A.R.T. Institute Alumni Critical of Diane Paulus's Leadership in Response to School's Three-Year Hiatus
Harvard University's A.R.T. Institute, the university's graduate-level theater program within the American Repertory Theater, recently announced a three-year admissions suspension while administrators implement a strategic plan to stabilize the troubled program.
In recent years, ART has seen increased visibility under the eye of Tony Award-winning artistic director, Diane Paulus, producing beloved Broadway outings such as Pippin, Finding Neverland, Waitress, and The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.
Despite these successes, however, the Institute recently received poor ratings from the U.S. Department of Education due exorbitant student loan debt that has plagued many of its students.
On July 30, the A.R.T. Institute Alumni Association sent a letter to the leaders of the Institute criticizing Diane Paulus's "little respect or interest in the program" and "negligence in her duty to the Institute."
The group writes that it "look[s] forward to participating in rebuilding this program" but "are voicing our legitimate concerns as to its continuation under the current leadership body." They ask for "concrete information" on the decision to take a three-year hiatus and "expect to have a seat at the table when this process begins."
Read the full letter below:
We are the Alumni Association. Founded in 2004 as a 501(c)3, we exist to advocate for the graduates of the American Repertory Theater / Moscow Art Theatre School Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.
We believe that under current A.R.T. leadership, the program has moved beyond neglect and careless management into downright abandonment. The official statement from Diane Paulus regarding the three-year hiatus, which most alumni found out about from the Boston Globe, was written by Scott Zigler. Ms. Paulus has shown little respect or interest in the program, and by delegating such a critical engagement, we receive this letter as further negligence in her duty to the Institute, a major portion of her responsibility as Artistic Director.
The Institute was created by Robert Brustein in 1987 as a two-year graduate training program - this marks our 30th anniversary. From Robert Brustein to Ron Daniels to Franc?ois Rochaix, to Scott Zigler, the latter partnered with Marcus Stern and Anatoly Smeliansky, the Institute offered its students world-class international training. In 2000, the Institute partnered with the Moscow Art Theatre School (MXAT), a fully accredited Russian academic institution. This incredible partnership allowed students to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree. Much of this information has recently been inaccurately reported in the press and we find it essential to correct.
Institute alumni have made their mark in all areas of the industry and are trained and able to transform whatever is thrown at them into something useful. Leading the way in the public eye are Katori Hall (The Mountaintop), Jon Bernthal (Walking Dead, The Punisher), Steve Zahn (Dallas Buyers Club), Jessalyn Gilsig (Glee, Vikings), Faran Tahir (Star Trek, Criminal Minds), Kerry O'Malley (Shameless, The Last Tycoon), Betsy Brandt (Masters of Sex, Parenthood), and many others. Our alumni hold faculty and staff positions at Harvard, Yale, NYU, Bard, Boston Conservatory, Marymount Manhattan, Tufts, Rutgers, Vanderbilt, Penn State, Virginia Commonwealth, NYFA, AADA, and a further growing list of esteemed departments, and in regional theatres and nonprofits across the country. The work of our alumni shapes public perception of the Institute and the quality of the education its students have received, just as the reputation of the Institute reflects on our work when we enter a room.
As explained to alumni, the current political climate between the US and Russia worried the Institute administration about their ability to continue offering the MFA. The Institute then partnered with the Harvard Extension School to offer a non-terminal Master of Liberal Arts degree, starting with the class of 2017. This shift in degree was concerning for a majority of the current students, many of whom planned on careers in academia in which an MFA would be vital. In January, the administration learned that students would lose access to federal financial aid. The Alumni Association called for, organized, and held a live stream town hall meeting in February, inviting the A.R.T. to participate and provide much needed clarity. On behalf of the A.R.T., Diane Borger attempted to dispel concerns that the program was shutting down, calling such reports "fake news".
We are writing this letter because six months later we have been informed that the A.R.T.'s leadership and Board of Trustees are closing our school with the hopeful and "optional" plan to restructure and create a Harvard-based MFA program. We applaud that the Harvard MFA might finally happen, and look forward to participating in rebuilding this program. That said, we must also ask for clarity into the actions, or lack thereof, that have resulted in our Institute collapsing. We are voicing our legitimate concerns as to its continuation under the current leadership body.
Many of our alumni feel that our well-respected Ivy League program has turned into a tabloid headline. They have reported to us that academic jobs are being denied to them because of confusion around our once reputable MFA. These events have caused our degrees and the quality of our education to be called into question. The lack of transparency and vague plans for rebuilding the program are damaging to our reputations, will potentially impact our livelihoods, and our programs' legacy. This is even evident within the A.R.T.'s mission statement:
"The A.R.T. plays a central role in Harvard's newly launched undergraduate Theater, Dance, and Media concentration, teaching courses in directing, dramatic literature, acting, voice, design, and dramaturgy. The A.R.T. Institute for Advanced Theater Training, which is run in partnership with the Moscow Art Theatre School, offers graduate training in acting, dramaturgy, and voice."
We find it telling that the A.R.T. "plays a central role" in Harvard's undergraduate Theatre concentration while the thirty-year-old graduate program has clearly been left to disintegrate. The A.R.T. has gone out of its way to charge the Institute for using its spaces, yet students today have told us they go without space at all, relegated to rehearsing in dark hallways and undergraduate common rooms.
The cover of the 2008 Harvard Task Force on the Arts Report states that "...Harvard must make the arts an integral part of the cognitive life of the University." We hold a vested interest in the (re)creation of this program and the restoration of the reputation of an Institute that for the past thirty years stood behind us. As the 2008 Task Force could not come to a consensus as to what would make an appropriate MFA program at Harvard, we are very curious how the A.R.T. will do so in the next eighteen months, and why the renovation of the theatre is primary to reaching that goal. We also see a strong need for transparency as to the continual rising price of tuition with no adjustment to scholarship support, and why both Harvard and A.R.T. failed to take steps to address those costs over the past nineteen years.
We require concrete information: Why have Ms. Paulus and Harvard not made the Institute a priority, and, as raised recently by The New York Times, what have been the conversations and roadblocks to actualizing the MFA when it was again proposed in 2008? What is the detailed timeline and process for the new curriculum to be developed, submitted, and approved? In the creation of this new program how will Harvard and A.R.T. solve the issue of the cost of tuition? What will be done to address the listing on the Department of Education's Predatory Lending report? What tangible efforts are being made to address this hiatus?
We recognize that creating and funding a graduate program is not an easy or quick process, but we expect to have a seat at the table when this process begins.
We look to move beyond the past.
We share your responsibility for the future.
We are here to help.
As previously reported, this spring, the school was notably missing from The Hollywood Reporter's annual list of the 25 best drama programs in the United States. In June, the institute suffered another loss as the institute's director of over 20 years, Scott Zigler, announced his departure.
For the better part of 2017, A.R.T. administrators have worked to resolve the Institute's problems to no avail. The decision to suspend the program for three-years is an important step in building an effective solution to save the institute long-term.
"What we're looking at is taking a three-year hiatus so we can come back stronger, better, and with better funding," said Zigler. "We found a couple of possibilities where we could have stayed open, but staying open just to stay open didn't look like the best thing to do."
The announcement was made in an e-mail from Paulus and an A.R.T. producer, Diane Borger. "It was very important to me to include in that letter a commitment to the future of the Institute," Borger told the Boston Globe. "We consider it an essential part of the future of the A.R.T., and we're committed to it."
The A.R.T's e-mail announced that the administration would be entering a "strategic planning period," and that ART leadership would "work with Harvard to explore options for an MFA, establish a stronger base of financial support for the Institute, and improve the A.R.T.'s educational facilities as part of an overall renovation of the Loeb Drama Center."
Read the full, original story at The Boston Globe.