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UArts Hit With Class Action Lawsuit Over Alleged Labor Violations

A dozen staffers at the University of the Arts (UArts) have filed a class action lawsuit accusing the Philadelphia arts school of violating federal labor protections after recently announcing that it would be permanently closing within a week.

Filed on behalf of all of the nearly 700 employees at UArts, including faculty, maintenance workers, security staff, and both unionized and non-unionized individuals directly employed by the school, the suit claims that UArts failed to follow the 1988 Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which requires employers with 100 or more employees to give them at least a 60-day notice of a planned closure or mass layoff. 

The legal complaint was filed in federal court in Pennsylvania’s Eastern District yesterday, June 5, by Ryan Hancock, an attorney at the labor law firm Willig, Williams, & Davison, LLP. Plaintiffs are seeking two months of pay, healthcare coverage, and vacation pay as well as damages covered by the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act. The school has 21 days to respond to the filing. 

“Whatever we recover, it will never replace the loss that they have suffered and that the wider arts community has suffered,” Hancock told Hyperallergic, adding that “in this time, we need more artists, not less.” Both he and his spouse are alumni of the 148-year-old Philadelphia arts school.

In addition to the legal filing, the United Academics of Philadelphia (UAP) labor union has also submitted an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board over the school’s failure to engage in bargaining sessions regarding pay for work completed, severance, and benefits.

“As of today, faculty and staff have yet to receive any detailed information on their pay, employment status, or benefits,” a statement from UAP read. “The cruelty around this ongoing lack of communication from their employer remains disturbing, and the University instead communicates in the media rather than with their community.”

UArts has not yet responded to a request for comment.

The suit and unfair labor charges are just the latest developments in what has been a devastating week for the institution and its community after UArts leaders announced last Friday that the school had lost its accreditation and would be closing within days. This week, the last-minute cancellation of a virtual town hall session meant to address community concerns was followed by the quiet resignation of President Kerry Walk, who came on to lead the school in August.

Demanding transparency and answers from UArts leadership, students and staff have held several rallies on campus this week. At 3pm tomorrow, UArt’s announced final day of operation, community members are planning to hold another protest on the steps of the campus’s Hamilton Hall.

Laura Frazure, one of the lawsuit plaintiffs who was an assistant professor in UArts’s fine arts department, told Hyperallergic that she believes the school’s demise falls on the shoulders of its executive board members and former president David Yager, whose tenure from 2016 to 2023 was largely defined by a capital campaign that reportedly raised $67 million for the school, expanding its endowment by more than $24 million and financing several multimillion-dollar campus infrastructure projects. In the 2023 fiscal year, UArts’s endowment was valued at $61.2 million, Inside Higher Ed reported.

But the school’s sudden announcement of imminent closure has now led many community members to question Yager’s fiscal management of the school and the success of this fundraising campaign. Recently, Walk told the Philadelphia Inquirer that “an unspecified amount of gifts, grants, and other revenues the school was counting on had not materialized.”

Also a member of UArts faculty council, Frazure told Hyperallergic that in 2021, the school’s faculty deliberated filing a vote of no confidence against Yager, but were dissuaded by board chair Judson Aaron, a retired lawyer specializing in white-collar and government investigations, and board secretary William Gast.

“[Yager] was destroying us financially, we had a sense,” Frazure said, characterizing the former president as “authoritarian” and “belligerent.”

“Jud Aaron and Bill Gast came to the faculty council meeting and implored us not to put out a vote of no confidence because it would hurt the reputation of the school,” Frazure said, pointing out the current irony in the wake of the school’s abrupt closure. 

Hyperallergic has reached out to Yager, Aaron, and Gast for comment. 

“There was gross financial negligence and mismanagement,” Frazure continued. “[Yager] should have been being conservative and he wasn’t. He was an ego-driven individual looking for lines on his resume.”

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