Lyme Academy students seek answers about closing of their school

Old Lyme -- In an hour-long conversation full of tense and emotional moments on Monday, Lyme Academy College of Fine Arts students sought answers about what happened to their school, while University of New Haven President Steven Kaplan sought answers about what school could do to ease their transition.

The mid-day meeting occurred on the first day of classes for Lyme Academy students, two weeks after they found out UNH would cease offering bachelor of fine arts programs at the school after the 2018-19 school year. Lyme Academy became a UNH campus in 2014.

Kaplan said Lyme Academy was on the verge of losing its accreditation and closing back then, but UNH hadn’t sought the affiliation. He visited as a courtesy and felt it would be “an incredible tragedy” to lose such a “jewel.”

“I had a lot of people oppose me, who simply understood better than I did that this was a very difficult situation to turn around,” Kaplan said. He found the biggest problem was trying to run a 122-student college 40 miles from the main campus.

Several students expressed their particular disappointment in the timing of the announcement, saying it was unfair to accept new freshmen under these conditions.

Kaplan said UNH struggled in the spring with whether to bring in a new class and continue; he spoke with consultants as well as five or six presidents of other art colleges but held out hope of turning Lyme Academy around.

Asked why UNH didn’t warn students this was a possibility, Kaplan replied, “Had we said that we were thinking of closing it in March or April, it’s as good as closing it, because half of you wouldn’t have come back,” and then the campus would’ve definitely closed. Some students disagreed with this assessment.

Kaplan argued that not making the decision sooner wasn’t about taking students’ money, pointing out that it’s a $1.5 million expense to keep Lyme Academy open each year and that students’ tuition “has been heavily subsidized by the university.”

One student asked for a write-up of where finances went, “just to help relieve some distrust.”

Kaplan assured students that “every single cent” of tuition stays on campus. Lyme Academy Dean Todd Jokl said he thought it’d be “easy and helpful to show the general budget of where the revenue comes from each year.”

UNH is exploring a variety of options but doesn’t want to give students false hope. One option is allowing juniors to finish their studies through an accelerated program. 

That provided some comfort to Ruth Viele, a drawing major who spoke on the phone with The Day last week.

“I feel like I’ve gone through the stages of grief, and I feel like I’m at the sadness stage or something,” she said. “Like, Lyme Academy in general is such a rare and unique place, and what we learn there, it’s so hard to find these days.”

Illustration will be offered as a major at UNH, while Lyme Academy students studying drawing, sculpture and painting have the option of switching to another major at the main campus. UNH is also working on an agreement with the University of Hartford.

But many students don’t have a desire to continue at either the University of New Haven or the University of Hartford, and they wondered if they will still get assistance in transferring.

Kaplan said that “if neither school is the option for you, we want to do whatever we can to help you find other options.”

One student said a member of the transition task force seemed unwilling to help with a plan that didn’t involve either school, which Kaplan considered good feedback. 

Asked if UNH has had these issues at other campuses, Kaplan noted that the school closed its data graduate program in San Francisco a year ago, and closed a national-security program in Washington, D.C.

Sophomore Cassandra Calabrese said with a sigh after the meeting, “I get it. I want to be angry about it - I am - but that’s not productive, I guess.”

Community members offer assistance, ideas

Kaplan and Jokl - along with professor/alumna Kimberly Monson and Lyme Academy Board of Trustees Chairman Stephen Tagliatela - held a second meeting late Monday  afternoon. It was marketed toward “alumni and friends” and focused more on the longevity of the campus.

Kaplan’s reflection from the first meeting was, “I think we spent probably too much time on the past and not enough on the future, but I think that’s fine, because I think the students really needed that.”

Old Lyme First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder expressed her view that Lyme Academy is a crucial part of the town’s culture and said she was “ready to jump in with both feet” to help keep the campus active in some form.

Wendy Bury, executive director of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition, said she’d be happy to facilitate a meeting of nonprofit leaders.

Lyme-Old Lyme High School art teacher William Allik shared his vision of Lyme Academy as a place that offers master’s degrees and teaches teachers. He said this option would turn the liabilities of Lyme Academy for 18-year-olds - being a small campus in a small town - into assets.

Suggestions from other meeting attendees were to offer one- to eight-week residency programs, using Vermont Studio Center as a model, or to offer adult education in the arts, with programs in photography, jazz and classic movies.

Tagliatela said the board has met only once since the announcement and “we’re not sure who, how, when, but we have our work cut out for us.”

“We need to keep positive,” Monson said. “We need to keep ourselves involved. We need to commit to this place, and to its success, and to its focus.”

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