I’m of two minds when it comes to the closing of Philadelphia’s University of the Arts (UArts). 

Mind #1 is empathetic, as in almost total solidarity with the plight of the students and staff given the style and substance of the school’s sudden closure.   

When UArts announced that it was closing permanently on June 7, 2024, there were gasps of collective disbelief since the school was giving both staff and students just one week’s notice to pack up shop and find another place to study and work.

The official excuse for the closure was a budget crisis, as if the school had been in a coma for years and suddenly woke up in the middle of the night and realized it didn’t have enough money to go on. UArts’ Board of Trustees — a board that has made disastrous decisions in the past, as I’ll get into later — formally voted on June 1 to approve the closure.  More than one person smelled a rat.

At the time of the announcement the school’s enrollment was just over 1,000 students, a pathetic number that doesn’t even reach the level of most high school enrollments. UArts staff — teachers and administration — numbered slightly more than half of that — 600 — suggesting a top heavy bureaucracy. Still, a one week termination notice is tantamount to an act of violence: Where would the displaced students go, especially new students accepted for the fall 2024 semester, many of whom probably moved to Philadelphia from other states and cities, found an apartment and began to build new lives around their tenure at UArts? 

In a gesture of solidarity, more than 70 universities across the country reopened their admissions process for displaced UArts students. 

And yet the fact remains that UArts suffered a 44 percent decline in student enrollments in the last decade. In 2023, there were just 1,149 students at the school. 

Art schools, nationally, are on the road to extinction. News reports of their demise are too numerous to count. A 2023 VICE headline: Why You Shouldn’t Go to Art School. From the National Association of Scholars: Confronting Groupthink in Art Education (December 2021). Observer.com: Why So Many Independent Art Colleges are Shutting Their Doors. From CGN: Life After Art School: Disappointments and Future Plans (2014). 

For UArts, one might say that the die had been cast when the Pennsylvania Academy of the Arts (PAFA) ended its student enrollment program in January 2024. Six years prior in 2018, the Art Institute of Philadelphia closed its doors, followed by the closure of 30 nationwide Art Institute colleges because of accreditation issues. (I should note that besides its reputation as the city’s premier trade Vo-Tech version of an art school, the Art Institute was not popular with Philadelphia landlords, who were often upfront about their reluctance — even refusal — to rent to Institute students because of their tendency to trash apartments.)    

Two art schools remain in the city: Moore College of Art and the Tyler School of Art and Architecture (Temple University). Moore, with its all female student body, is by design a restricted space. Potential male students must align themselves with Tyler, or find an art school in another city. 

Yet the city lost more than just an art school when UArts closed its doors. The school owned a slew of valuable properties throughout the city, such as the Gershman Y, the Arts Bank at Broad and South Streets, and the Art Alliance with its galleries and once popular restaurant. Fallout from the closure has already affected the Art Alliance, which will also close its doors. Last year UArts sold a 103-year old property at 1500 Pine Street for upwards of 10 million — a clue, perhaps, that a worm was eating away at the school’s financial core.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the school had approximately $94 million worth of real estate holdings. 

The school’s centerpiece building, Dorrance Hamilton Hall, was designed by three architects — William Strickland, Frank Furness, and John Haviland. Its fate is also up in the air, although Preservation Alliance executive director Paul Steinke told KYW News that, “the buildings that have housed the nearly 150-year-old institution, which recently lost its accreditation, will remain part of the city’s architecture for some time to come.

“Some of them are historically registered with the city,” he added, “which does give them some measure of protection from demolition or insensitive treatment… Most of them are in national register historic districts which means they could conceivably qualify for historic preservation tax credits.” 

But who will buy Hamilton Hall — a condo developer from New York? My guess is that Jefferson University will purchase it and transform it into a Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Center. This will mean an immediate name change for Avenue of the Arts into the Avenue of Medicines, or Jefferson University Avenue. UArts, after all, was the raison d’être for the name Avenue of the Arts. While a Jefferson purchase would surely protect the integrity of the exterior of the building, the interior is likely to be transformed into a complex of cubicle-like spaces and medical offices. 

The National Center for Education Statistics reported that college enrollment fell from about 18 million in 2010 to about 15.8 million in 2023. That’s a significant drop. Spending thousands of dollars on a university education offers no guarantee of a good job or career after graduation because today a university diploma is roughly the equivalent — in terms of education value — of a high school diploma.

Peggy Noonan, writing for the Wall Street Journal, quoted journalist Fareed Zakaria on the questionable value of a university education: 

“‘Out of this culture of diversity has grown the collection of ideas and practices that we have now all heard of — safe spaces, trigger warnings and microaggressions.’ Schools have instituted speech codes ‘that make it a violation of university rules to say things that some groups might find offensive. Universities advise students not to speak, act, even dress in ways that might cause offense to some minority groups.’ When the George Floyd protests erupted, universities publicly aligned their institutions to those protests.”

Then there’s Megan Bonke, in her essay, Life After Art School:

“What happens after art school? We all become famous and earn loads of money from making and creating. It’s really fulfilling, right? Well, that would be nice. I’m just over a year out of undergraduate school, and I can still come up with a dozen answers to the question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Developing a convincing platform to explain my less than stable career choice can be rather stressful.”

Currently UArts is working with a consulting firm to develop a teach-out plan. It is also in talks with one of its transfer partners, Temple University, with the possibility of a merger on the table. One can hope this idea pans out, but will it solve the problem of art schools and a university education in general? 

On Google’s ‘People also Ask’ page, the question “Is art school a bad investment?” prompted me to investigate.

The answer: “There are so many art school grads out there that just end up working retail or customer service jobs. And I just personally think that art school is very expensive with a very small return on your investment.”

Mind #2: 

When the news hit in late May that Philadelphia’s University of the Arts would be closing its doors permanently on June 7, 2024, I wasn’t all that surprised.

The University of the Arts was created in 1987 after the merger of two century-old institutions, the Philadelphia College of Art (PCA)—established in 1876 as part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art– and the Philadelphia College of the Performing Arts (PCPA).  

UArts has been dying a slow, agonizing death for at least ten years. The first hint of trouble surfaced in 2018, the peak year of the excesses of the #MeToo movement, when a UArts photography Professor Harris Fogel — an award-winning international photographer who had been with the school for over 20 years — was accused of an unwanted kiss by a female professor from California when they both attended a Las Vegas photography conference. 

The California professor was somebody Fogel knew well, so when they met in a hotel lobby at the beginning of the conference, Fogel thought nothing of greeting his west coast friend with a kiss. That kiss — so Fogel later told Philadelphia Magazine — was a standard UArts form of greeting among professors and colleagues. 

The kiss was accepted by University of the Pacific Professor Jennifer Little as a nothing burger, yet twenty months later Little wrote a letter to UArts administration claiming that Fogel had greeted her with an unwelcome and forced kiss in the lobby of the hotel. Ironically, the professor’s letter was followed one day later by another allegation against Fogel, this one from a female photography student who claimed that when Fogel went to hand her his business card at a photography conference in Houston, he offered her his hotel room key instead. 

Fogel later admitted that he was embarrassed about the mix-up — life was easier when hotel keys looked like hotel keys — and that Anne-Laurie Autin laughed the mistake off as a joke.

When UArts received the California professor’s complaint almost two years after the fact, as well as the additional complaint from the student photographer who now saw the mistaken hotel room key exchange in a sinister light — it was later revalued that Little and Autin were in fact chums — the school initiated a Title IX investigation that determined that the kiss between Fogel and Little was not consensual at all but forced in the manner of a date rape prelude or a noir horror film.

As a result of the investigation, on March 8, 2018 Professor Fogel was terminated by Dean Mark Campbell. In August of the same year, the University Board of Trustees withheld the termination. 

Fogel then sued UArts — Fogel v. University of the Arts, et al — claiming that the university’s investigator failed to interview his exculpatory witnesses and did not investigate leads on possible collusion. Fogel charged that UArts violated his civil rights in terminating him based on “an erroneous outcome theory.” 

Fogel suspected collusion between Ms. Autin and Professor Little and stated that the “University failed to obtain the emails between the women to investigate his collusion defense.” 

The UArts Title IX Coordinator, Fogel said, failed to investigate all available evidence, including an unwillingness to objectively evaluate Professor Little’s credibility, and UArts failed to “provide adequate notice of the charges against him, including the date, time, and location of the incidents alleged.”

Fogel said the Title IX Coordinator also failed to interview groups of women from the Las Vegas FotoFest conference to whom Professor Little reported the kiss. The coordinator also failed to consider Ms. Autin’s confession to a Houston conference representative that she thought it entirely possible that Fogel’s room key remark was a ‘joke’ and not intentionally malicious.  

Fogel filed a lawsuit against UArts in federal court in Philadelphia — and won.

According to a friend of mine who worked in UArts administration at the time, Fogel won a lot of money, so much money in fact that my friend asked me then to be very careful about writing about the settlement, which as far as she knew was not made public because it was such an embarrassment to the school. Apparently only those in UArts administrative knew about the settlement and the amount.

This friend lived in my neighborhood, so she was somebody I saw her frequently on local buses. As an avid 2016 Trump supporter — and someone who had issues with woke trends consuming colleges and universities — she always had an update about how UArts was changing. 

She talked about school policies regarding sexual harassment, the forced use of pronouns, racial identity hiring practices, and more. The school was becoming more “Stalinesque” than the University of Pennsylvania, and as a conservative she said she had to keep quiet about her political beliefs because the staff and students were not tolerant of divergent political views. The scandalous new policies at the school became an ongoing joke between us: “What went down this week?” I’d ask her. Nine out of ten times, she had a depressing story. 

When UArts announced its closure, it blamed it on financial reasons. One official termed it, “an unexpected budget crunch,” despite the school’s endowment which is worth upwards of $61 million.

Did the Fogel case play a part in the school’s closure because of financial reasons?

2019 was a big year for UArts because another story was making the rounds at that time.  

This was the attempted firing of noted UArts professor and author Camille Paglia, who writes about contemporary culture, art and archaeology and who describes herself as “queer and trans” although she’s enough of a real intellectual and historian to know that transgenderism — when it is adopted and celebrated by a culture en masse — leads to the destruction of that culture or nation. 

Paglia pointed out this fact in a video that went viral and then promised to expand on her views on gender in a speech set to be delivered at the school, which aroused the ire of some students who began a fierce campaign to fire her.

The “fire Camille Paglia” petition garnered over 1,300 signatures, at that time pretty much the population of the entire student body. 

“Camille Paglia should be removed from UArts faculty and replaced by a queer person of color,” the petition stated. “If, due to tenure, it is absolutely illegal to remove her, then the University must at least offer alternate sections of the classes she teaches, instead taught by professors who respect transgender students and survivors of sexual assault.”

Paglia registered her disapproval of women who waited months to report a sexual assault. She also let it be known that any female student who agrees to go to a man’s dorm room at 2 AM — especially after a night of drinking — pretty much knows what that “invite” is all about. It’s certainly not about playing chess or reading Susan Sontag.  

Unlike the persecution that Fogel experienced, Paglia had the support of President and CEO David Yager, so student protesters were relegated to catcalling and setting off fire alarms and generally behaving like spoiled liberal brats who believe they have a right to have a say in who the university should hire or fire. But they were not successful in their efforts to either fire or cancel Paglia’s talk.  

The fact that a good portion of the student body ganged up on Paglia suggested to me that the education offered at UArts has been riddled with woke bullet holes all along. This fact does not exactly inspire an excess of sorrow over the school’s closing. 

Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. Thom Nickels is the author of fifteen books, including “Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” He is currently at work on “The Last Romanian Princess and Her World Legacy,” about the life of Princess Ileana of Romania.

NOTE: This article has been updated to correct a spelling error.

14 thoughts on “Thom Nickels: Considering — and reconsidering — the University of the Arts”

  1. This article could have been a factual and educated opinion about the financial struggle of an art school in current times, but you chose to cherry pick facts and quotes to further your conservative agenda instead of putting in the work to actually understand the institution.
    And you couldn’t even get the name of the building right – it’s Gershman not Gershwin.
    Lazy conservative propaganda.

  2. So the 150 year old school closed because a guy gave a woman a kiss hello and a mistaken hotel room key instead of his business card? It that what you are inferring????? And that Camille Paglia speaks lots of truths. OK. Gotcha.

    1. No It failed because it was overrun by woke propaganda , and you should upgrade you text understanding skills

    2. There has been many dark events at the UOf A African Americans can attest to this during my attendance when they removed the African studies completely. I had a teacher remove me from her class because she did not like me for what ever reason. The hate for blacks and females were right out loud and one student wrote KKK on the board wrote in front of the teacher. So I am not surprize it folded.

  3. Any consideration that the return on the investment might be the greater knowledge and understanding of one’s craft? The unmatched satisfaction of living a life in which every day is spent doing what you truly love and believe in, sharing that with others and contributing something positive to the world? This idea that education is not a valuable pursuit in and of itself is truly disturbing. This is the decline of civilization.

  4. Nobody is looking at the numbers that just don’t make any sense. How can they justify charging $55,000+ a year tuition for a bachelors degree in a fields that will never make that money back? It’s not like the school is cranking out Michelangelos and Beethovens. There are no god-like beings in those crumbling buildings imparting skills or wisdom anywhere near that value. Also the staff to student ratio is way out of line. This stinks to high heaven.

    On the bright side, there is one less diploma mill taking advantage of the gullible and the deluded.

    Another thing is that the real estate may go to proper stewards who will take care of the properties.

    1. Terribly silly comment. Anyone can go to the University of the Arts wikipedia page and see the long list of notable artists it’s produced.

  5. When ever Mr. Nickels tries to write a column like this he tries to pass off fake news as facts. This is the reason why he was fired from the Inquirer for fabricating an article about murder. Why the staff at Broad and Liberty allow this only reflects on who they are.

  6. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (The oldest Art Institute in the Nation) has NOT closed. Only the Degree granting program has been discontinued..

  7. So far in 2024 a total of 23 colleges/universities closed their doors in the US either ceasing operations in total, or being absorbed by another, more healthier institution of higher education. Some of those who held on this long only managed to do so as a result of COVID funding. The demographics seem to indicate that 2025 may be an even worse year for closures. The finances of many colleges/universities are at best opaque. Even reviewing the 990 that a college/university may have filed is not necessarily a true indication of its financial health. Parents of high schoolers looking at college should ask to see the most recent audited financials of the institution under consideration. If they will not make the audited financials available, consider enrolling elsewhere.

  8. Camille should never have been hired in the first place if the school environment couldn’t tolerate her (deliberately irritating) opinions. My guess is that she was hired for her star power but they didn’t know what to do with her once she got there.

    No college degree of any kind can deliver a high-paying job. Art school is still a good bet if students are willing to do a lot of extracurricular studies to prepare themselves for the world they’ll be working in.

    The woke police should lay off.

  9. The abrupt closure was entirely the fault of the board of trustees. Nonprofit entities raise money in three ways: earned income; endowment income; individual philanthropy. Clearly whatever balance was required for the college was ignored by the trustees; unknown to them; or outside their ability or inclination to do.

  10. My daughter graduated from University of the Arts in 1998 and is a working artist. She understands that talent isn’t enough without a strong business practice. She has her work displayed in gallery’s all over the country.

  11. I was saddened when I heard the news of the closing of U of A. I was a student at Hussian School of Art in 1989 – 91 when the school was located in the Winston building in China Town in Philly. At the time of my attendance, I did not even know University of the Arts existed. I learned about U of A when I moved back from Florida 5 years later. I was actually interested in their Industrial Design program. When I went and spoke with them about attending, they told me they that the school I went to was non accredited and they would only honor 1 year life experience and put me in as a sophomor. I was 25 at the time and not about to attend 3 years in school after 2 years of prior schooling and 5 years in the field. I regret my decision not going. I always wondered were I would be today if I had a degree in Industrial design. I do art today, but not in any forms of what I was taught. Glass is my main medium but I also work wood and metal. Starving Artist is a true term for a lot of Artist but when you are a creative person and do not have a outlet for that creativity, well let’s just say that you will be very unhappy in what ever else you chose as a career. I have been a Union glaizer for the past 20 years. And it has given me my home, Healthcare and a living wage. But it has not brought me happiness in my professional life. It’s a great trade but zero form of self expression. I fear for future Artist in today’s times. School budgets cutting out the arts, AI art done by a computer by a non artistic person. A governor completely cutting the arts budget of an entire state to nothing. I fear the far right and the far left is on a path to destroy all forms of a normal society as we know it.

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