UPDATED: Read a note from the author in the comments.
At The Juilliard School, not a week goes by when I haven’t listened to concerns regarding the program that provides full tuition, housing, and special privileges to certain members of the student body, based solely on a 15 minute audition and alleged high school performance. This is the Kovner Fellowship program, or the Juilliard equivalent of winning the lottery. I have written these concerns down so that they are no longer just angry whispers out of fear of being silenced.
As a disclaimer, I should write that this article is in no way intended to criticize or call out Kovner Fellowship recipients themselves. They are entitled to the best possible education. But then, so are the rest of us.
Concern with Transparency
There is a complete lack of transparency in the decision-making process behind the Kovner Fellowship. The Juilliard website states that the following criteria goes into choosing Kovner recipients: “Artistic merit of the highest caliber; a successful academic history; [and] a personal capacity for intellectual curiosity, commitment to the value of art in society, and potential for leadership in the field.” There is no written application for the Kovner Fellowship. There is no interview. There is only the initial 15 minute entrance audition and, allegedly, an inquiry into the applicant’s high school academic achievement, though this can be quickly ruled out after speaking briefly with a survey of Kovner recipients. How can a personal capacity for intellectual curiosity, commitment to the value of art in society, and potential for leadership in the field be determined after a 15 minute audition where there is no more human interaction than a brief “thank you” after playing? Either there are other unspoken considerations taken into account, including which summer programs one has been to and who one might happen to know on the selection committee, or the Fellowship is solely awarded based off of an interpretation of merit, based on a 15 minute audition. Either way, this should be made clear to the Juilliard community.
Concerning Our Community
The Kovner Fellowship is dividing our community. The Juilliard School website states that Kovner recipients benefit from “enhanced programmatic content,” and the following “enhanced” activities have been confirmed: Kovner Fellows are entitled their own entrepreneurship classes, their own orientation, and even go on apple picking trips together. Because these activities are not open to the whole community, it gives the impression that non-Kovner recipients are less valued within the Juilliard community, which very well could be true. This makes excluded students defensive and bitter, and moreover, resentful when a Kovner recipient receives a special opportunity they didn’t audition for, even when it could very well have been earned. Given the already intensely competitive environments that Juilliard students are subjected to, these hierarchical politics should be the last thing on the minds of students, which is why the enhanced programmatic content should be offered to all students, not just the special few.
Concern with Merit
Most Kovner Fellowship recipients come from families that can already afford a Juilliard education. To be worthy of receiving any merit-based award, one first needs money to spend on the best private lessons, money to spend on the best pre-college program, money to spend on the best summer programs, and, of course, money to spend on application fees, audition fees, flights, hotels, and trial lessons. This is a theme for all top-tier colleges and universities: “Roughly one in four of the richest students attend an elite college universities that typically cluster toward the top of annual rankings […] In contrast, less than one-half of 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of American families attend an elite college; less than [50 percent] attend any college at all.”1 The same can be said for merit-based awards at The Juilliard School – recipients are essentially being rewarded for their wealth and circumstance, something out of their control, while those with fewer privileges are left footing the bill. This continues the cycle of poverty.
Concerning the Juilliard Endowment
Juilliard has a $980 million endowment. Considering only around 850 students attend Juilliard, it is absurd that there are students paying $60,000 a year, period. The Curtis Institute of Music has an endowment somewhere between $130 million and $236 million, and they are completely tuition-free. Juilliard owes it to their students, who are entering some of the most competitive fields on the planet, to lower, if not eliminate, tuition costs.
What is to be done?
The Kovner Fellowship needs to be much more transparent, so that there is no longer ambiguity or suspicion surrounding the award itself. The enhanced programmatic content Kovner recipients receive should be open to all students on a case-by-case basis. Juilliard boasts a commitment to community building, and in that vein, all students should be treated equally, regardless of their financial aid package. Scholarship funds should also be distributed based on need rather than merit to combat the ridiculous wealth gap at Juilliard.
This essay is meant to make the concerned voices of many within the Juilliard community heard, as well as provide several solutions. This writer hopes that it will lead to a more open and transparent dialogue—no longer whispered, but articulated loud and clear.
1 Source: Aisch, Buchanan, Cox, & Quealy. “Some Colleges Have More Students From the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours.” The New York Times, 18 Jan. 2017)
CORRECTED 11/18: Curtis endowment data has been updated with information from their latest Annual Report.