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Making a Merger

Arts & Culture | November 7, 2016

In September, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) students returned to their campus to find that the traditional SMFA red banners had been changed to Tufts blue. But for some, this change did not feel welcome.

“There is a lot of [positive] sentiment towards the ‘SMFA red,’” said dual-degree student Aidan Huntington. “The changing of the banners is a symbol of Tufts’ encroachment onto the school.”

On July 1, Tufts acquired the SMFA. The merger is a continuation of a partnership that was established in 1945, over 70 years ago, when the dual-degree program was establishedWith a shrinking enrollment size and severe deficit, Tufts’ acquisition of the museum school was designed to help revitalize it, as well as strengthen Tufts’ art programs. The response for students has been mixed—while some feel that the merger will cause the SMFA culture to be lost, others are excited to be more included in the Tufts community.

In part, Tufts’ acquisition of the school stems from necessity. “We are absorbing a school with a deficit,” said Jim Glaser, Dean of Arts and Sciences. He continued, “The SMFA enrollment has diminished over the past several years, and it had diminished to the point that the school was in substantial deficit.” Nancy Bauer, Dean of the Museum School, also noted the shrinking enrollment. She stated, “The enrollment at the SMFA is now at 255 undergraduates…if the program was at full capacity there would be 400-500 students.”

Dean Bauer gave several possible reasons for the decrease in enrollment, pointing to national trends in dropping enrollments in independent art schools, as well as the tendency for students across the country to invest in degrees with a clearer career tract, or in a more expansive education.

For a school in crisis, with dropping enrollment and no independent accreditation for degrees, a university partner was a necessary choice for the museum. And there are clear benefits for Tufts: an enhanced studio art experience and curriculum for Tufts students, as well as an enhanced reputation. “For Tufts to be connected to a world-class museum, this is quite incredible and very distinctive,” said Dean Glaser.

The merger will also affect the SMFA’s tuition. According to Patricia Reilly, Tufts’ Director of Financial Aid, “Students who enrolled at the SMFA beginning in the fall of 2016 or earlier will continue to be charged at the SMFA tuition rate with only a standard percentage increase on that rate. All students who enroll beginning in the fall of 2017 and going forward will pay the Tufts tuition rate.” This fall, the tuition for SMFA students is $41,326 annually. However, next year, the class of 2021, as well as subsequent classes, will enter under the Tufts annual tuition rate, which is $52,430 for the 2016-2017 academic year.

According to Dean Bauer, as full Tufts students, SMFA students now “have access to a wide array of curricular and extracurricular opportunities.” Allyson Blackburn, a former dual-degree student, disagreed, stating, “Post-merger, SMFA students theoretically have access to the same resources as Tufts students do [on the Medford/Somerville campus], except they are all 45 minutes away from our gym, [from] our health services, from our counselors and from their administrators.”

Dean Bauer stressed the benefits of a standardized financial aid policy for all Tufts schools, stating, “The way the SMFA worked before, students would get a combination of financial aid and merit aid, which is common at independent art schools. However, the total packages would not necessarily cover the full need.”  The demonstrated financial need of students is calculated based on students’ Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms. Tufts promises to meet this calculated need for all students. According to Dean Bauer, “This policy opens the door to a much wider range of students and ensures that all students are awarded the amount of funding they demonstrably need to attend Tufts—even if their financial situation worsens while they are here.”

An anonymous SMFA student voiced her frustration with the current monetary demands of Tufts. “All students with any unpaid bills for tuition (comprehensive fee, health insurance fee, etc.) received an email from Tufts last week stating that if they did not pay their owed amount within five days they would be charged an extra $300 as a consequence,” she said. “As this was an extremely unreasonable demand, many students were unable to come up with the owed money within that week. It was a very abrupt notification that is very new for SMFA students and we were never informed about this fee prior to receiving these emails.”

Though students are frustrated about tuition increases, the merger has the potential to increase the number of knowledgeable administrators and faculty members at both schools regarding their program. Conor Ward, a dual-degree student, said that, in the past, the dual-degree program was flawed by “a lack of successful and meaningful advising.”

However, for Patrick Mahaney, a sophomore dual-degree student, the merger has only complicated their SMFA enrollment. They stated, “I’m not currently taking any courses at SMFA this semester, because the merger was so confusing and I felt really uninformed as a student.” Huntington also noted that there has been little to no transparency and communication from the administration to the students as to the future of the program. He said, “It’s hard to know how I feel because I don’t necessarily know what is going to happen.”

Blackburn agreed. She stated, “It speaks volumes that Tufts managed to put up new banners, and repaint the Atrium ceiling ‘Barnum blue’ before figuring out a way to integrate SMFA students into SIS, or find a way to merge Tufts and SMFA transcripts, or find someone to truly coordinate the dual-degree program.”

Some students have decided not to participate in the program due to the transition. Blackburn said, “I am sure that in 10 years, the Tufts/SMFA phagocytosis will be an incredible opportunity and program for both academic and art students alike. But, so far, the transition has been incredibly frustrating. I am dropping the program, in part, because I don’t want my last year of college to be a poorly planned experiment.”

Huntington also expressed concern that the merger would have long-lasting consequences on the values of the SMFA as a school. Unlike many other art schools, SMFA students are not required to choose one medium. Rather, students often do work that is interdisciplinary and collaborative, putting the SMFA on the forefront of contemporary fine art. He expressed concern that Tufts will try to up the prestige of the SMFA, “making it more of a RISD-esque arts school.” He continued, “At RISD [the Rhode Island School of Design] you have to pick one major, you can’t be an interdisciplinary artist.”

An SMFA student who wished to be quoted anonymously stated that a downside for him personally was the changes in the overall aesthetic and vibe. He commented, “The school feels like a fake or forced ‘art school.’” Conor Ward elaborated, stating, “There is a concern that the SMFA might be morphed to become more like Tufts, which I am worried about. I think that there is value in both types of student bodies and both types of cultures. At the SMFA, fitting a certain kind of procedure of success is basically not there at all. Every student kind of works their own process.”

Catherine Armistead, a dual-degree student, believes that the SMFA’s culture will be affected most by the requirements for acceptance to match those of Tufts and the changing cost of admission. She commented, “The acceptance into SMFA has largely been based on students’ portfolios and essays, and less so on GPA and academic success, which allows a lot of people who are passionate about art but struggle in other areas to get into the school.”

However, other SMFA students expressed excitement over recognition by the Tufts community. “A lot of what seems to be changing is the Tufts community’s attitude towards us,” stated Hannah Marshall, a full-time SMFA student. An anonymous SMFA student explained that he had never felt welcome on the Tufts campus, and felt that the merger would mean others would see him as a Tufts student. Marshall believes that the merger will ultimately be a positive thing for both schools. Already, she has noticed that the shuttle schedules are more reliable than they have been in the past. And equipment and studios are visibly being improved.

Students who are affected by the merger have conflicting feelings about how it may affect them; ultimately, Ward said, “The crux of what I’m getting at is that it’s too early to have any profound effect on my experience as a dual degree student. This is not necessarily a bad thing, I think these things take time.”