Juilliard School Students Protest Annual Tuition Raise

A group of Juilliard students demonstrated against a planned tuition raise — one of the first student-led protests at the school in recent memory

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From June 7 to June 11, a group of students at The Juilliard School protested a planned tuition increase of $1,970 for the 2021-2022 school year — with flyers, a teach-in, occupation of space at the school’s Lincoln Center campus, and music and dance-filled demonstrations. Last week’s events were the first student-led protests of this kind in decades at Juilliard, a school not known for student-organized direct action.

The protests largely began inside the school’s Irene Diamond Building and moved outside onto West 65th Street after Juilliard suspended protesters’ access to the building on Wednesday night.

The Socialist Penguins — a group of at least a dozen Juilliard students that formed in March 2021 and spans the school’s music, dance, and drama divisions — organized last week’s events. The group has been advocating for a tuition freeze since April, when they started a petition that describes the increase as an action that “displays a blatant disregard for the well-being and financial security of students.” As of Tuesday morning, the petition has garnered nearly 600 signatures, over 300 of which were from students, making up more than one-third of Juilliard’s student body.

The planned tuition raise would have upped costs from $49,260 to $51,230 a year. Tuition at Juilliard has increased by a similar amount (around four percent) for the last 10 years. Annual tuition raises are customary at most institutions of higher education, although rates vary and most students receive financial aid. For example, undergraduate tuition for the 2021-2022 school year is planned to increase from $50,460 to $52,730 at the New England Conservatory, $57,420 to $58,520 at the Eastman School of Music, and $49,130 to $49,850 at the Manhattan School of Music.

At Juilliard, however, students criticized the school for going forward with the raise despite the pandemic — a time when, across the classical music industry, most musical education occurred virtually, performances were sparse, and performing artists had to face the financial repercussions of many lost job opportunities, although 83 percent of Juilliard students were on campus this past academic year, where they have given a total of 340 public performances. Still, to make their demands heard, students protested.

Photo credit: Jacob Melsha

“Most of us are struggling financially, and with a tuition that raises as much as it does every single year, and with the crazy way that COVID-19 is impacting performing artists, the demand for a tuition freeze is simply not radical,” said Sarah Ma, a violinist and founder of the Socialist Penguins. “When students are being told it [is], we feel like we’re being left out of the conversation and seen as unimportant.”

Ma helped organize last week’s demonstrations and participated in them. She emphasized that many Juilliard students face financial, food, or housing insecurity — herself included.

Juilliard spokeswoman Rosalie Contreras wrote in an email to The Violin Channel that “Juilliard respects the right of all community members including students to freely express opinions with demonstrations that are conducted in a reasonable time, place, and manner for the safety and well-being of students, faculty, and staff.”

Contreras added that Juilliard “recognizes the challenges that many students face with regards to funding their education, particularly as we emerge from the global pandemic” and emphasized that financial aid is also increasing by four percent for the upcoming school year.

Additionally, Juilliard awards financial aid to 92% of its students, and “even in the best of times,” the full cost of a Juilliard education amounts to approximately $92,000 per year, well above what the institution charges for tuition, according to a May 12 email from Vice President for Enrollment Management and Student Development, Joan Warren.

The week of action began last Monday with an occupation of the second floor of the Irene Diamond Building, where participants arranged dozens of sheets of multicolored paper on a large glass window in the building to spell out “TUITION FREEZE!”

Monday’s “day of action” also included a teach-in, dance, and music — often, jazz and labor songs. Protests continued in a similar way on Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, students involved in the demonstrations received an email from Sabrina Tanbara, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, stating that school space requires advance authorization for non-curricular events, demonstrations, postering, tabling, and other actions.

That same day, during the early afternoon, students were alternating between sitting down in and walking single file around a hallway on the second floor of the Diamond Building, after some dialogue with security staff on what actions were considered appropriate. At one point, the demonstrators — their numbers peaked at around 25 — knocked on President Damian Woetzel’s door, singing the labor song “Which Side Are You On?.” They asked that he listen to students’ demands for a tuition freeze, three student protesters told The Violin Channel.

Afterward, an email from Dean of Student Development Barrett Hipes to the student body stated that Public Safety had issued a report “regarding confrontational and intimidating student conduct that caused an administrative assistant who was working alone in an office to become concerned for their own safety,” which students believe to be a reference to their actions outside Woetzel’s office earlier that afternoon.

Later that evening, some of the students involved in that day’s demonstrations received an email from Tanbara of “serious Code of Conduct violations pertaining to community safety,” notifying them of temporary suspension of their access to the Diamond Building, “pending a full investigation of the incident.”

Sarah Williams, an oboe student who was involved in last week’s protests, said she felt that suspending “building access and revoking our resources is a really severe punishment” given that the school had not yet found students in violation of the Code of Conduct, as the investigation is set to take place this week.

Williams mentioned a friend who was replaced on a concert due to lack of building access, and dance student and Socialist Penguins member Gabriel Canepa said that he had to miss his last dance rehearsals of the semester, which he said was “really frustrating.”

According to Contreras, “certain reported incidents require suspension of building access, pending investigation, which we do as expeditiously as possible.”

On Thursday and for some time on Friday, protesters took their demonstrations outside, where they continued to sing, dance, and picket as cars drove by and honked in support. Students said their access to the building remained suspended through Friday, which marked the end of the term.

Carl Hallberg, a drama student and member of the Socialist Penguins, said that Juilliard frequently conveys “the notion of artist as citizen,” which he explained means that “your art has to exist somewhere in the world and work to build a more habitable planet. But that only ever goes so far as the structure [administrators are] comfortable in. The moment we started addressing the school, they cracked down.”

Ma spoke of a broader culture at conservatories where it’s often difficult to speak up because, she said, career opportunities for performing artists often come from relationships to authority figures. According to Ma, the last major student demonstration at Juilliard occurred in 1940, when students protested against the dismissal of a faculty member.

Juilliard's current student government body, the Juilliard Student Congress (JSC), was not established until the 2019-20 school year — although a student council has existed in the past. Elections for the 2020-21 JSC never took place due to the pandemic, according to Contreras, although Juilliard's student development department plans to proceed with a 2021-22 JSC election in the fall.

But the relatively sparse history of student advocacy at Juilliard may be changing. Beginning in 2019, students organized successfully for an increase in work-study wage to the New York City minimum wage of $15, which will fully take effect this fall.

Whether or not the tuition freeze students have been fighting for actually happens, the four students and one alum who spoke with The Violin Channel said they are energized by the conversation their actions have initiated.

“We wouldn't be working this hard to make the school a better environment if we didn't love it so much,” Williams said. “It's all coming from love and a passion for something that we know we're all lucky to be a part of.”

Ma said that some of the group’s actions last week are fundamental to the students’ identities as artists: “Agitation can be peaceful, and agitation can be from the heart. And because we’re artists, agitation from the heart is really important. That’s what our music is about; that’s what our dance is about. All our passion comes from agitation, and our protests will come from the same place too.”

— Story by Phoebe Liu

Correction, June 17: The story has been updated to clarify that the Wednesday emails from Tanbara did not go to all students, but rather to subsets of students involved in the specific demonstration or action, and that the JSC was not the first form of student government at Juilliard.