Cornish College of the Arts, a 106-year-old private arts school in downtown Seattle, announced this week it’s undergoing a financial emergency, though the president of the school assured the community it’s not planning to close anytime soon.
The school’s Board of Trustees unanimously voted on Oct. 6 to approve a resolution to declare financial emergency and financial exigency, a move Cornish President Raymond Tymas-Jones called a “necessary next step toward our economic recovery and our transition to a new, more sustainable business model.”
“This is a tough time, but with the fortitude and commitment of an extraordinary faculty and staff, I really believe we can come up with a plan that will allow us to recoup and bounce back, so there is no discussion or planning of closing our doors,” Tymas-Jones, who took over as president about two years ago, said Tuesday morning. “Right now, we are taking the steps necessary. That’s why the declaration was made.”
After Cornish transitioned to a 100% remote learning model in March, its enrollment numbers were hit hard, suffering about a 17% decrease, Tymas-Jones said. Last fall, 591 full-time students were enrolled, compared to 479 students this fall, he said. Ninety-two students took a leave of absence, and Tymas-Jones said he wasn’t sure how many were planning to return in the spring.
“Cornish is a tuition-drive institution, so our operating revenue is basically generated through tuition,” he said. Last month, school leaders adjusted the annual budget by about 8% because the college didn’t hit its target of 520 students this fall, which created an “immediate strain,” Tymas-Jones said.
“We have had some employees take a cut in pay. We did apply cost of living increases for staff and faculty, but we have had to make other adjustments in our budget and absorb other reductions through non-personnel expenditures,” he said.
While the board last week declared financial emergency, Cornish has been battling financial difficulties caused by low enrollment numbers for several years, Tymas-Jones said.
“We were not achieving significant revenue to offset the expenditures, so we were already in a mindset to grow the student population,” he said. “So it’s a combination of both the pandemic and the fact that Cornish has not been able to grow the student enrollment to a significant level that would cover the cost of the quality of education we were offering.”
In January, the administration approved a four-year plan mapping out a path to a stronger economic future, “one in which revenue streams are diversified and resources are prioritized toward student success,” the president said in a Monday news release.
The plan, while approved, is just a template for now. Over the next four to five months, the administration will work with the community to finalize it, Tymas-Jones said. Once it’s finalized, the declaration of financial emergency will allow the school to speed up its implementation of the new plan, the president said.
And although the declaration of financial emergency permits the school to lay off tenured faculty members, Tymas-Jones confirmed there’s no discussion of layoffs at this point.
“That is not the reason why we declared exigency or emergency,” he said. “It is a part of a process. It is determining what the plan is. … And to try and find opportunities to grow our student enrollment (and) be a relevant institution in terms of offering what students are looking for in the arts.”
Tuition at Cornish College of the Arts is $32,964 for the 2020-21 academic year, according to the college’s website. That was a 20% reduction from the previous year, according to the website, as Cornish “has reset its tuition structure to prior levels to make the institution more accessible and to address long-term student debt.”
Scott Jaschik, editor of online publication Inside Higher Ed, said Cornish isn’t the only smaller arts school that has been struggling to stay afloat.
Within the last five years, a number of private art colleges throughout the country, including the Oregon College of Art and Craft and Pacific Northwest College of Art, have attempted to merge, close, relocate or change their tuition structure, Inside Higher Ed reported earlier this year.
“These are very tough times for small, private colleges,” Jaschik said, pointing to challenges specific to art schools — such as maintaining general day-to-day operations, in addition to expensive art supplies and equipment — and students’ general lack of interest in attending school during a pandemic.
Inside Higher Ed also noted “curricular changes make it more difficult for some students to take classes before they graduate from high school, meaning art schools must work harder to reach prospective students at an early age.”
The possibility of closures or program cuts at Cornish could be devastating to the Seattle arts community, said Kathryn “Kitty” Daniels, former chair of Cornish’s dance department who worked at the school for nearly 30 years.
During Daniels’ time at Cornish, one of her main goals was to establish a bridge between the performing arts community and her students, where both sides could interact with and learn from one another, she said.
“By the time I was leaving Cornish, easily 50% of the innovators making their marks in the Seattle dance community — both the emerging new artists and established ones — had graduated or studied at Cornish,” she said. “So there was a really significant impact. … If Cornish were not to exist, a major pipeline in the dance community and other arts would be cut off.”
While larger schools, such as the University of Washington, have wonderful undergraduate arts programs, she said, smaller, specialized schools like Cornish can offer more extensive and specific visual and performing arts curricula for students who want to pursue higher degrees.
“And we all know the arts are fragile in this time of COVID,” Daniels said. “We’re way more fragile in performing arts, where we can’t even imagine when performance will take place again, so it’s definitely a threat to the survival of Seattle’s cultural capital to think of the school going away.”
Tymas-Jones said Tuesday the school will do its best over the coming months to come up with sustainable solutions to the financial strain.
“I think what gives Cornish the edge and makes our future possible and bright is the fact that we are in Seattle, and that it is such a technological-design driven city,” he said. “And the fact that the arts are so robust and important to the quality of life in the city. There is a place for an institution like Cornish.”