I was *so close* to graduating from the University of the Arts


I started my internship – the last credits I needed to graduate – the day before the school announced it was closing. This was life on South Broad Street in the hours and days after the shocking news.

UArts students spend the night on the steps of Hamilton Hall, protesting the school’s sudden closure. / Photos and video: Owen Spaloss

I remember burning acceptance letters in my backyard. That was a little over three years ago, and I had recently been accepted into the creative writing program at the University of the Arts. As my father used to say, there was no need to consider any other school.

“There is no better place than UArts to develop your creativity. I can’t wait to welcome you in the fall.” These were the words of Professor Steven Kleinman, the author of the book The life cycle of a bear and a member of the American Poetry Review Podcast, welcoming me to a show considered brand new to the life of the nearly 150-year-old university.

Last Friday, the university closed its doors, likely permanently.

Less than two weeks ago, my family from New Jersey was driving me home to celebrate being accepted – just the day before – for a summer internship here at Philly Mag. In fact, an internship in the writing world was the last requirement I had to complete in order to graduate. Just three more points.

After learning about the opportunity to work here at the journal at the end of April, I thought I was lucky: I could devote myself to my thesis and work full-time at an on-campus job, and during the summer I could focus entirely on my work as a practitioner. At the beginning, I asked to walk across the stage, and after the internship ends in the summer, I will officially be able to receive my diploma. That was the only thing keeping me from graduating from college, and after being welcomed to the Philly Mag team, I was happy to learn that I was on track to graduate. That is, until I got the text:

hmm. did you see uarts closing?

This message did not come from our president or anyone associated with the university. It was Inquirer — May 31 news of the U.S. Commission on Higher Education announcing the sudden withdrawal of the school’s accreditation — notified not only students but also staff and faculty.

A sign protesting the closure of UArts and the lack of transparency

A few hours later, University Vice-Chancellor Kerry Walk sent an email.

The University of the Arts will close on Friday, June 7, 2024. We would have shared this news directly with you, but the U.S. Commission on Higher Education decided to withdraw UArts’ accreditation and make the announcement before we could contact you. We know this is made even worse by the news of UArts’ sudden closure.

This isn’t quite correct though. Middle States has released an “Updated Statement on the University of the Arts” to clear up the schedule. “This is inaccurate. On 29 May 2024, the institution informed the Commission of its imminent closure due to cash flow problems, prior to and independently of immediate adverse action by the Commission to withdraw accreditation. The statement went on to explain: “Commission Chair Heather F. Perfetti advised the University of the Arts Chancellor to immediately notify constituents prior to the Commission’s withdrawal of accreditation and to remind her that all Commission actions will be public on May 31, 2024.”

The university promised details about the town hall would be shared over the weekend. We waited.

At the last minute, an email was sent to the university’s news account informing them that a virtual webinar would be held at the town hall on Monday (June 3). Only 500 participants were allowed to attend the session – who would have had to register and obtain consent – even though the sudden news affected approximately 1,100 students, 700 staff and countless alumni.

UArts students and staff gather on the steps of Hamilton Hall.

Students called for attendance on the historic steps of Hamilton Hall, where we demonstrated exactly what this strip of Broad Street will be losing: a gathering of artists of all forms of expression. Music students brought their equipment, and jazz, rock and vocal performances filled the air. Dance students happily filled the sidewalk. Fine artists created illustrations and designs on poster boards and chalked the steps and walls of Hamilton Hall and the street in front of it.

UArts protesters draw with chalk on the sidewalk and stairs

Creative writers handed out copies of the university’s literary magazine, Underground swimming poolfrom issue one to issue 14. (I was the editor of this one!) And all the other directions that I won’t mention at this point (sorry!) were there in full force.

It was perhaps the most unified college that all the schools of the university had ever known.

Eleven minutes before the scheduled start of the town hall broadcast, we received an email informing us that it would be canceled, which simply stated: “The University of the Arts regrets to inform you that we are forced to cancel our virtual information meeting scheduled for 16:00” and “we cannot adequately answer your questions today.

If not now, then When?” – asked a group of Voices of the Steps (VOTS) students, who immediately decided that their presence on the steps of Hamilton Hall was needed for a longer period of time. They slept their first night on these steps on Monday, June 3. This will be the first of many nights, VOTS stated, until “the administration addresses students directly, rescheduling in-person town hall meetings for students, faculty and staff, and also providing a virtual option for out-of-state people to view and also participate.”

On Tuesday, June 4, President Walk submitted his resignation without a word to the student authorities; once again, students were getting their information from the local news, not from school management or what was left of it.

That night I joined VOTS and spent the night sleeping on the concrete. It wasn’t pleasant, but that was the least of my problems. The only thing that kept me together was the commitment of other students who also tried to make their voices heard. It created a bond that showed how powerful an artist community could be. Since then, I’ve spent every night on those steps.

On Wednesday, June 5, I started a summer internship here at the magazine. During my introductory video meeting, I had to mute my microphone because a helicopter was filming a gathering of United Academics of Philadelphia, the union representing staff and faculty that earlier this year successfully negotiated the first-ever union contract in UArts history. Now they marched to the town hall, chanting:

What do we do when staff are attacked? Get up, fight! What do we do when lecturers are attacked? Get up, fight! What do we do when students are attacked? Get up, fight! What do we do when every program is attacked? Get up, fight!

UArts protest heads to City Hall.

UAP has since filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of staff and faculty, citing violations of the WARN (Employee Adjustment and Retraining Notification) Act. The 1988 Act requires employers to give employees “60 days’ notice” of plant closures and mass layoffs.

Since rain was forecast for the evening, I gathered supplies for the students to protect their artwork (and the first aid board they had assembled) from the impending downpour. I also bought ponchos to give to other protesters. Students sat under the awning of Hamilton Hall as rain washed away chalk drawings on the steps and sidewalk. Some of us hung UArts banners to keep out the rain.

On Thursday I was exhausted. I spent two nights in a row sleeping on a concrete step so narrow that my arm hung off the side. I spent the morning in my apartment, feeding the cat, trying to clean up and bring order to my life after days of uncertainty and anxiety. I returned to the steps on the eve of UArts’ last day of operation.

“From the ashes we will rise again,” reads a flyer announcing the Last Stand Jam, a celebration organized by VOTS to bring the UArts community together one last time on the last day of school.

UAP held a “Big Shot” on the steps of Hamilton Hall: This was a long-standing UArts tradition in which the entire graduating faculty gathered in Solmssen Court in Hamilton Hall for a large group photo. Unfortunately, supervisors sent out a message telling security guards – many of whom have worked on the UArts campus for over 10 years and know the student body – to deny students access to academic buildings on Friday morning. However, Philadelphia police had blocked all southbound lanes of Broad Street between Spruce Street and Pine, so the crowd that had gathered there at 3 p.m. flooded the street to fit in the shot.

What followed was more music, dancing, guest appearances by Bearded Ladies Cabaret (featuring alumna Avery Goodname) and Positive Movement Drumline, and passionate speeches reminding students that we are fighting for the right we deserve: a safe education.

The University of Arts has officially closed, but students are still sitting on the steps waiting for answers that still haven’t arrived. I am one of those students. In fact, I am writing this from Hamilton Hall, committed to continuing to amplify the voices of Voices of the Steps and the UArts community affected by this turn of events.

During my time at UArts, it was an honor to study with published authors and hear from distinguished writers. Here, my professors introduced me to books by authors I fell in love with, such as Karren Russell and Carmen Maria Machado. Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement speech at UArts is a speech I’ve watched many times — it was even printed in a book the university distributed at the 15 Days Till Graduation event.

Few schools offer a BFA in creative writing, so my transfer options are very limited – and that’s not even considering the question of which credits will actually transfer to another college. At the same time as my high school diploma, I completed my studies in art; I pushed myself to complete all the coursework required for my degree in just three years; so I thought I could afford one summer semester. And that choice has since proven to be deeply unlucky. (Those three credits I’ll earn during my summer internship? They won’t count because the school is closed.) But my poor planning also put me in the unique position of informing from the inside that my school was failing. And show people who might otherwise never understand what this closure means for us, students, and the entire Philadelphia arts community.

This was quite the first week of my summer internship. The institution that was supposed to prepare artists to enter the professional world completely abandoned its so-called mission: developing human creativity. In just a few days, I went from a safe path to graduation to a grim uncertainty that I suddenly must overcome to secure my future. Can I still graduate? Who would take a creative writer to a BFA? Could I even? allow move somewhere else? All questions that many in the UArts community still don’t have all the answers to.

Owen Spaloss studied creative writing at the University of the Arts and was excited to be a member of the Class of 24.