Yale Drama goes tuition-free with $150 million gift from David Geffen

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Yale Drama goes tuition-free with $150 million gift from David Geffen
David Geffen. Photo: Bruce Weber

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Billionaire David Geffen is giving $150 million to Yale School of Drama, allowing one of the nation’s most prestigious programs to stop charging tuition.

The graduate school, which enrolls about 200 students in programs that include acting, design, directing and playwriting, announced the gift Wednesday, and said it would rename itself the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University.

Yale said it believes the gift is the largest in the history of American theater.

The school said that, starting in August, it would eliminate tuition for all returning and future students in its masters, doctoral and certificate programs. Tuition at the school had been $32,800 per year.

The move should remove a barrier to entry for low-income students and those worried about incurring high student debt before entering an often low-paying field.

“We know, because people have told us, that there are potential applicants out there who think they could never afford graduate theater training at an Ivy League school,” said James Bundy, the drama school dean. He said he hoped that by going tuition-free, that obstacle would diminish.

He also said that he hoped that the move would lessen the impact of student debt on the career choices graduates make.

“By reducing the debt burden of the average student, we create more resilient artists and managers who are able to make braver artistic choices — they’re able to take that downtown play and they don’t have to have a career selling real estate on the side,” he said. “Not every artist is going to break through at the age of 25 or 26 or 27. Certain kinds of careers take time to build, and entering the professions with less debt is going to make for more interesting and more resounding choices in the long run.”

The drama school is home to the Yale Repertory Theater, and its graduates include Meryl Streep, Lynn Nottage and Lupita Nyong’o.

It will become the second program at Yale to eliminate tuition; in 2005 the Yale School of Music did so. There are a handful of other tuition-free graduate programs around the country, including NYU’s medical school.

The university’s president, Peter Salovey, said he hoped more schools would follow, particularly in the areas of nursing and public health, where students tend to graduate with high debt and pursue careers that are not highly lucrative.

“In general, what should be happening in higher education is an attempt to reduce the financial burden on individuals and families associated with undergraduate education and graduate and professional education,” Salovey said. “I’d love to do this for other programs as well, but it will take the generosity of donors to make it happen.”

Geffen, 78, made his fortune in the music and film businesses, and he is currently worth about $10 billion, according to Forbes. He has become a major philanthropist with an interest in the arts, previously giving $150 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, $100 million to Lincoln Center for the renovation of the concert hall where the New York Philharmonic performs and $100 million to the Museum of Modern Art.

Geffen, through a Yale spokesperson, declined to be interviewed, but Salovey said the Yale gift came about after years of conversations between the university and Geffen’s foundation. Geffen once taught a seminar at Yale, in the late 1970s, about the music industry, and Salovey said that experience had been positive for Geffen; Salovey also said the university had been aware of Geffen’s interest in supporting higher education and the arts, and had looked for projects that might appeal to those interests.

Geffen has maintained a variety of connections to theater throughout his career: In the 1980s, he was among the producers of the original off-Broadway production of “Little Shop of Horrors,” and in the 1990s, he gave the founding gift for the Geffen Playhouse, a major theater in Los Angeles. Over the years he has been credited as a producer of nine Broadway shows, from “Dreamgirls” to the upcoming revival of “The Music Man.”

Salovey said he hopes in the future that Yale will be able to build a new theater that will also house the drama school; that project would have to be financed through a separate fundraising effort, he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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