In the first week of September, we profiled five Cornish College of the Arts students during their first week back at school. We heard stories of masked dance rehearsals, Zoom callbacks, and witnessed one of the saddest rehearsal spaces at a college dedicated to the arts. Overall, it was a worrying glimpse into an arts school trying to figure its way through the pandemic.
Then last week, Cornish announced sweeping changes to their curriculum and campus structure.
Effective immediately, the school will no longer accept applications for their Performance Production and Interior Architecture Bachelor of Fine Arts programs. Citing research conducted by a third party, the school said low enrollment and limited growth prospects of both departments made it "not sustainable to continue these artistic disciplines as standalone majors in the current environment."
In a separate statement, Cornish said they would restructure the Costume Design, Scenic Design, and Sound Design majors as minors and double majors to accommodate the loss of Performance Production—although these areas will not take direct entry applications. Interior Architecture will undergo a "feasibility study" in the next academic year to potentially become a low-residency degree targeted toward working adults.
The elimination of these majors were "data-driven decisions," the school stated. Though the school says they are "reaching out" to students in each department to "hear their concerns," the student body was not directly involved in any discussions regarding this data. No other programs are getting the boot just yet, but Performance Production and Interior Architecture majors are justifiably upset.
Rebecca, a Performance Production student who participated in our First Week Back series in September, told me that students within her department are "heartbroken" over the development and are "taking the news really hard."
At the beginning of the fall semester, she detailed the state of limbo her studies were in due to the restrictions on in-person performances. Rebecca said she and her department had "no idea" about these changes—which were announced during class time—and emphasized a lack of communication from the Cornish administration.
"Many students couldn’t go to their evening classes or rehearsals because of the mental impact this decision had," she said. "There also was no sign of remorse or apology in the body of the email, and we still have not received any empathy from administration."
Mitch, an Interior Architecture student from our First Week Back series, echoed Rebecca's confusion over the decision, saying that the axing of their majors came as a shock. Mitch valued their major at Cornish because of its immersion in an artistic environment. They believe that cutting Interior Architecture hurts the school in the long run, making it less competitive with similar programs across the country.
"It’s like these big people we never see are making decisions for our academic future. They don’t hear us or interact with us or know what’s going and yet they make these decisions that affect us," they said. "Their role in cutting our program feeds into the death of the arts in Seattle."
One student pointed out that the announcement came just after the add/drop cut-off date for classes, as well as the cut-off for credit transfers to another institution, limiting options for people who are not on board with Cornish's change in plans.
Amelia Rurey, a junior and Interior Architecture senator for the Cornish Student Senate, told me she and the rest of the department felt "blindsided" by the administration's swiftness in removing the two majors, and called their lack of communication "frustrating." Along with concern for the students, Rurey is also worried about faculty, who could potentially see their jobs eliminated along with the majors. She thinks there could be "a lot more loss" as a result of the administration's decisions.
Cornish also announced that they would consolidate all of the school's programs onto their South Lake Union campus, moving the dance and music programs from Capitol Hill's Kerry Hall after the 2021-2022 academic year.
In a statement, the school says the separation of undergrads between Kerry Hall and the main campus in SLU created a "negative impact" on Cornish. Among these negative impacts cited by the college are difficulty in scheduling courses, long student travel times, program isolation, building and internet maintenance, and access to student services.
Additionally, Cornish says the "deferred maintenance of Kerry Hall, and the underutilization of other real estate assets, prevent Cornish from fulfilling its academic mission and achieving financial sustainability."
Leadership is "exploring opportunities" for Kerry Hall and other college assets as they pull together their long-term planning. Let me take this moment to remind you of the Capitol Hill building's beauty, constructed in 1921 and designed by Seattle A.H. Albertson. Its bright Spanish Colonial Revival style always stuck out to me among the drabbish PNW buildings surrounding it.
These changes come after Cornish declared a financial emergency and financial exigency in October, partially in response to the 17% decrease in fall enrollment numbers. This decrease is primarily due to the pandemic, though Cornish has struggled with enrollment for a while. At that time, Tymas-Jones told the Seattle Times that the decision to declare financial emergency and exigency was a “necessary next step toward our economic recovery and our transition to a new, more sustainable business model.”