based on the connections that you have with your faculty members.”

Another problem students in the visual arts MFA program face is that they can only apply for a finite amount of financial aid. As a result, many graduate with enormous amounts of debt. For instance, the tuition for Columbia University’s MFA program for the 2017–18 academic year cost $63,961. For the same period, Yale University’s MFA program cost $36,359.