I Was This Close to Graduating From the University of the Arts

I started an internship — the last credits I needed for graduation — a day before the school announced it would shut down. This is what it was like on South Broad Street in the hours and days after the shocking news.

uarts university of the arts closing protest

UArts students spend the night on the steps of Hamilton Hall protesting the school’s sudden closure. / Photography and video by Owen Spaloss

I remember burning acceptance letters in my backyard. It was just over three years ago, and I’d recently been accepted into the creative writing program at the University of the Arts. As my father put it, there was no need to consider any other school.

“There is no better place than UArts at which to advance your creativity. I look forward to welcoming you in the fall.” Those were the words of professor Steven Kleinman, author of Life Cycle of a Bear and member of the American Poetry Review Podcast, welcoming me to a program considered fairly new in the lifespan of the nearly 150-year-old university.

Last Friday, the university closed its doors, likely permanently.

Less than two weeks ago now, my family from New Jersey was driving me back home to celebrate getting accepted — just the day prior — for a summer internship here at Philly Mag. In fact, an internship in the writing world was the very last requirement I needed to complete in order to graduate. Just three more credits.

Learning about the opportunity here at the magazine in late April, I thought it fortunate: I could dedicate myself to my senior thesis and work full-time at my on-campus job, and then in the summer I could focus my time entirely on my internship. I petitioned to walk across the stage at commencement early, and after I completed my internship in the summer I would officially be able to receive my diploma. It was the one thing keeping me from becoming a college graduate, and after being welcomed to the Philly Mag team, I was excited to know I was on track to getting my degree. That is, until I got the text:

umm. have you seen uarts is closing?

The news didn’t come from our president, nor anyone involved with the university. It was the Inquirer — reporting on May 31st on the Middle States Commission of Higher Education’s announcement that it was abruptly withdrawing the school’s accreditation — that informed not just the students, but the staff and faculty as well.

uarts university of the arts closing protest

A sign protesting UArts’ closure and lack of transparency

Hours later, university president Kerry Walk issued an email.

University of the Arts will close as of Friday, June 7, 2024. We would have shared this news with you directly, but the Middle States Commission on Higher Education elected to withdraw UArts’ accreditation and announce before we could communicate with you. We know that this makes hearing the news of UArts’ abrupt closure even worse.

This however, isn’t quite correct. Middle States released an “Updated Statement on the University of the Arts” to set the timeline straight. “This is inaccurate. On May 29, 2024, the institution shared with the Commission its imminent closure, due to a cash flow issue, prior to and independently of the Commission’s immediate adverse action to withdraw accreditation.” The statement goes on to explain: “The Commission’s President Heather F. Perfetti advised the President of the University of the Arts to notify constituents immediately, prior to the Commission’s withdrawal of accreditation, and reminded her that any action by the Commission would be public on May 31, 2024.”

The university promised town hall details to come over the weekend. We waited.

At the very last minute, the college’s news account sent an email that informed us the town hall would be a virtual webinar to be held on Monday [June 3rd]. And the session would be limited to 500 attendees — who would have to register and be approved — despite some 1,100 students, 700 workers and untold alumni being affected by this sudden news.

uarts university of the arts closing protest

UArts students and staff gather on the steps of Hamilton Hall.

The students called for a presence at the historic Hamilton Hall steps, where we demonstrated exactly what this strip of Broad Street would be losing: a gathering of artists putting all forms of expression on display. Music students brought their equipment, and jazz, rock and vocal performances filled the air. Dance students joyously filled the sidewalk. Fine artists were making illustrations and designs on poster board, and chalking the steps and walls of Hamilton Hall and the street before it.

uarts university of the arts closing protest

UArts protesters chalk the sidewalk and steps

Creative writers passed out copies of the college’s literary magazine, Underground Pool, from the first issue to the 14th. (I was an editor for that one!) And every other major I’m failing to mention at this moment (I apologize!) was there in full force.

It may have been the most unified that all the schools of the university had ever been.

uarts university of the arts closing protest

Eleven minutes before the town hall was supposed to go live, we received an email that it would be canceled, stating simply: “University of the Arts regrets to inform you that we must cancel our virtual information session scheduled for 4 p.m.” and “we cannot adequately answer your questions today.”

“If not now, then when?” asked the Voices of the Steps (VOTS), a group of students who immediately decided their presence on the steps of Hamilton Hall was needed for longer. They’d sleep on those steps for the first night on Monday, June 3rd. It would be the first night of many, VOTS said, until “the administration addresses the students directly by rescheduling an in-person town hall for students, faculty, and staff, and a virtual option for out-of-state individuals to view and participate as well.”

uarts university of the arts closing protest

On Tuesday, June 4th, President Walk resigned with no word to the student body; once again, students received their information from the local news rather than from school leadership — or what was left of it.

That night, I joined VOTS and spent the night sleeping on concrete. It wasn’t pleasant, but that was the least of my problems. The only thing keeping me together was the other students also committed to making their voices heard. It forged a bond that’s shown just how powerful a community of artists can be. I have spent every night on these steps ever since.

On Wednesday, June 5th, I started my summer internship here at the magazine. During my introductory video meeting, I had to mute my microphone because a helicopter was filming the gathering of the United Academics of Philadelphia, the union representing the staff and faculty, who earlier this year had successfully negotiated the first-ever union contract in UArts’ history. Now, they marched to City Hall, chanting:

When the staff are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back! When the faculty are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back! When the students are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back! When every program is under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!

uarts university of the arts closing protest

The UArts protest travels to City Hall.

Since then, the UAP has filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of the staff and faculty, citing a violation of the WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act. That 1988 law requires employers to notify workers “60 calendar days in advance” of closings and mass layoffs.

With rain in the forecast for that evening, I gathered supplies for students to keep their artwork (and the first aid table they had assembled) protected from the impending torrential downpour. I also purchased ponchos to pass out to other protestors. The students sat beneath Hamilton Hall’s awning as rain washed away the chalk drawings on the steps and sidewalk. Some of us hung UArts banners to shelter us from the rain.

uarts university of the arts closing protest

Thursday, I was drained. I had spent two consecutive nights sleeping on a concrete step so narrow my shoulder hung off the side. I spent the morning back at my apartment, feeding my cat, trying to clean and bring some order to my life after days of uncertainty and unrest. I returned to the steps for the eve of UArts’ last day of operation.

“From the ashes, we will rise again,” read the flyer for the Last Stand Jam, the celebration organized by the VOTS to bring the UArts community together one last time on the school’s final day.

uarts university of the arts closing protest

The UArts Staff Council had organized a “Big Shot” on the steps of Hamilton Hall: a former UArts tradition where the entire graduating body would congregate in Solmssen Court in Hamilton Hall for a large group photo. Unfortunately, the higher-ups sent word down to order the security guards — many of whom have worked on the UArts’ campus for over 10 years and had become familiar with the student body — to deny students access to academic buildings Friday morning. But Philly Police had blocked all southbound lanes of Broad Street between Spruce Street and Pine, so the crowd gathered there at 3 p.m. flooded the street to fit into frame for the shot.

uarts university of the arts closing protest
What followed was more music, dance, guest performances from the Bearded Ladies Cabaret (featuring alum Avery Goodname) and Positive Movement Drumline, and impassioned speeches reminding the students that we are fighting for a right we deserve: a secure education.

The University of the Arts has officially closed, but students are still sitting on the steps, waiting for answers that still have not come. I am one of those students. In fact, I am writing this from Hamilton Hall, doing my best to continue amplifying the Voices of the Steps and the UArts community affected by this turn of events.

It has been an honor to study under published authors and hear from distinguished writers during at my time at UArts. Here, my professors introduced me to books from authors I would fall in love with, like Karren Russell and Carmen Maria Machado. Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech at UArts is one I have rewatched time and again — it was even printed into a book the university would hand out at their 15 Days Till Graduation event.

uarts university of the arts closing protest

Not many schools offer a BFA dedicated to creative writing, so my options for transfer are very limited — and that’s not even considering the question of which credits would actually translate to another university. I’d finished an associate degree of arts simultaneously with my high school diploma; I’d pushed myself to complete every single class required by my degree in just three years; so I thought I could allow myself to take one summer term. And that choice has since revealed itself to be deeply unlucky. (Those three credits I’d earn from this summer internship? They won’t count, since the school has closed.) But my ill-fated planning has also put me in a unique position, reporting on my school’s downfall from the inside. And to show people that may have otherwise never understood just what this closure means to us students and the greater art community of Philadelphia.

It’s been quite the first week of my summer internship. The institution that was supposed to prepare artists to enter the professional world completely abandoned its so-called mission: advancing human creativity. In just several days I went from having a secure path to graduation to  having a bleak uncertainty I must suddenly navigate in order to secure my future. Can I still graduate? Who would take a creative writer for a BFA? Could I even afford to transfer somewhere else? All questions that many in the UArts community still don’t have all the answers to.

Owen Spaloss studied creative writing at the University of the Arts and was excited to be a member of the class of ’24.