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Hunter College Suspends Theatre M.A. Program

It started with an email on July 6. That was the first that professor and graduate advisor Mira Felner heard about the suspension of the Hunter College theatre M.A. program, through an email from Arts and Sciences Dean Andrew J. Polsky. With confusion clouding exactly why the decision was made without their consultation, Felner and her colleagues worry about what it means for the future of staff ordinance and faculty governance at Hunter.

In the email, Polsky cited budget pressures as the main reason for the suspension. But Felner and other members of the theatre department were disturbed by claims they saw as inaccurate referring to class size and what was called in the email as Hunter’s “need as an institution to focus on our core mission and priorities.”

Suspending the program allows for it to still be “on the books” with no formal action being taken to delist the program, as stated by the dean. Polsky wrote that in the future Hunter may opt to revisit the decision, but faculty have been told to create a completion plan that would graduate all current students in the next two to three years.

The Hunter chapter of PSC CUNY called the decision to suspend the program “a maneuver that subverts faculty and control of curricula.”

Staff speaks out

The dean’s letter, sent to the theatre department chair, said that the program only serves roughly 20 students, but the staff stated in a written response that there’s a current enrollment of 24 matriculated M.A. students. Their response also noted that there are graduate programs at Hunter with smaller class sizes than the theatre M.A., which additionally admitted three non-matrics this fall.

Hunter’s theatre M.A. program is the last of its kind in the CUNY system and in New York. Other graduate theatre programs at public and private colleges in the city focus explicitly on education and performance. Hunter’s program offers courses in theatre history, theory, dramaturgy, playwriting, acting and directing, according to the department website.

After 40 years at Hunter, Felner worries what the sudden suspension means for the college and the future of staff ordinance, particularly concerned for her younger colleagues in the now diminishing department. But most of all, she’s concerned for the students, who she believes have so much potential and drive to have successful futures.

“We love our M.A. students. They are totally interwoven with the rest of the department. They act in our plays, they assistant direct, they are TAs in our introduction to theatre,” she said. “A lot of them have professional degrees and they teach acting. To have this suddenly pulled out from under us, it’s like amputating our legs.”

She and the rest of the staff compiled a list of alumni from the department, sending it to Polsky to prove how successful past graduates have been. The list includes professors, lawyers, arts directors and playwrights, to name a few.

Student and alumni response

Students and alumni came together to use social media to protest the suspension and show just how valuable the program is. A Twitter account run by students has been posting in protest of the suspension as well as curating videos from alumni who describe how impactful their degrees from Hunter have been in their careers. This account has been a tool for proving to the administration what their degrees in theatre mean to them.

One of many alumni shares a message to Hunter College administration in protest of the theatre M.A. suspension.

First year M.A. candidate Franco Pedicini is a working actor who also co-manages a production company. When he started in the theatre department this past August, after the suspension had already been announced, he was disappointed and confused by the college’s choice when he saw how the program was filled with talent and potential.

“I can shift between different departments and choose my own adventure and really create the degree in two to three years that works well for my passions and my interests,” Pedicini said. “And if it’s not seen as valuable, I wonder, what is seen as valuable?”

With the pressures of being a working creative in New York highlighted during the pandemic, at Hunter, Pedicini feels validated in his work and the department’s passion for their students. “It’s stressful to be a creative person in New York to begin with,” he said. “You want the department you’re investing in to enrich your life and give you the foundation to go out into the world and be innovative and collaborate well with others.”

And when Pedicini saw that the dean used the word prestige as something the department lacked, he felt there was a lot to unpack in his word choice. “Why isn’t prestige considered when you’re talking about a creative person?” he questioned.

Second year graduate student Jacob Horn, who has been with the department since summer 2019, said that while he was disappointed by the suspension he wasn’t exactly surprised — especially with everything that’s happened in 2020.

“Everyone is facing these really tough times. To an extent I’m not surprised that there would be measures taken that would be surprising and upsetting because of the moment that we’re in,” he said. “I was surprised that this would be a program that would be singled out because it’s the last one of its kind in the CUNY system.”

Like Felner, Pedicini and Horn worry about what the suspension of the theatre M.A. means for the rest of Hunter’s academic body. “If this can happen, you can go behind the back of the academic Senate and stop something from thriving without voting on it, where else can you do this? Or how else can you act on this? It opens a door to a very dark place,” Pedicini said.

Both students chose Hunter because of its diversity, equitability and affordability. Horn, who works in an art museum and does publication work, was interested in the research aspect of studying theatre. With the program’s unique curriculum and course offerings, along with its accessibility, Hunter was the perfect place for him to pursue a graduate degree.

“A lot of people really value the fact that the CUNY system brings together a more diverse community because it’s so accessible. In theatre especially, having different perspectives is so important to the field,” he said. “To lose something that’s accessible and something that also tends to be more diverse because it’s accessible, that’s a real loss to the discipline.”

And against all odds, Horn said that this unique situation has allowed the staff and students to feel even more bonded together, even though they’re apart.

Future of the theatre M.A. program

While it’s not a flat out cancellation of the program, the decrees of the suspension state that no more students can be admitted and that there must be a completion plan put into place for current students to finish out their degrees.

Polsky gave no official statement regarding the suspension when contacted by email. “I’m not in a position to speak about an ongoing matter that is being addressed in several Hunter governance venues,” he wrote.

Ultimately, confusion clouds the circumstances of the suspension for the many parties involved. Both staff and students are concerned for what it means for their jobs, degrees and futures, but all have hopes that they will still be able to rise above and thrive regardless.

“We’re hoping against hope that we can turn this around,” said Felner of any potential that the decision to suspend the program could eventually be reversed.

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