Bridging arts and academics, Part I: The Tufts-SMFA dual-degree program

The shuttle for the School of the Museum of Fine Arts picks up students in front of the Aidekman Arts Center on Feb. 19. (Ben Kim / The Tufts Daily)

The combined-degree program between Tufts and the School of Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) began in the late 1970s and was designed for students who are interested in pursuing both a rigorous liberal arts education and studio art, according to the Dean of the SMFA Nancy Bauer. Students who are enrolled in the program have a unique opportunity to complete two undergraduate degrees, a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) and Bachelor of Arts or Science (BA/BS), from Tufts University in five years.

After the acquisition of SMFA by the university in June 2016, an increasing number of students have demonstrated their interest, applied and enrolled in the combined-degree program. For the Class of 2023, Tufts Admissions received 285 applications for the dual-degree program, an increase of 30 percent from the previous admissions cycle.

Bauer explained that the combined-degree program’s increasing popularity stands out in today’s higher education landscape, where many art schools have experienced declining student demand.

“Many small arts schools these days are finding that providing co-curricular services — for example, robust student accessibility services — to students is financially challenging. [In this context,] smaller art institutions are finding it harder to keep up, which means that despite their excellent academic program, enrollments are in peril of dropping,” Bauer said in an email interview with the Daily.

Before the SMFA became a part of Tufts, the school had similar struggles with its declining enrollment, high dropout rates and substantial financial deficit, according to Bauer.

“In 2015, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which had been the parent of the SMFA since its founding in 1877, decided that it was best for the health of the school to partner with another educational institution … One of the reasons that the MFA decided to find a partner to adopt the SMFA is that its enrollments had been dipping at the school,” Bauer said. “[With our partnership with Tufts] we have more people applying for the combined-degree program than we did before … every year, we are working hard to create more and more community among combined-degree students and to support student initiatives.”

Bauer added that students who are interested in the combined-degree program are exceptionally diverse in their academic and artistic interests. As one of the few universities that offer dual-degree programs in liberal arts and studio art nationwide, along with a similar program at Brown-RISD, Tufts’ combined-degree program attracts student artists across the nation and abroad.

Jiamin Li, a first-year dual-degree student, said that Tufts appeared to be a perfect school during her senior year of high school.

“Tufts seemed like a great place for me to keep a sense of exploration and curiosity while developing my voice and identity as a student artist,” Li said. “Coming into Tufts, I wanted to pursue a variety of subject areas, ranging from International Relations, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, to sociology … As I have pursued photography, I was excited to see how these two worlds would come together, which would not only deepen my understanding of humanity and art but also help me explore different mediums for my artistic expressions.”

Another first-year dual-degree student, Sadhana Madnani, echoed Li’s sentiments.

“I applied early decision to Tufts, [because] I wanted to study Child and Human Development and Arabic in-depth and cultivate my interests in painting, drawing, and sculpting,” Madnani said. “I wanted a school where I would be able to develop my artistic interests as seriously as my academic interests, all while having the freedom to explore in both areas. Tufts was really the only place where I could do that [from my research].”

Many first-year students cited academic and artistic freedom as the combined-degree program’s biggest strength. According to the SMFA’s website, its core pedagogy is “the idea that the development of an artistic practice is an organic and fluid process,” which sets Tufts’ dual degree program apart from those of other universities.

Matilda Biscaldi, a dual-degree student, shared her positive experience with the SMFA’s academic and artistic freedom.

“The first day I got to Tufts, I had an advisor who told me that it is okay to make a lot of mistakes … The advisor emphasized that the more mistakes and ‘bad artworks’ I make, the better artist I will become in the future. My  interaction with the advisor was very inspiring, as I had always been pressured to make ‘good’ art,” Biscaldi, a first-year, said. “When I walked into my first class at SMFA, my professor said that everyone has different phases and different approaches, and that’s perfectly fine as long as we do the work … This atmosphere has encouraged me and my classmates to pursue areas that truly interest us while pushing us out of our comfort zone. Personally, it has been fascinating to learn about how my classmates and I approach the assignment from different angles and perspectives, especially in my digital photography class this semester.”

Bauer added that the SMFA’s pass/fail grading system fosters a creative environment where students can explore a variety of art classes outside of their comfort zone.

“SMFA students do not receive letter grades for any of their studio art classes: they either earn credit or don’t. What this means is that combined-degree students in effect have ‘shadow grading’ [throughout their five years at SMFA],” Bauer said.

This unique academic environment has given dual-degree students freedom to define what art means for them and how they see their classes at Medford and Fenway come together. Through her first two semesters at Tufts, Biscaldi has already noticed that art has become a medium to express her ideals and experiences with the audience.

“Art has become a way of  explaining my ideas and myself beyond words. Even though I am fluent in English and Italian and learned French in school, I somehow struggled with expressing myself fully in words,” she said. “Through my classes at Tufts and SMFA, I hope to express my experience of growing up in Italy as a woman … through various mediums of art … I also want to deepen my understanding on multifaceted issues such as the immigration justice, human rights and international economic development, so that I can create art which can give a fuller insight and perspective on the issues to my audience.”

Li said that she hopes to capture and share her experience as an international student through the combined-degree program.

“Through my courses at Tufts, I am interested in learning more about the human nature, how humans interact, and societies are formed,” she said. “With a better understanding of myself and others, I want to pursue photography, painting and drawing to depict a world — both real and imaginary — as I see it more vividly. I am also exploring how to make a statement through my art … I want to share my experience of being an Asian artist in the Western Hemisphere along with other social justice issues that are important to me.”

As the combined-degree program’s popularity increases, the enrollment for program is likely to grow from the Class of 2022’s 53 students, while admissions for the program will continue to get more selective, according to Bauer.

“The SMFA’s enrollments have been growing every year … Before the 2016-2017 school year, there were usually no more than ten or so students enrolling in the combined-degree program per year,” Bauer said. “There’s still room for expansion, but of course at some point we’ll hit an equilibrium; and then, sadly, we will have to turn more qualified students away.”

The expansion of the combined-degree program is largely in context of the university’s plan to expand its incoming class by about 100 students. Bauer, however, emphasized that both BFA and combined-degree programs will have to remain relatively small to continue the dual-degree program’s unique educational mission and vision.

“The number of undergraduate students we can accept at the moment is dependent on the number of beds we have to house them during their first year … SMFA has always been a relatively small school, and we want to keep it that way to ensure that students and faculty members really get to know one another.” Bauer said.


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