At the Columbia School of the Arts, Visual and Sound Art and Film MFA students have organized to secure university losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, from the recovery of tuition to legal status for international students. In collective letters sent to the School of the Arts deans last spring and summer, 60 of 61 enrolled MFA Visual Arts and Sound Art MFA students in the class of 2020 and 2021 outlined potential recovery plans to benefit students during the global pandemic.
By the fall, the students say they had not received a formal response to their letters. On November 4, members of the Visual and Sound Art (VSA) MFA classes, as well as Film MFA cohorts, filed a class-action lawsuit against Columbia University to recover spring 2020 damages. Their ongoing litigation occurs against the backdrop of an escalating undergraduate student and graduate worker strike for the spring 2021 semester, comprised of over 4,500 students, affiliated parents, instructors, staff, and alumni from across Columbia’s schools and departments.
In an email to Hyperallergic, one second-year VSA student lamented that the class of 2020 and 2021 have lost studio access, studio classes, and mentorship. “Our first year and thesis shows are postponed until next spring, yet grads in the 2020 class have no access to studios and ‘limited’ shop access by application to make the work that will be their thesis.” (All of the students Hyperallergic interviewed agreed to speak only under the condition of anonymity.)
Tuition, fees, and insurance for the VSA and Film MFA programs, respectively, total about $70, 838 for the 2020-2021 academic year. While Columbia classes have been conducted online for the academic year, there is a standard 3.5% tuition increase for the 2020-2021 academic year.
On March 31, 2020, in one of their most robust proposals, VSA students outlined solutions such as an additional semester without fees or tuition for first and second-year students; MFA core curriculum provided in-person; and financial support for students, including a need-based scholarship of $3,123 per month. They also demanded uncompromised degree exhibitions, which they consider critical for professional development; the deferment of the incoming MFA class or additional resources to accommodate all MFA cohorts; partial tuition refunds for online studio classes; and compensation for students who do not enroll in an extra semester.
In response to student concerns, the school launched a COVID-19 student relief fund in April 2020: need-based, first come, first serve financial assistance offered through SOA donors capped at $1,000, and a second round of assistance announced in July. In July, the university offered a third round of relief specifically devoted to studios for second-year students capped at $2,000. But at the time of interviewing, many students told Hyperallergic relief was delayed and disorganized, which compounded hardships, and some never received funding at all.
“Some have received funds from the first round of this ‘relief,’ but I, personally, am still waiting,” one student wrote in June. “I have been depending fully on student loans to survive, and am about to run out those. I have to pay rent and eat.”
The student was denied the first round of funding and was neither informed of the denial nor the reason for denial. “I was jobless, insurance-less, and in unstable housing with thousands of dollars in unforeseen moving expenses,” the student wrote.
The student eventually received a $1,650 stipend, 98 days after their initial application was sent to the university.
“I applied to the first round and never received anything, but I might have applied too late, though there wasn’t a deadline,” another student wrote.
Students report union-busting techniques on behalf of the university, such as attempting to meet with students privately rather than collectively and calling meetings last minute.
“Many of the interactions we had with the deans were straight-up union-busting moves. They would call us for a meeting in the next half hour. And we’d be like ‘no, give us an agenda first, give us time to prepare, give us time to consult our cohort so we can adequately represent them,’” one student said.
In response to the COVID-19 relief fund, Dean Carol Becker of the School of the Arts wrote in an email to Hyperallergic that across the school, which holds about 835 students, 215 students had received grants as of November, with more relief to come. “The maximum award was $4,000; the majority of students received $1,650. To date, the amount of COVID-19 related support provided to MFA students by the School of the Arts is $518,584, and we plan to announce a third round of COVID-19 related relief in January  to help students get back to work,” Becker wrote.
However, students interviewed said that given the tuition increases and decreases in financial aid, the funding received is immediately applied to tuition, leaving little if any support for food, rent, studios, or art supplies.
For continuing and international students, this creates a cycle of working to pay tuition as opposed to focusing on their art. “In order to receive their scholarships, they have to work for the school and their work usually happens in the facilities,” one student said. “When they’re working […] to receive their scholarships, they’re not able to work on their own artwork, which is the degree that they’re getting. It becomes this catch-22 […] to stay in school and stay employed by the school in order to afford their tuition, they have to not be working on their own degrees. We are the workers, the customers, and the products of the institution.”
A domestic student now on medical leave told Hyperallergic many continuing students have considered a leave of absence from the program, if not withdrawal. Incoming students were not given the option to defer.
“Columbia knows that continuing students rely on the institution — for housing, employment, loans — and there are some who have no choice but to continue as students […] Otherwise, they would be unemployed and homeless,” they said. The student continued:
And in the case of international students, they would be forced to quickly leave the country (an impossibility during the pandemic). Columbia knows its most vulnerable students are trapped. It’s like a giant gaslighting policy. The university can never acknowledge that our education has been damaged or that we’ve suffered any loss. It’s a business but it kind of purports in some way to be like a government, because we rely on it to that extent.
For international students, academic institutions often provide legal status and protection; for these students, options for negotiating the disruption of their program are limited, especially under the former Trump and now Biden administrations. For example, taking a medical leave of absence would force international students to return to their home countries within 15 days, a move made more difficult, if not impossible, with border shutdowns and changing national directives surrounding international students. On July 6, 2020, ICE declared that international students must seek in-person education or leave the country. This policy was reversed on July 14, but new, formerly unenrolled international students taking online-only courses remain banned from entering the US.
One international student told Hyperallergic that while students who are US citizens typically have backup options or existing support in the country, “as international students, you have no net, and you sort of pay Columbia to be your net.”
According to this student, multiple Columbia School of the Arts deans encouraged international students to stay in the country through under-the-table work, while others suggested that international students go back to their home countries.
“It’s shocking, because at first, it’s like ‘why do I feel so scared that someone at my school said that.’ It’s something that you hear every day or from racist people, but you don’t think that you’re going to hear it from the place where you work,” the student said. “I made it clear that’s not an option. I have my life here. I live here.”
However, Dean Becker denied these allegations. “Given the uniquely challenging set of circumstances international students now face, it is perhaps not surprising that there is confusion about the best path forward for continuing their studies and the guidance they’ve been receiving,” Becker wrote over email. She continued:
Yet I am confident that no one in a position of authority at SOA has counseled anything improper or illegal. What we have tried to do is to be as supportive and constructive as possible. The starting place with our international students is that we want them to be in New York and at Columbia, if possible. Their presence is valuable for their education and for the exchange of ideas and creativity that strengthens our entire community.
Another international student expressed skepticism that the university is interested in international students’ well-being or communal contributions, with its motivation instead being financial. “Universities in general, it’s in their interest to keep international students here because of money, because of financial reasons,” the student said, adding that universities “are fighting very hard to keep international students here. You won’t see them doing the same efforts for, for example, undocumented immigrants.”
In a domestic student’s letter to the deans, which they shared with Hyperallergic, the pupil acknowledges the sacrifices many students and their families — both domestic and international — have made to attend Columbia’s MFA program. “It is crucial that we have a guarantee that the emotional and financial investments we have made will not be compromised or short changed by a university that is more interested in profit margins, and bringing in the next incoming class for ‘business as usual,’” the student wrote.
The class-action lawsuit filed on November 4 on behalf of the VSA and Film MFA students is for breach of contract and unjust enrichment. The students are seeking reimbursement of tuition and fees for the Spring 2020 semester as well as any other time which the university has failed to provide them “with the education it promised them.” The breach of contract is “including but not limited to promises of studio-based, hands-on education in Visual Art and Sound Art, and skills-based learning predicated on the actual production of film in the course of film study.”
“There’s quite a lot of support for [the lawsuit],” one student represented in the case said. “I think it was always kind of naive for us to think that they would do anything that they weren’t legally compelled to do. It being a class-action gives everybody the opportunity to be represented, as opposed to a few students taking legal action on their own behalf. It was done with the group conscience of the cohort.”
“We believe that we have meritorious claims for breach of contract and unjust enrichment on behalf of the graduate students in Visual and Sound Arts and in Film against Columbia and look forward to proving our case in court,” the students’ pro-bono arts lawyer, Martin E. Karlinsky, wrote in an email to Hyperallergic.
The university declined to comment on the lawsuit, as the litigation is pending.
Students cite a history of insufficient aid as well as infrastructural issues and scandals at the School of the Arts, which give greater context to their present grievances.
In April 2017, Columbia opened its $30 million Lenfest Center for the Arts building in West Harlem, a move that displaced 5,000 Harlem residents and frustrated many students and faculty, who instead desired funding to continue making their art and for their students. (Of the school’s nearly $11 billion endowment, $3.5 billion is free of donor restrictions.)
In defense of the new building, Dean Becker told Hyperallergic: “University patrons Gerry Lenfest (former Trustee) and Marguerite Lenfest donated $30 million to the University and designated these funds solely to support the construction of a multi-arts venue to enhance Columbia’s position as a leading center of creative thought and practice in New York City.”
“The Lenfest Center is not really in service of us,” a Visual Arts student said over a phone interview with Hyperallergic. “Our studios are falling apart, and there are leaks and asbestos. The part that the students interact with is really run down, but the super shiny $30 million building is what the public gets to interact with. It’s a place where Columbia gets to showcase to the public the products that their students are.”
In 2018, 51 of 54 Visual Arts MFA students demanded a full tuition refund for dilapidated buildings, damaged artwork due to flooding and overheating, and instructors who were advertised but absent on campus. Students were not given a refund, despite Provost John Coatsworth reportedly agreeing that the program is a “disgrace.”
In that same academic year, Thomas Roma, then the director of the photography department at the School of the Arts, retired after allegations of sexual misconduct from former students surfaced. Nancy Bowen, a fellow professor at the MFA program at the School of the Arts, spoke up about Roma’s reputation before Roma’s hiring and was reportedly ignored.
In a phone conversation, a student clarified that their grievances presently exclude the faculty, who are considered a draw for the program. “While there is a history of systemic and infrastructural problems at the school, by and large, the faculty is probably a huge reason why people go there. There’s a lot of great faculty there, and there’s a lot of faculty that have gone above and beyond the call of duty and expectations during the pandemic for us.”
In an email to Hyperallergic, Dana DeGiulio, a visual artist and adjunct professor at Columbia, expressed their full support for the MFA students’ cause, saying, “I really hope they get what they want.” The faculty, according to students, has been generally supportive of the students’ organizing efforts.
The MFA students were careful to say that their desire for organizing stemmed from an appreciation for each other as people and artists; for the faculty; and for the arts in general. Their desire is for an arts program that allows them the freedom to be and create, especially in moments of uncertainty such as this one.
“The reasons that I do speak is because I care. I care about the department, and I care about the people in the department, and I care about the continuity in the department,” said one international student. “Arts education and critical thinking are especially important in the dark times we live in. There are so many great people in the visual arts department who are eager to do that, and I wouldn’t want to see that being crushed under the heaviness of the institution.”
“For a lot of people, our goals are wanting to hold the school accountable to make it better,” a domestic student said over the phone. “I want the school to do better. I want the school to be as worthy as it pretends to be.”