A Philadelphia arts college closes abruptly, leaving students reeling (2024)

Last week’s sudden announcement that the longstanding University of the Arts in Philadelphia would permanently close June 7 sent shockwaves through the school community.

The news came amid generational challenges to higher education, from declining enrollment to rising operating costs. But the chaotic and abrupt nature of UArts’s closure is sparking major questions about how operations will wind down.

The facts

  • UArts announced May 31 the school would shut down for good on June 7, citing significant, unanticipated expenses that “came to light very suddenly,” according to a statement from President Kerry Walk, who resigned four days later.
  • The day of the closure announcement, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) announced that it was withdrawing UArts’s accreditation on June 1, which one expert called a “death sentence” for an institution.
  • The roughly 150-year-old school carried nearly $50 million in municipal debt and had faced more than a decade of declining enrollment, according to a 2023 financial audit.
  • Faculty and staff have filed at least two lawsuits against the school, including for allegedly violating federal labor laws about advance notice of layoffs.
  • Students have been gathering on campus to protest this week as many of them face uncertain academic futures.


UArts had faced financial struggles due to declining enrollment for several years. This academic year, the school enrolled roughly 1,300 students between its undergraduate program and graduate offerings — an enrollment decline of more than 44 percent since 2010, Higher Ed Dive reported. citing federal data. The university, which has significant property holdings in Philadelphia’s Center City neighborhood, last year sold off a 103-year-old residence hall to a local developer.


Sam Heaps, an adjunct faculty member and member of the faculty labor union United Academics of Philadelphia, said UArts administrators were candid about the school’s financial troubles during bargaining as faculty were negotiating wages. Despite knowing finances were tight, faculty had no idea the picture was this dire, Heaps said.

“I talked to a staff member who was hired a week before the closure. And supposedly UArts had met their enrollment goals for the fall,” they said. “I don’t think it was widely understood that this was going to happen and happen so abruptly.”

Many of Heaps’s colleagues and students learned of the closure through an Instagram post from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Unanswered questions for students and faculty

UArts scheduled separate town halls Tuesday for students, faculty and staff where administrators would share information but not take any questions, faculty members said. The town halls were abruptly canceled minutes before they were scheduled to start, faculty and students told The Washington Post.

Schools that are closing typically submit an approved teach-out plan — a roadmap for how to wind-down operations and ensure fair treatment of students with degrees in progress — to an accrediting body, but UArts has not done so, according to MSCHE. The plans often include partner schools that will absorb students affected by the closure to ensure the transfers are as seamless as possible.

In its statement, UArts mentioned Temple University, Drexel University and Moore College of Art and Design — all in Philadelphia — as partners but have not provided information to students on formal plans, students said.

Poppy Martignetti, a film and screenwriting student who has been heavily involved in protests, said students haven’t received a straightforward reason the school is shutting down.

“The school hasn’t given us any teach-out plans, any transfer options,” Martignetti said, noting that students and some academic deans have informally compiled useful information and are circulating it via Google Docs.


Even as local schools including Temple — which has inspired hopes of a possible merger after it confirmed it was in talks with UArts to explore “all options and possible solutions” — said they welcome UArts students, a transition is not seamless.

Drexel is offering a 50 percent tuition reduction to students transferring from UArts but indicated there would probably not be scholarship money available at this point in the year. Martignetti said that with financial aid, she was paying about $18,000 a year to attend UArts; even at a reduced price, attending Drexel would cost her nearly $30,000.

Martignetti, who transferred to UArts from the New School in New York after community college, said changing schools might also delay students’ graduation year if the receiving school runs on a quarter system, which has a higher threshold of credit hours to graduate than UArts’ semester schedule.

UArts has not clarified when faculty and staff get their last paychecks, whether they will receive severance, or when their health-care benefits will be terminated, according to Daniel Pieczkolon, the president of the faculty union. About 85 percent of the faculty are adjunct.

Students are scrambling to find out how to obtain transcripts, billing and financial aid records once operations shut down June 7, and some are still living in university housing. Others are figuring out how to transfer to new schools to complete their degree, and those who submitted deposits for the now-canceled 2024 fall semester will need to find a new school when most acceptance deadlines have already passed.

Some of Martignetti’s peers, even those with just a semester left, are unsure whether they can continue.

“I’m hearing students say, ‘This is the end of higher education for me; I can’t keep doing this,’” she said.

What is a typical school closure process?

The combination of UArts’ lack of a teach-out plan and short notice was unusual and alarming to experts.


Under normal circ*mstances, a school notifies its licensing and accrediting institutions and state and federal education agencies well in advance of a program or entire school closure, while teach-out plans are rolled out over at least a year, according to Robert Kelchen, who studies educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and wrote the 2018 book, “Higher Education Accountability.”

Colleges are inclined to wait as long as they can before announcing a closure, but the shutdown decision is usually made when there is still enough financial runway to get employees their final paychecks and students their final transcripts, Kelchen said.

“The longer runway is especially important for faculty — they’ve missed the entire hiring cycle for the year,” he said, noting most hiring is done in the fall and early spring. “They’re going to have a very hard time getting a job.”


Kelchen said the sudden closure “raises a lot more questions than answers.” While some for-profit institutions have shut down overnight, like ITT Technical Institutes and Corinthian College, such a swift closure is unheard of for non-profit schools. The shuttering of Cabrini University in Wayne, Pa., took about a year, and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts announced in January that it will be closing at the end of the 2024-2025 academic year.

“Cabrini is order, UArts is chaos,” Kelchen said. “Those are about as opposite ends of the spectrum as you can get.”

What’s next

Pennsylvania State Sen. Nikil Saval (D) said he and other state and local lawmakers are working to determine how to get answers from UArts about why they shut down so abruptly. He called the answers he and other lawmakers have received from UArts administrators “scattershot and entirely inadequate.”


He called it “disturbingly opaque” that the school’s dire financial issues apparently went unrecognized until the 11th hour. Lawmakers are exploring holding public hearings or pursuing legislative action and may ask the U.S. Education Department to use investigative powers.

The UArts shutdown affects not just UArts students and staff, but the broader Philadelphia community, Saval said, noting, “As an institution, it was a really fundamental part of the artistic and cultural life of this city.”

A Philadelphia arts college closes abruptly, leaving students reeling (2024)
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