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A photo of the campus with a quote about the closure.

Vague statements about the sudden closure of the University of the Arts has left questions about its abrupt demise.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Wikimedia Commons/ajay_suresh

After last week’s sudden announcement that Philadelphia’s University of the Arts would close due to financial challenges, new hope has emerged in the form of a possible merger with Temple University.

But the arrangement isn’t a done deal.

Neither university has explicitly said a partnership is in the works, but The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Temple—or at least the chair of its Board of Trustees—has publicly expressed interest in saving the 148-year old art school crosstown. A merger, which might more accurately be considered an acquisition given Temple’s relative financial strength, would likely bring a swath of prime real estate in Center City under Temple’s ownership.

Even amid the merger talks, questions linger about the abrupt closure. What caused the University of the Arts’s precipitous fall? And could campus officials have done anything to avert it?

A Sudden Closure

News of the closure sent the campus community reeling when it was announced late Friday.

“Today is a heartbreaking day. University of the Arts will close as of Friday June 7, 2024,” wrote Board of Trustees chair Judson Aaron and President Kerry Walk.

“We know that the news of UArts’ closure comes as a shock. Like you, we are struggling to make sense of the present moment. But like many institutions of higher learning, UArts has been in a fragile financial state, with many years of declining enrollments, declining revenues, and increasing expenses. We have worked hard this year alongside many of you to take steps that would secure the University’s sustainability,” the message read.

Ultimately, UArts could not overcome financial issues—namely “a cash position that has steadily weakened” and “could not cover significant, unanticipated expenses,” they wrote. “The situation came to light very suddenly. Despite swift action, we were unable to bridge the necessary gaps.”

Walk, who joined UArts in 2022 after eight years as president of Marymount Manhattan College—which was recently absorbed by Northeastern University—has since resigned from her position.

University of the Arts did not respond to a request for comment from Inside Higher Ed.

UArts officials have made only vague allusions to financial issues. But the signs were on the horizon. Like many small institutions, University of the Arts has struggled with enrollment for years. While student headcount consistently surpassed 2,000 in the 2000s and early 2010s, enrollment has been in a free fall since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in 2020.

As recently as fall 2019, UArts enrolled 1,861 students. But in fall 2020, that number fell to 1,530—a loss of more than 300 students. By fall 2022, enrollment stood at 1,313 students, according to the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. A financial filing last year put enrollment at 1,207 students for fall 2023.

While the university has made money in seven of the last 10 fiscal years, it operated at a $6 million loss in fiscal year 2023, according to publicly available financial documents. That loss would have been even higher had it not been blunted by the reported sale of assets worth $8.7 million.

Adding to the confusion around UArts’s financial situation, the closure was announced just two years after a $67 million fundraising campaign, which garnered $24 million for the endowment; the rest was designated for capital projects, scholarships and other needs. UArts endowment was valued at $61.2 million in FY 2023.

Shock and Uncertainty

UArts’s accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE), was the first to announce the closure on Friday, stripping the university of its accreditation after administrators informed the organization of their plans to shutter the institution. MSCHE called the closure “unplanned” and “imminent,” adding that the university violated its accreditation standards by shutting down abruptly.

In the wake of UArts’s announcement, MSCHE sought to make it clear that the college did not close because it lost its accreditation but rather its accreditation was pulled because of its flawed closure plans. MSCHE officials also offered a rare public (and pointed) rebuke of the institution.

“Our Commission does and can help institutions close well and with integrity; however, we cannot do it with a day’s or week’s notice,” MSCHE President Heather Perfetti said in an emailed statement. “It is critical that institutions and any attorneys and consultants working with them understand the expectations of this Commission. This is terribly frustrating for everyone involved but especially our students.”

Student and faculty have expressed outrage for getting just a week’s notice before the closure. A group of employees have since filed a class action lawsuit against the university, alleging UArts failed to provide a legally required 60-day notice for mass layoffs.

“There is no precedent for a nonprofit college closing so abruptly,” the lawsuit reads, highlighting orderly closures—such as at nearby Cabrini University, where leaders announced a year-long off-ramp to closure after they failed to attract partners to keep it viable.

So far, nine plaintiffs are represented in the class action lawsuit. 

One of them, Carolina Blatt, Art Education program director at UArts, said she first learned about the closure on Friday night when her husband heard the news on the radio. She reached out to her dean, who had just learned the news and confirmed it.

Blatt still has no clarity on when she will be officially terminated, whether she will receive a paycheck and how long her health insurance will last.

“All of those are really big questions that we all want answers to and I think we deserve answers to because these are tumultuous, life-altering events,” Blatt said. “This is not a small thing for us. So it’s been pretty paralyzing, to not have clear information about what happens next.”

Another plaintiff in the lawsuit, Jenny Neff, a UArts professor and program director of Music Education, had a similar experience. She first learned about the closure on social media around 7:30 p.m. Friday. She was contacted by her dean about 30 minutes later, who she said also received little notice.

Neff said she went from being initially “shocked” to passing through “the stages of grief” over the last week. 

On Tuesday, officials cancelled a scheduled town hall to discuss the closure, heightening the frustrations faculty, staff, and students are facing in getting clear answers.

Both Blatt and Neff criticized the university’s lack of communication about the severity of the its financial situation, both before and after the closure announcement. Though UArts took some belt-tightening measures, they said, officials did not institute a hiring freeze, layoffs or program cuts—moves that struggling colleges typically make to reduce operating costs.

Now they’re left wondering about their students. 

Neff said that many of her students are practicing K-12 teachers, who were scheduled to take summer courses that she had hired faculty to teach. Some were working on required certifications; others had only thesis projects remaining to finish their programs. Now she worries about whether the credits will transfer, particularly for professional students.

But Blatt and Neff also face uncertainty about their own futures. 

Blatt, who left a tenured job at the College of New Jersey to join UArts in 2022, said that while colleges are eager to welcome students from closed colleges, finding another academic position—particularly at this time of the year—is hard. Given the hiring cycle, it seems unlikely she’ll find a new job before the fall semester.

“I’m the primary breadwinner for my family of four, so I feel this acutely,” Blatt said.

Eric Lechtzin, an attorney at Edelson Lechtzin LLP who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, described the sudden closure as “incomprehensible” and wonders if it could have been avoided. He questions what administrators knew and when, and wants to know what steps officials took to try to avoid leaving hundreds of employees in the lurch.

While the Federal WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act requires 60 days’ notice for mass layoffs, UArts provided only seven, he noted. Now even deans that he has spoken with know little about what will happen next.

A Possible Merger?

Even as University of the Arts prepared to close, hiring a management firm to lead the process, hope swirled about a possible 11th-hour merger with Temple University, located a little more than two miles away.

Temple Board of Trustees Chair Mitchell Morgan told The Philadelphia Inquirer this week that he was working with the chair of the UArts Board of Trustees to explore the possibility of a merger.

“If it’s a win-win, we are interested,” Morgan told the newspaper.

In a Wednesday statement, Temple President Richard Englert and Senior Vice President and Provost Gregory Mandel, remained noncommittal, hinting at the possibility of a merger while making no mention of the term.

“This remains a fluid situation, and we continue to gather more information in relation to the University of the Arts’ sudden closure. Over the last several days, we have spoken with UArts representatives to explore all options and possible solutions that might help preserve the arts and the rich legacy of this 150-year-old institution,” the statement read in part.

Temple officials noted that their emphasis, for now, was on providing a landing place for displaced University of the Arts students to complete their studies in the wake of the sudden closure.

If University of the Arts does formally close as planned, it will join a handful of other small private institutions that have also announced plans to do so this year, including Delaware College of Art and Design, Oregon College of Oriental Medicine, Wells College, the University of Saint Katherine, Goddard College, Oak Point University, Birmingham-Southern College, Fontbonne University, and Notre Dame College. Nearby Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts also announced in January it is ending its degree offerings, though it will continue as a museum.

Last year 14 private, nonprofit colleges announced plans to close due to financial challenges. And a 15th—The King’s College in New York City—closed without a formal announcement.

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