Now and forever, Yale School of Drama students won't have to pay tuition. That's thanks to a $150 million gift from entertainment executive David Geffen.
Geffen’s connection to the school began when he taught a class there called “Music Industry and Arts Management” in the late 1970s. Of course, he is much better known as the man behind Asylum Records, Geffen Records, and Geffen Pictures. He also co-founded the film production company DreamWorks SKG with Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg.
A free Ivy League drama education may sound like the stuff of dreams, but Yale has already proven it knows how to make the concept work. Its School of Music has been operating tuition-free since 2006, when a $100 million donation from Stephen Adams enabled it to offer free tuition to its students.
The Yale School of Drama is the only English-speaking drama school to offer courses in every aspect of theater. Students can choose from ten qualifications, ranging from acting and directing to set design and theater management. Their tuition would typically be about $35,000 annually, so Geffen’s gift will make a real difference to each of the 200 students the school enrolls. In recognition of his contribution, the school is now the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University.
A History of Producing Excellence
Yale has an impressive roster of drama alumni who represent some of the best-known and most distinguished actors of the stage and screen. Alumnae Meryl Streep (’75) and Frances McDormand (’82) have six Academy Awards for Best Actress among them, and Lupita Nyong’o (’12) has an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Other actors who graduated from the School of Drama include Angela Bassett (’83), Paul Giamatti (’94) and Sigourney Weaver (’74). In playwrighting, the school’s alumni include Lynn Nottage (’89), now professor of playwriting at Columbia University and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice.
Of course, some graduates go on to other stages, such as Jabari Brisport, class of ’14, who studied acting. Brisport is the state senator for New York's 25th State Senate District in Brooklyn, and the first openly gay person of color elected to the New York State Legislature.
Geffen’s Career and Philanthropy
Geffen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2010 for bringing us superstars like Elton John, Guns N’ Roses, and Nirvana. His early film production company, The Geffen Film Company, produced hits like Risky Business and Beetlejuice in the 1980s; DreamWorks SKG won three consecutive Academy Awards for Best Picture in the late 1990s and early 2000s with American Beauty, Gladiator, and A Beautiful Mind. DreamWorks also produced or distributed hits like Almost Famous, Shrek, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Meet the Parents, and other familiar titles from the early 2000s. Geffen is also known for being instrumental in bringing the musical Cats to Broadway, as well as Dreamgirls.
In addition to his successes in the entertainment industry, Geffen also has a long history of philanthropy, including several major gifts. His beneficiaries include the UCLA School of Medicine, to which he donated $200 million in unrestricted funds in 2002. The school is now known as the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. A decade later, Geffen contributed another $100 million to UCLA. These funds have been covering the tuition costs of up to 30 students every year since 2017. Geffen is the largest single benefactor of the University of California system.
In the arts, Geffen donated $5 million to the UCLA Westwood Playhouse, now the Geffen Playhouse, in 1995. At the time, this was one of the largest philanthropic gifts to an existing theater. Two decades later, he pledged $100 million to cover a fifth of the renovation costs of the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, now renamed the David Geffen Hall.
Regarding the recent Yale gift, Geffen says the decision was quickly taken once the university approached him with the proposal. In a press statement, he noted that his gift will enable a more diverse group of talent to develop their skills at Yale. He is pleased to know his donation means those interested in acting, directing, playwrighting, and other theater arts will be able to train for careers in these fields, regardless of their financial circumstances. They also will no longer be crushed by student debt for decades after their graduation.
What Geffen’s Gift Means for Yale’s Drama Students Right Now
The free tuition will be available to all full-time new and returning students in degree and certificate programs. It will be effective from the 2021-2022 academic year starting in August 2021. Yale chose not to enroll a new starting class this fall due to the pandemic; instead, the school is including a tuition-free fourth year for those who were already enrolled.
The timing of Geffen’s gift is fortuitous: the performing arts have suffered over the past year and a half, and live productions are only beginning to resume. However, the pandemic has also made people realize that the shared experience of the arts is essential for our wellbeing. Geffen’s gift underscores this truth and may encourage similar major donations to arts schools and organizations.