CAMBRIDGE — Harvard University’s struggling ART Institute, a graduate-level theater training program housed within the American Repertory Theater, has announced that it is suspending admissions for the next three years “to work on a strategic plan’’ for the Institute.
The move is the latest setback for the troubled school, which in January suspended admissions for the coming academic year after receiving a “failing’’ grade from the US Department of Education for saddling students with onerous levels of debt. In May, the Institute dropped off The Hollywood Reporter’s annual list of the 25 best drama schools for an acting degree. And in June, Scott Zigler, the Institute’s longtime director, announced he was leaving after more than 20 years to become dean of the School of Drama at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Over the past six months, the ART has labored to resolve the Institute’s problems, engaging its board of trustees, consulting with Harvard administrators, and exploring the option of partnerships with other Boston-area universities. With no good solution in sight, ART leadership decided to close the school temporarily to develop a plan.
“What we’re looking at is taking a three-year hiatus so we can come back stronger, better, and with better funding,’’ said director Zigler of the 30-year-old school, known formally as the ART/MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. “We found a couple of possibilities where we could have stayed open, but staying open just to stay open didn’t look like the best thing to do.’’
By some measures, the ART is stronger than ever. Under artistic director Diane Paulus, the company has transformed from a venue for avant-garde theater to an incubator for Broadway shows, from “Pippin’’ to “Finding Neverland,’’ “Waitress,’’ and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.’’ Paulus and ART productions have won a handful of Tony Awards, and in February the company raised nearly $1.3 million at its annual gala, a record.
But as Harvard’s marquee theater has prospered, the esteemed ART Institute, which traditionally enrolls about 23 students each year, has seemingly been left behind. Now some students and alumni worry that Zigler’s impending departure is tied to the school’s woes.
Speaking Saturday, Zigler sought to allay those fears, saying that his new position was a “promotion’’ that came with a substantial salary increase.
“I understand what it looks like, but it’s just not what happened,’’ said Zigler, who will remain at the ART Institute through the spring semester of 2018, when the last students will graduate. “I’m very proud of what we’ve done at ART, but the [UNC] School of the Arts is a great school.’’
Zigler said ART leadership had met with the school’s three full-time faculty members (other than himself) to discuss remaining on staff during the three-year hiatus, likely helping to reimagine the Institute. He said adjunct instructors had been informed there would no longer be work for them following the 2017-18 academic year.
“When we re-launch they will be the first people we go back to,’’ said Zigler.
The hiatus was announced in an e-mail from Paulus and ART producer Diane Borger late Friday. “It was very important to me to include in that letter a commitment to the future of the Institute,’’ Borger said on Saturday. “We consider it an essential part of the future of the ART, and we’re committed to it.’’
Although Friday’s announcement was ostensibly addressed to the Institute’s alumni and students, several current and former students contacted by the Globe said they never received the e-mail, learning the news only after being contacted by a reporter. And with little institutional support to look forward to, they say they are deeply concerned for their futures.
“It’s just so horrible,’’ said alumna Katierose Donohue. “Let’s be honest: The Institute’s over. . . . It’s just heartbreaking.’’
Upon learning of the decision, Institute student Shawn Jain called it one of his worst fears realized. “We’re about to go into the industry,’’ said Jain. “We already have a scarlet letter on our names because of being on that list, but to know that they can’t get their act together for something they should have known was coming for a really long time is awful.’’
Top theater programs are expensive, but recently some have moved to reduce graduates’ debt loads. The University of California, San Diego covers full tuition for graduate theater students. At the Yale School of Drama, students graduate, on average, with roughly $12,000 in student debt, according to the school’s financial-aid officer.
By contrast, Harvard reported last January that the median debt for graduates of the two-year ART Institute is roughly $78,000. And the Department of Education found that Institute graduates earn on average just $36,000 per year — leaving them to pay roughly 44 percent of their discretionary income on student loan repayments.
Unlike other graduate-level drama programs, the ART Institute also does not offer a master of fine arts degree. Rather, Institute graduates are today awarded a master of liberal arts degree in extension studies through the Harvard Extension School.
Zigler said that some drama schools that offer more robust financial aid packages have developed relationships with donors over the years for scholarship initiatives. He noted that the ART Institute, by contrast, relies mainly on tuition money to fund the school. “I’m not aware of a specific campaign targeted to raising scholarship money,’’ he said.
During a meeting last February, ART leadership told alumni that the ART board had formed a task force on the Institute, and ART administrators were discussing a capital campaign. Such a campaign would raise money for improvements to the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, which houses both the ART and the ART Institute, as well as for ART operating funds and Institute scholarships.
So far, however, no campaign has been announced. “ART has never run a major fund-raising campaign,’’ said Borger. “We are exploring the possibility of running such a campaign, and it would include establishing a stronger base of support for the Institute.’’
Two members of the ART board did not respond to interview requests from the Globe. A spokesperson for Harvard did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
Institute student Me’Lisa Sellers said the lack of an MFA and students’ high debt load are serious problems. “We drafted a petition to say will you help us, will you consider implementing the MFA?’’ said Sellers. “When you leave you don’t have the degree, and you’re entrenched in debt.’’
In 2008, a Harvard task force on the arts noted that unlike other major universities, Harvard did not offer any MFA programs. It recommended that the university begin awarding MFA degrees, singling out the ART Institute as already having the “faculty and facilities that would be integral and important to creating graduate programs in arts practice.’’
“For the Harvard program to be competitive with the most sought after programs in the country its students must have the tuition expenses fully funded,’’ wrote the report’s authors.
“In my mind this really comes down to Harvard stepping up to the plate,’’ said Institute alumnus Peter Cambor, noting the University’s large endowment. “I know that they can’t just write a check, but they could certainly find a handful of people who could, and they could certainly change the policy on the terminal degree and the arts and have an MFA.’’
The ART’s e-mailed announcement said that during the upcoming “strategic planning period,’’ the ART and Institute leaders would “work with Harvard to explore options for an MFA, establish a stronger base of financial support for the Institute, and improve the A.R.T.’s educational facilities as part of an overall renovation of the Loeb Drama Center.’’
“We saw this as a moment of inflection, where we can take a pause and really think of the best way to train artists in the 21st century and investigate the MFA degree,’’ said Borger. “In order for us to responsibly fund students we needed to assess the situation and approach with an open mind a strategic planning period of three years. It’s complicated, but we felt that that was the most responsible thing we could do for students.’’