Column: With Geffen’s $150 million, Yale will offer free classes to drama students. Is this a good thing?

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On Wednesday, Yale University’s prestigious drama school made two interconnected announcements. One was that it was renaming itself the David Geffen Yale School of Drama. The second was the reason for the first: the Hollywood mogul and founder of the DreamWorks SKG studio had given the school a huge donation of $150 million. As a result, Yale said, the school of drama will no longer be charging its students tuition.

Yale also called the donation “the largest in the history of the American theater,” although there has been a striking amount of billionaires’ money going to the arts in recent weeks.

The latest philanthropic announcement of MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos included many arts groups, including Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art and Black Ensemble Theater, among a stunning $2.74 billion giveaway of Amazon-induced wealth. That was the third such Scott announcement within a year, part of a combined $8 billion within a single year. And a hefty chunk has gone to the arts. Scott is so rich, her efforts dwarf federal funding in the sector, even allowing for special pandemic relief.

Columns are opinion content that reflect the views of the writers.

But where Scott has favored what she calls “equity-oriented nonprofit teams” capable of a “high impact,” Geffen has ponied up cash to a more traditional party: a prestigious Ivy League university.

On the face of it, it’s excellent news. Arts graduates, especially those who remain in such fields as theater and dance, are notoriously underpaid, especially early in their careers. They’re also less likely to find work than in other fields. All of that inevitably has an impact on their ability, or inability, to pay back student debt, especially that coming from private colleges and universities.

A typical consequence is that talented but debt-laden young artists often are forced to leave the field, or they find themselves burned out from the need to work a day job and still practice their art. And that usually means that the kind of internships and foot-in-the-door positions that get you into a Hollywood studio, say, or on a Netflix shoot, are dominated by wealthy young people who did not need to go into debt to get a degree. And that’s fundamentally unfair.

As you might expect, Yale heralded the new arrangement as a blow against student debt in favor of equity and accessibility. “David Geffen’s visionary generosity ensures that artists of extraordinary potential from all socioeconomic backgrounds will be able to cultivate their talent at Yale,” said Yale president Peter Salovey, in a statement. (Yale’s School of Music also offers tuition-free places thanks to a gift from Stephen and Denise Adams in 2005).

And Salovey doubled down with Geffen’s money, arguing a version of those knock-on effects beloved of economic-impact studies in the arts that count the subsequent spending of those who have jobs in the field. “Our students help drive creativity and innovation across all fields — during their time at Yale and after they graduate,” he said. “So, David’s transformative gift will have a ripple effect in our community and around the world.”

In other words, thanks to Geffen, you might be watching a stage director who could not otherwise have afforded to go to Yale then give an opportunity to a dancer from somewhere else entirely. So the fascinating idea is that the free tuition even can expand exponentially to help yet more artists. It’s an interesting argument, rarely applied to philanthropy in education, but Salovey, a social psychologist, makes a decent case. Free tuition can indeed help other people, assuming the graduates who benefited then work in collaborative professions that typically struggle with issues of equity and economic opportunity.

So who loses? Any arts school not named Yale University and lacking a close relationship with a generous billionaire like Geffen.

From this point on, it becomes more difficult not only to charge high tuition but, really, any tuition at all. Yale’s competitors will surely have realized that their jobs suddenly became far more difficult. If the leading program in the country (arguably) declares itself to be free, even for students from high-income families, those lower down the pike have one heck of a tough sell.

And that’s a downside: there are only so many places at Yale and, notwithstanding graduate programs that employ teaching assistants, very few schools that can make a similar offer. In other words, this is a huge benefit but only for a few. And it will destabilize everything.

That’s good thing, you might say. Schools have a moral responsibility to control their own costs and not send impressionable young artists into debt. If this shakes out a few players, that might be good. On the other hand, it puts a lot of power in the hands of the billionaires of the world. Yale will need to ensure no Geffen interference in what its graduates do, either in school or beyond. The two are linked now for a student’s lifetime.

Patronage has existed as long as there have been impecunious artists and those who support them. At Yale, it is now arriving when you join the drama school.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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