ATLANTA — A class-action lawsuit was filed against the Savannah College of Art and Design in Chatham County Superior Court in late April, alleging the university's switch to online-only classes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic did not offer the opportunity for students to obtain refunds if they did not want to take online classes.
According to the law firm involved in the suit, Savannah-based Bowen Painter Trial Lawyers, the lawsuit is being brought on behalf of students seeking "partial tuition reimbursement for the Spring 2020 quarter after the school shut its campus and moved classes online during the COVID-19 crisis."
“We’re asking SCAD to acknowledge what they are providing through online classes is most definitely not the same caliber of instruction or experience that these students were promised when registering for in-person classes,” said Andrew Bowen, the attorney filing the suit.
“They’re losing access to the campus, to networking events, to studios, and remember, this is an art and design school. Students rely heavily on the school’s physical resources for an effective education,” Bowen said.
With art-based colleges and universities, a portion of the school's fees each school term are geared toward access to and use of physical materials and resources on campuses.
“This lawsuit by no means takes issue with the university’s decision to follow social distancing practices,” Bowen said. “But neither law nor equity will tolerate SCAD taking federal coronavirus funds, lavishly compensating the university’s president, and maintaining significant real estate holdings worldwide, along with a private jet -- all the while refusing to refund any portion of students’ tuition dollars.”
Bowen Painter says that according to SCAD’s most recently available federal tax filings, the university paid its founder and president, Paula Wallace, $2.5 million in 2017.
According to data from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wallace is the highest-paid collegiate president in Georgia and among the 10 highest-paid college and university presidents in the nation.
Bowen Painter says that SCAD has received $8.2 million in federal funding under the CARES Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund, and that while other colleges and universities with large endowments who have caved to public pressure not to accept federal stimulus dollars, SCAD is accepting the funding it has been awarded.
After 11Alive contacted the university regarding the lawsuit, the university provided a statement on Friday afternoon, denying the allegations, and saying that they did give students an opportunity to obtain a full refund of tuition prior to the start of the spring quarter
"The university announced two weeks before the Spring quarter started the need to move all courses and instruction online due to the virus. We wanted to be sure students had that time, as well as the first week of class, to decide whether they wanted to take classes in a completely online environment, or drop courses and receive a full tuition refund.
"SCAD’s nationally recognized, award winning, accredited eLearning program offers many degrees completely on line and has for many years. Our tuition for online and on-ground courses at SCAD has always been the same. Finally, if a student at SCAD is dissatisfied with an online course experience this spring, we have offered them the option to re-take that course for no additional tuition and in-person when on-ground courses are able to resume."
SCAD operates on the quarter system. The Spring quarter began on March 30 and concludes on May 28. The university's quarterly tuition is $12,525 for undergraduate students attending on a full-time basis.
According to Bowen Painter, SCAD students registered for the Spring quarter between February 10 and February 19. On March 12, SCAD announced it would be barring student access to its buildings on its Savannah, Atlanta and Lacoste, France campuses and that the university's Hong Kong campus would be closing permanently at the end of the Spring 2020 quarter.
Between all of the school's campuses, about 14,000 students attend the university.
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