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Pennsylvania House lawmakers host hearing on University of the Arts closure

Pennsylvania lawmakers search for answers on University of the Arts closure
Pennsylvania lawmakers search for answers on University of the Arts closure 02:32

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- State leaders are seeking answers after the sudden closure of the University of the Arts in Philadelphia this month. The Pennsylvania House Majority Policy Committee held a hearing Monday to discuss the closure.

Philadelphia Rep. Ben Waxman, who represents Center City and South Philly in the Pennsylvania House, hosted the hearing to receive testimony from UArts students, employees and community members in the wake of the closure. 

"This has been a terrible couple of weeks for the UArts community and the Center City community as a whole," Waxman said. "An extremely small group of people who have made all of the decisions, all of which appear to be bad decisions, refuse to provide information and have thrown the lives of thousands of people into chaos because of their incompetence."

Waxman noted that both representatives of UArts and their consulting firm handling the closure were invited to the hearing but claims they did not appear. 

Rep. Malcom Kenyatta, who represents North Philadelphia, was also in attendance at the hearing and expressed his concern over the closure. 

"Not only is this a tragedy, I'm not trained as a lawyer, but something is clearly rotten," Kenyatta said. "This feels like possible criminality to me."  

Joey Miller, who was a sophomore student at UArts studying film animation, says they have to pause his education because of the turmoil surrounding the institution's closure. 

"I had built the next two years of my life off of attending UArts and my life as many of others has been thrown into catastrophe. At this time, I do not plan to attend higher education at least the upcoming spring semester," Miller said.

Another student, Alex McFadden, is part of the 2024 graduating class and says the futures of students are in limbo and they haven't received proper communication. 

"Our leadership abandoned us and we really don't know why," McFadden said. "We're still in the dark and we still don't know what's going on and it's really difficult to assume good intentions when nothing has been communicated to us."

UArts staff members also testified sharing that the closure has greatly affected their careers.

"I've worked at University of the Arts for 29 years," Gehia Davenport. "These unexpected layoffs also left no time for us to process the situation. It has been mentally, emotionally and physically taxing on all of us."

Kevin Mercer, who worked as an associate professor in the school's illustration department, says accountability is needed.

"Accountability for this disaster is absolutely necessary," Mercer said. "The impact of this closure is that I may not have an opportunity to teach again at this level."

UArts only gave a week's notice of its closure on June 7, and on its last day open students, staff and supporters gathered to demand answers as to why the school was shutting down. 

The students and staff members who testified that they learned mostly through UArts President Kerry Walk's statements to the media that the 150-year-old institution would be shuttering its doors. 

"I was very confused as to why the statement was made to the press and not to us," McFadden said. "Emails were sent after news had already broke."

Philadelphia City Councilmember Mark Squilla is also calling for an investigation into the UArts closure. He introduced a resolution on June 6 that passed in City Council to hold hearings about the closure. 

Why did the University of the Arts close? 

The closure announcement came after the MSCHE stated that the university would lose its accreditation on June 1.

MSCHE decided to strip the institute of its accreditation due to not complying with the commission's requests for written reports, teach-out plans and more.

An informational meeting was held Friday, June 14 by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) via Zoom discussing the closure.   

UArts cited declining enrollment and revenues as the cause of its closure. 

"Like many institutions of higher learning, UArts has been in a fragile financial state, with many years of declining enrollments, declining revenues, and increasing expenses," the university said in a statement. 

UArts faculty member and Vice President of United Academics of Philadelphia Bradley Philbert told CBS News Philadelphia that around 600 staff members were laid off on a Zoom call in early June. 

University of the Arts President Kerry Walk also resigned four days after the school suddenly announced its closure. 

Those affected by the university's shutdown are now seeking legal action.   

Two lawsuits have been filed against UArts, including one from a group of faculty members who are part of the labor union United Academics of Philadelphia. 

"Our leadership abandoned us and we really don't know why," McFadden said. "I have a lot of trouble believing that this was the only way." 

The first lawsuit represents nine employees. The second lawsuit, filed Wednesday, June 12, names 12 plaintiffs, including United Academics of Philadelphia organizers.

In the wake of the announcement Temple University, Drexel University, Moore College of Art and Design, Montclair State University, Point Park University in Pittsburgh and The New School in New York City said they are working on agreements to accept University of the Arts students who are interested in transferring. 

UArts hired Alvarez and Marsal, a Philadelphia consulting firm, to handle its closure

The closure is another loss for the city's art schools. Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) announced it would end its degree programs at the end of the 2024-25 academic year.    

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