What Is Behind Philly’s University of the Arts Abrupt Closure?

You may have heard the disconcerting news that the 150 year old University of the Arts (UArts) in Philadelphia abruptly announced their closure last week, less than a year after Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts announced they were discontinuing their bachelor and master of fine arts degrees.  What is particularly galling about the closure is that faculty and students weren’t informed that the school would be closing a few days later and heard about it via media sources.

In addition, the manner in which they made the announcement resulted in the school immediately losing its accreditation.  Apparently, the accrediting agency told them on May 28 that their accreditation was renewed for another few years. The next day UArts told the agency they were going to close in a few days and the agency pulled accreditation pretty much immediately in response to the fact the school was giving such short notice and had not arranged for teach out agreements to help students transfer to other schools.

This reminded me of the closure of Sweet Briar College that I wrote about in 2015.  There were all sorts of questions about how that decision came about, especially since the school had accepted a million dollar gift two weeks before the board decided to close the school. In that case, the alumnae rallied to call for the resignation of the president and board for not properly exploring options to keep the school open.  The school continues to operate today.

I am not suggesting UArts is in a position to be saved. A number of universities have been closing in recent years. Last week Marymount Manhattan merged with Northeastern University due to declining enrollments.  The merger was a result of discussions over the course of a number of years.

Clearly the difficulties UArts faced didn’t just emerge over the course of a week. The faculty just ratified its first contract in February after three years of negotiation, but according to a recent article on the closure, there was no indication of financial problems at that time.

“Part of what makes this so shocking and outrageous is that at no point was there any indication from the senior leaders at the university … that the university’s finances were this precarious,” faculty member and union representative Bradley Philbert told Hyperallergic, adding that within the last three months, the university has hired between four and six staffers.

“This is not just something that happened overnight,” Philbert said.

Others have mentioned the abrupt closure is likely a violation of the WARN Act which requires large employers to provide 60 days notice of layoffs and closures.

Instances like these make me wonder what sort of legal advice and guidance these boards have been receiving. Likewise, who was making decisions about internal and external communications that none of this information was shared with any of the school’s constituencies.  In the end, I wonder if there are parallels with Sweet Briar in that the UArts board may have decided to shut everything down without due consideration about the process.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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