Education Supplement: A CUNY Professor Proposes a Bailout for Starving Arts Students

If playwrights go bankrupt, will only the bankrupt write plays?
Mladen Cvjetianin/Curtis Franklin

Mac Wellman, a distinguished professor of playwriting at Brooklyn College's Master of Fine Arts program, noticed a few years ago that his students were having problems—ones that pithy dialogue and clever plotting couldn't fix.

"So many of them are on the edge financially," Wellman says. "I had one student who completely freaked out. The last thing I heard him say was, 'I'm living in a crash pad for drug addicts, and I have to get out of town.' And he just left. One year into the MFA." Wellman has seen several students drop out of the program for semesters or years at a time for financial reasons. Other students accepted into the program have been unable to attend, owing to the cost.

CUNY offers an extremely low tuition for its writing MFAs: only $12,000 to $15,000, with some small grants available, compared to more than $100,000 at some private colleges. Still, the cost of living in New York, combined with the debt many students already bear from their undergraduate years, makes even those low rates a problem. Instead of taking the two to three years of the MFA to concentrate on their writing, students without independent means must take on one or more jobs to afford rent, food, and tuition. And every hour a student spends working is one less hour he or she can devote to craft.

An informal survey of Wellman's students revealed that to make ends meet, they were working as actors, teachers, waiters, tutors, secretaries, tour guides, life drawing models, sex workers, and copy editors of gay erotica. Many students mentioned that in the current economic climate, any work has become scarcer. Kim Davies, who was recently laid off from a job at a nonprofit, says that she considered leaving the program but made a decision to take out federal student loans instead. Now she feels she can't leave, "because then I would have to start paying the loans back even sooner."

But Wellman and his colleagues on the CUNY Affiliation Committee have a plan. They've recently launched a campaign entitled "CUNY Creative Writing MFA: The New Bohemia" that would fund a full tuition abatement for all creative-writing MFAs. If it succeeds, this initiative will render tuition entirely free for the programs at Brooklyn, City, Hunter, and Queens colleges.

Carlos Flynn, the university dean for institutional advancement, estimates that these colleges will need to raise $5 million per year to fund 300 students over a three-to-five-year period. Flynn said that CUNY has already "received commitments for about 10 percent of the total" via program alumni and relevant foundations.

Wellman hopes that if the campaign thrives, all CUNY MFAs—not only those in writing—might eventually become free. Ph.D.s are already subsidized, and most professional degrees such as Juris Doctors and Doctors of Medicine carry the promise of a well-paying job upon completion, though perhaps not as securely as they once did. Conversely, Wellman says, "poets, playwrights, and novelists can look forward to splendid but largely penniless careers."

This campaign comes at a moment when the prospect of a career in the arts seems particularly fraught, at least from an economic perspective. A recent National Endowment for the Arts study revealed that in 2009, artists suffered an unemployment rate of nearly 10 percent; in the first two years of the economic downturn, 29,000 of them left the field entirely.

Of Wellman's current MFA class, few students actually count on earning a living from their degrees. "I am not very optimistic at all about supporting myself as a playwright," Megan Murtha says. Many students plan to seek out teaching jobs, which are also often low-paying, or opt for corporate work so that they can pay back their loans. Wellman has another suggestion: "I always tell my students: 'Make sure you have a place to live and a secure job. If you're wise, marry a doctor or a lawyer. A corporate lawyer.'"

This pessimism may well be warranted. Tony Kushner, who might be the most successful playwright working, told Time Out New York last spring that he now makes his living as a screenwriter: "Which I'm surprised and horrified to find myself saying, but I don't think I can support myself as a playwright at this point. I don't think anybody does." As Eduardo Machado, who used to head the playwriting MFA at Columbia and now teaches in NYU's dramatic writing program, says, "Tennessee Williams is the only playwright who died a millionaire."

If that's the case, why should students pay for a degree that won't make them more employable upon graduation? Many professors of writing feel that they shouldn't. Machado says that when he accepted students into Columbia's program, "I would tell them: 'Don't come here. I'm not worth that kind of money. Nobody is.'" He does note that NYU's program teaches students to write for TV and film as well as theater. In fact, Machado himself is currently on a two-year sabbatical, making extra money by writing for the HBO show Hung, which was created by a pair of his former Columbia students.

CUNY would not be the first university to decide that MFAs deserve a break in tuition as a result of their poor earning prospects. Yale recently decided to offer substantial financial aid to its playwriting MFA students, and Brown's MFA playwriting program has been free since the 1980s. "It's one thing to go into $100,000 worth of debt in a law school or medical school, and even that's questionable right now," argues Paula Vogel, head of Yale's playwriting program. "To go into debt as a playwright makes absolutely no sense. Universities should be subsidizing artists."

Among New York playwriting programs, only Juilliard's postgraduate program is free, but it concludes with a diploma, not the MFA that some schools require for teaching positions, which many writers use to support themselves.

It's a missed opportunity, says Wellman, who notes that New York can offer a unique environment for writers. "People in New York have a special kind of energy, and there is a special kind of community here," he says. "Young writers here actually form their own communities, form their own small presses, form their own theater companies."

Without assistance, Wellman worries, students may move to centers with free programs and stay there, robbing New York of the creative class that helps make the city so singular. If universities and foundations don't find ways to make arts instruction more affordable and careers in the arts more viable, Wellman warns, "We're not going to have artists in New York anymore."

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