A young writer promises that his school’s demise won’t silence his craft.

A UArts student speaks: “It’s clear that I’ll have to settle, no matter where I go.”

5 minute read
Hundreds of people, many holding handmade signs, rally on a June day on the steps of the pillared Hamilton Hall building.
UArts community members rally on June 7, 2024 to protest the school’s closure. (Photo by Alaina Johns.)

As the spring 2024 semester at University of the Arts nears its end, the future is tangible. I attend the creative writing senior thesis reading, and I’m reduced to tears by the display of deeply emotional work. After, I turn to my friends. “It’s crazy how that’s going to be us in two years,” I say.

In the jewelry studio in Anderson Hall, I start packing up my things. “You can leave stuff in your toolkit, if you want,” my professor James says. “I’m just going to give you the same one in the fall.” I take everything home anyway, hoping to work on some projects over the summer.

My final days in Philadelphia pass in a quiet flurry—packing up my closet, saying goodbye to friends. Summer awaits, but all I can think of is returning. My schedule is set. I’ll be an editor for Underground Pool, the literary magazine that drew me to this school. The future is bright.

The six-hour drive home in my dad’s truck is full of conversation as we fly up the Jersey Turnpike.

An evaporated future?

On May 31, I wake up to a tuition bill in my inbox. The registrar must have finally processed my financial aid. I make a mental note to check when I’m at my computer.

I spend most of the day looking out the windows, still adjusting to being home in Massachusetts, tucked in the woods. The silence is eerie—the hummingbirds at the feeder are louder than my thoughts. It’s the complete opposite of the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia, and I miss the chaos. I’m apartment hunting, ready to be free of dorm life and find a place that isn’t directly above the dumpsters (this summer I will not miss the crash-bang-boom of the garbage truck before the sun rises).

A friend from high school texts, saying we should get lunch and catch up. I tell myself to respond to it later.

At 6:51pm, one of my friends sends a Philadelphia Inquirer story in the group chat. On June 7, The University of the Arts will permanently close. We all think it’s a joke, until it’s confirmed.

The future doesn’t collapse. It just evaporates.

I drive to the top of a hill to watch the sunset. I don’t even think I can cry.

Words for the betrayal

Nothing feels real the next day. I sit down at my computer, my only thought being: write. An open letter, to (now former) president Kerry Walk and the board of trustees. I cannot articulate how deeply I hope you feel the most crushing, inescapable sense of guilt and failure, I start. It snowballs from there.

Two hours later, I post it on my Instagram, and it explodes. Overwhelmed, I sit at my desk, replying to every comment, fellow students, faculty, staff, and alumni finding that my words resonate with their own feelings of betrayal.

Outside, a cardinal flits from bush to bush.

Back in Philadelphia, Broad Street becomes cacophonous. Demonstrations in front of Hamilton Hall explode with creativity, a whole community uniting to demand answers, to grieve, to fight to keep UArts alive. I watch it all through my phone.

“It’s just not fair.”

Here, it’s quiet. I pass days trying to share information, digging into Reddit threads and public tax records, trying to figure out what happened. Theories begin to develop, from the reasonable to the conspiratorial, but none of them go anywhere. Nothing, it seems, will bring the school back.

Moving on isn’t even an option. I’m still stuck, unable to understand how my school could do this to me. “I sound like a toddler,” I say to my dad, day after day, “but it’s just not fair.”

Unfairness lingers as a town hall, meant to give us answers, is set for June 3 and canceled 10 minutes before it’s supposed to start.

On June 7, the University of the Arts closes. No art schools remain on Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts.

On June 9, I find myself at UMass Amherst’s Juniper Institute with two friends from the creative writing program, all of us on scholarships from UArts. One brings me copies of past editions of Underground Pool. A parting gift, of sorts.

I’m the youngest in the program, surrounded by full-blown adults pursuing MFAs, and yet, my work holds weight among them. I tell them about UArts. They commiserate with me. That’s ridiculous becomes a common refrain.

The options feel bleak

Looking to the future feels traitorous. I feel like I’m betraying someone, even though the doors are closed, the board has resigned, and all that remains is a soulless consulting firm.

Clark, a young white man with wavy brown hair and glasses, stands smiling outside a large stone building.
Creative writing student Jay Clark was looking forward to finishing his degree at UArts. (Photo by Fletcher Rabin.)

My options feel bleak, which doesn’t help. Emails from “approved teach-out partners” roll in. I delete them all. The unique interdisciplinary style at UArts drew me to Philadelphia, and the creative writing programs at these partner schools are lackluster or nonexistent.

In a meeting with Steven Kleinman, the head of the creative writing department, this sentiment becomes clear. “There isn’t a program comparable to what UArts would’ve given you,” he says.

It’s true. I scroll through program requirements of art schools, liberal arts colleges, even Ivy Leagues. Nothing compares. For example, Middlebury College, which hosts the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, requires only three creative writing workshops to have a concentration within its English degree. I completed those requirements within a year at UArts.

My only responsibility

As my spreadsheet expands, it becomes clear that I’ll have to settle, no matter where I go. Everything feels uncertain. I might need to take an extra semester. I might not get accepted for the fall at all.

Nowhere will ever compare to UArts. Even as new opportunities present themselves, the shadow of what could have been lingers. I stare at my fall course schedule, imagining.

I’m left with one responsibility, what I came to UArts with a drive to do. Wherever the world takes me, I have to keep writing. I have to make good art.

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