University of the Arts employees rally, call for labor negotiations

university of the arts
University of the Arts faculty, staff and students march Wednesday, June 5.

As the University of the Arts prepares to permanently close Friday, faculty and staff on Wednesday called on school leaders to begin negotiations over possible severance payments and other benefits.

Meanwhile, Temple University officials have signaled an interest in potentially partnering to keep the college going, and a group of staffers have filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court.

UArts administrators and representatives from the United Academics of Philadelphia, a union representing school employees, were supposed to meet Tuesday to begin discussions. But the sessions were canceled following university president Kerry Walk’s sudden resignation and have yet to be rescheduled, according to UAP.

University of the Arts faculty, staff and students gather Wednesday, June 5, in front of Hamilton Hall ahead of a march.JACK TOMCZUK

Faculty and staff gathered Wednesday morning in front of Hamilton Hall, the historic building at Broad and Pine streets that has been the site of student demonstrations since Monday.

They marched up Broad Street, adapting popular call-and-response chants, such as “Jud, Jud, you can’t hide, we can see your greedy side,” directed at Board of Trustees Chair Judson Aaron.

“We’re going to keep fighting this,” music instructor Rick Rein told the crowd through a bullhorn.

“This is bullsh–,” added Colin Kenney, who has worked on the school’s help desk for about two years.

Participants stopped and demonstrated in front of the Centre Square office building across the street from City Hall, chanting “shame.” Union organizers said Aaron’s legal offices are located there, though the university’s website indicates that he is a retired attorney.

University of the Arts faculty, staff and students demonstrate Wednesday, June 5.JACK TOMCZUK

Nine faculty and staff members have filed a complaint accusing UArts of violating a federal law that requires large employees to provide 60 days’ notice of mass layoffs. They are seeking to recover two months’ worth of compensation, health benefits and other damages.

UAP, which is affiliated with the American Federal of Teachers, has advised members not to sign onto the class-action suit, saying it could weaken the organization’s position to take its own legal action. On Wednesday, union officials said that they had filed an unfair practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board.

UArts representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

Late Tuesday, Aaron issued a statement saying that the institution had hired Alvarez & Marsal, a global business management consultant with an office in Center City, to help with the closing process.

Aaron’s statement did not provide additional specifics about the university’s decision to close on a week’s notice. He and Walk said May 31 that the institution would shutter Friday due an inability to afford “significant, unanticipated expenses.”

“We recognize that you have many questions, and we will share more information as this process continues,” Aaron wrote Tuesday.

He said UArts is focused on developing a transition, or “teach-out,” plan for students and is committed to “taking whatever actions are feasible to support” employees.

University of the Arts students have maintained a presence outside Hamilton Hall since Monday.JACK TOMCZUK

The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which pulled UArts’ accreditation last week after being informed of the imminent closure, had asked the school to produce a teach-out plan by Friday. A dozen colleges have stepped up to offer transfer options for students, according to the commission.

Temple University is part of that group, and the school’s board chair, Mitchell Morgan, was quoted in the Inquirer saying that the North Philadelphia-based college is trying to “see if we can put this genie back in the bottle.”

A Temple spokesperson told Metro that the university’s top priority is making sure UArts students have a way to continue their studies.

“This is a fluid situation, and we continue to gather more information in relation to the University of the Arts’ sudden closure,” Temple communications director Steve Orbanek said in a statement Tuesday evening. “We are committed to continuing conversations with UArts representatives to explore all options and possible solutions to preserve the arts and the rich legacy of this 150-year old institution.”