Light & Verity

Drama school goes tuition-free with Geffen gift

It is now officially called the David Geffen School of Drama.

T. Charles Erickson

T. Charles Erickson

Erron Crawford ’19MFA in a 2018 drama school Shakespeare adaptation titled “as u like it.” View full image

Billionaire media mogul David Geffen has made a $150 million gift that will allow the School of Drama to be tuition-free for all students. The university announced the gift in June, along with the news that the school is now called the David Geffen School of Drama—the first of Yale’s 12 professional schools to be named for a donor. (Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, named for donors John Jackson ’67 and Susan Jackson, is slated to become a school in 2022.)

Reducing or eliminating tuition and student debt in the professional schools has been a priority for Yale in recent years. In 2005, Stephen Adams ’59 and his wife Denise Rhea Adams gave $100 million to make the School of Music tuition-free. And, in a two-year campaign that ended in 2016, Yale raised $285.8 million for university-wide financial aid.

Drama dean James Bundy ’95MFA hopes the gift will help the school attract a wider pool of applicants. “We’ve seen a lot more traffic on our website,” he says, “presumably from prospective students who might see the prospect of professional training differently as a major financial barrier is removed.”

The school has had a need-blind admissions policy and need-based aid “for decades,” Bundy says, but the new policy will cover tuition for all students regardless of need. The school will continue to meet other needs—such as living expenses, books, and supplies—for students with demonstrated need. Bundy noted, however, that PhD students at Yale and other elite universities get all their expenses covered by a stipend. He’d like to see a day when “graduate training in the theater will be as valued as graduate education in the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities.”

David Geffen, whose gift is said by Yale to be the largest on record in the history of American theater, is best known as a founder of Asylum Records, Geffen Records, and the movie studio DreamWorks, but he has also invested in theater as a producer of shows on and off Broadway. He taught a seminar at Yale in the 1970s. In a university statement, he said that “Yale is well known for having one of the most respected drama programs in the country. So, when they approached me with this opportunity, I knew Yale was the right place to begin to change the way we think about funding arts education.”

For Bundy, that means “putting the capital at students’ disposal that allows them to emerge from the training without a crushing burden of debt that restricts their artistic choices after they graduate. Artistic careers are financially uncertain, and they don’t necessarily progress with linearity.”

Amid the celebration, there was criticism of the decision to name the school after Geffen. In the Los Angeles Times, theater critic Charles McNulty ’93MFA, ’95DFA, argued that “the Yale School of Drama is a storied institution, built on the contributions of its graduates to the American theater, not a fungible brand to be put up for auction.”

Bundy says he wasn’t surprised by the criticism. “It’s normal for people to have a rich range of emotional responses to any change that gets made at Yale,” he says. But he expects that “generations from now, people will say ‘I went to the Geffen School of Drama’ and everyone who cares about the performing arts will know exactly what that means.”

Deans are never finished with fundraising, and Bundy is no exception. The school is currently working on a plan to build a new flagship building with performance space, classrooms, production shops, and offices. The building will be the new home of the Yale Repertory Theatre; it will also serve the Yale Dramat and the undergraduate theater and performance studies program.  

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