Harvard President’s Last Great Chance to Invest in the Arts

We learned this week that Harvard University President Drew Faust will leave her post in June 2018. That gives her one last great chance to fully embody the status she has gained as being a president who’s a friend to the arts.

Let me explain.

In recent years, the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) at Harvard University has cemented its reputation as one of the top regional theaters in the country. Stroll down Broadway, and you’ll see marquees for shows like Waitress and The Great Comet of 1812, which appeared at A.R.T. before transferring to New York City.

Yet for all the much-earned buzz in the theatre world about A.R.T. and the powerhouse it has become, its world-renowned acting, dramaturgy, and vocal pedagogy masters’-level programs (the A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theatre Training) have long saddled students with unconscionable levels of debt. As was widely reported in January, the A.R.T. Institute does such a poor job of providing its students financial support that it risks losing access to federal student aid. This at a university that proudly advertises that 100% of its undergraduate students graduate debt-free.

Screenshot of Harvard College financial aid page advertising that all students can graduate debt-free

Among other asks, we are therefore calling on Harvard to show its commitment to the arts by stepping in to ensure full tuition scholarships and living stipends for all students of need, beginning with all current students.

For the richest university in the world to find itself in this boat, alongside brazenly predatory schools like Corinthian, DeVry, and IIT Tech may have been shocking to some. But to those of us who are students in the Institute, it isn’t that surprising. We know that our program has long languished in obscurity, with Harvard all too eager to lap up the success of the A.R.T. while saddling its graduate theatre students with more debt than they would accrue at a shoddy technical or strip mall cosmetology school.

Let me be clear — the education we receive is not a joke. It is, in fact, world-class training. It is considered a top 10 program in the world for graduate acting, according to the Hollywood Reporter, and has reliably appeared on their listing of top schools. Graduates have gone on to appear in film, on television, on Broadway, and more. And as a student currently in the program, I have no doubt that I am receiving a Harvard-level, top-quality education that will enable me to competitively seek out acting roles of all kinds.

The fact is that the Institute’s poor funding situation doesn’t have to be this way. Other top programs invest in the futures of their students. Actors graduating from Yale are guaranteed to leave with little or no student loan debt. Juilliard, NYU, and Brown have full-tuition scholarships available to students of need. University of San Diego and UC San Diego take care of the cost of attendance for all of their students, once living stipends, apprenticeships and scholarships are factored in.

In fact, nine years ago, when Drew Faust became president, Harvard studied this exact issue as part of a task force on the impact of the arts at university, and the report found that to be truly competitive with peer institutions, fully funded M.F.A. (Masters of Fine Arts) degrees were the next step for Harvard. Nine years later and with President Faust set to end her tenure, I agree. And with the future of the A.R.T. Institute now being re-evaluated following the suspension of new admissions to the program, the time is ripe for Harvard to make this long-delayed change.

Doing so would put the A.R.T. Institute in line with the kind of support other highly competitive graduate-level programs at the university receive. Harvard already subsidizes education for undergraduates, law school students, medical students, and more. They do this not only because they know the tuition is astronomical, but also to ensure a diversity of student backgrounds. Not doing so discourages students who don’t come from significant means from applying to begin with.

The bill for all the praise and good press Harvard has gotten for the recent success of the A.R.T. has come due, and it’s a tiny fraction of the $36 billion endowment. As we’ve seen during President Faust’s tenure, Harvard’s fundraising apparatus is renowned, and we’re confident they can come up with the funds to pay these costs if they make it a priority. To not pay up would be a dereliction of Harvard’s duty and not in keeping with Harvard’s own stated values. And it would leave questions as to whether or not President Faust is truly a friend to the arts.

Sign our petition here: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdbitPAtLb3F2xS2SSsVYMY_HhXTIzY3VzbvkOGQRQKGNeakg/viewform

Shawn Jain is a 2018 M.L.A. Candidate in Acting at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.