Four Concerns with the Kovner Fellowship [UPDATED]

An editorial by Joseph Peterson, Viola BM '20

Editorial from Joseph Peterson ’20: 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.

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.

15 thoughts on “Four Concerns with the Kovner Fellowship [UPDATED]”

  1. Add to this the fact that Jazz majors aren’t even considered for the Kovner Fellowship which makes a worrying insinuation about the importance and worth of African American music to the school.

  2. Thanks for speaking out for the Juilliard community and being our voice. I agree that we need better transparency in the process.
    However, I don’t know if I agree with the rest of your article.
    Just a disclaimer: I’m not a Kovner recipient, so I’m one of “the others”.
    The point of a merit award is to only award students based on merits, and not on financial statuses. The money came from Bruce and Suzie Kovner, and it’s not up to us to call it “fair” or “unfair”. They have a right to give their money to whom they want, the way they want it.
    As for the exclusive activities, I don’t think it is wrong to have a group of people who have something in common to do activities together. Sure, the rest of us might be jealous, but I don’t think it’s right to call them out for it. Should the Juilliard administration do more to make the rest of us feel more valued? sure. I know a lot of people, including me, who feel under-appreciated while they’re at Juilliard. But taking a jab at the Kovner program is not the correct path to take.
    Lastly, the endowment comment is the issue I have with the most. “We deserve scholarships because Curtis is tuition-free” is not a valid argument. Based on Curtis’ 2016-2017 annual report, they only gave out $3 millions in “Student Services and Financial Aid”, or $17,241 per student. Juilliard gave out $20.5 millions in Financial Aid in 2016 (I can only find their 2016 report), or $23,976 per student. So in fact, Juilliard is giving /more/ than Curtis. The rest of the scholarship isn’t up to Juilliard, but the individual donors.
    With that said, I appreciate what you are doing for us. We all love our school, but do need to hold them accountable when something’s out of place, with the goal of strengthening and protecting the brand of the school and making it a better place for the future students.

    Juilliard B.M.,14 M.M.,16

    1. Brian,
      When you say that the Kovner Fellowship recipients have things in common, I hope you mean that a large chunk of the string players have ties to Itzhak Pearlman or PMP, which is quite a coincidence considering the fellowship is given based off of a 15 min audition, and supposedly not based off of who you know or whose studio you’re in.

  3. While you’ve expressed legitimate concerns and frustrations, is this not the standard for the art world at large- the ambiguity of favoritism whether in an institution or in the professional world? Playing devil’s advocate here even though I ultimately agree with your sentiments.

  4. There’s a fair amount of blatantly wrong information in here (such as the entire paragraph on Curtis) and I really just wish someone had proofread this article before it was posted. The sentiments are great, but the factual errors in the article for me undermine the entire credibility of it.

    1. (Tangential point worth mentioning: Joe’s piece is an editorial, not an article, and two people proof-read it. This thing is all student-run, and we can always use people who want to be editors or fact-checkers. Also, mind sharing any specifics of factual errors? —SJ)

  5. I agree that all students at Juilliard should have access to (much) more need-based aid and the best extracurricular activities. However, I think these shortcomings for the majority of the student body cannot be blamed on the Kovner program, since as Brian said, this private money was given with a specific intended use. Clearly, Juilliard is choosing to enhance and magnify the “income gap” (artistic potential of students?) between Kovners and non-Kovners and that really blows. Ultimately, Kovner fellows should be allowed the opportunities they’ve earned, but I do think students should have to earn the privilege every year as a result of their jury. That way, students who were not originally given the fellowship after their 15 minute audition but who’ve grown tremendously can potentially be rewarded for their hard work, and current Kovners will be encouraged to remain excellent instead of becoming jaded and spending the no-questions-asked $20k per year stipend on weed and video games.

  6. As an alumnus to whom these issues were similarly important during my own student days, I appreciate the sentiment of your editorial. However, the basic premises are flawed, leading as well to incorrect assumptions in some of the comments.

    Firstly, criticism of the Kovner program because it is ‘based solely on a 15 minute audition’ is dismissive of the basic means of admission to Juilliard (or any other similar institution) in general. Every music student gains entry ‘based solely on a 15 minute audition,’ and whether this is a legitimate means of assessing ability or potential (I have grave doubts this is so, but there doesn’t yet seem to be an alternative at Juilliard or elsewhere, given the time required), it is the way Juilliard makes decisions. I imagine many applicants who weren’t accepted at all might find this unfair, claiming they didn’t receive a fair shake, or should have had a second chance, or couldn’t present a full picture of their talents in just 15 minutes, etc., so this argument holds no water.

    Your concern with transparency is likewise reflective not of the Kovner program specifically but of the entire admissions and award process. This fellowship is no more or less transparent than any of the other named scholarships or indeed the entire admissions system, all of which occur behind closed doors at Juilliard and everywhere else. Beyond providing audition comments, Juilliard owes none of us any explanation of the same and it would be prohibitive for the School to share this information with every student, applicant, etc. And unless things have changed dramatically since my time, there is no written application or interview for any other scholarship at Juilliard.

    Your concern with the community is, like it or not, the worst kind of sour grapes. Juilliard is not a Soviet commune where everyone is presented with the same opportunities. Some students win the concerto competitions; most do not. Some demonstrate the ability to be chosen as section leaders in the orchestra; many do not. Some receive plum assignments to perfom for visiting artists, most do not. Some are cast as lead actors; some are not. Some are selected for special touring programs; others are not. We all chose Juilliard instead of the local public university in part because we wanted this highly-specialized, hyper-competitive environment along with the challenges and rewards that climate can yield. At Juilliard as in the world at large, only a handful of young artists will succeed as they intended while the majority will cobble together a living from many sources or do something else altogether. This is part of the fundamental definition of Juilliard and to wish for things to be otherwise flies in the face of its core mission as a professional training school. If anything, I now recognize that the lessons I learned from my own failures, the nature of Juilliard’s competitive environment, the politics, the differences between the ‘special few’ and the rest all helped to better prepare me for the wider world as it is than did my studio teachers or conductors.

    Your concern with merit is similarly illegitimate. While the issues related to income disparity are very real and, as you suggest, certainly do plague not only higher education but American society in general, merit is by definition not to be based on need. Again, Juilliard doesn’t exist to provide access to all in the same way a public university or community college does. Its mission is to train only the most exceptional young artists for a life in often difficult, rapidly-changing fields, and to conflate merit scholarships with need-based aid is a slippery slope. There’s no doubt that all the barriers to access you describe make it nigh well impossible for students of lesser means to even prepare to compete, but handing out scholarships in order to level the playing field cheapens their value. Juilliard should simply do more to respond to need in the way that, for example, Princeton recently announced.

    Concerning the Juilliard endowment, Juilliard doesn’t owe it to anyone to lower tuition since it is, after all, a business. Rising tuition rates nationwide are definitely a serious problem indicative of the value society places on education in general. It’s also true that Juilliard could and perhaps should offer higher levels of assistance to deserving students. But Curtis (and Colburn) function differently, so your comparison is not quite apples to apples. Juilliard’s inherent mission would have to change in order for the school to function more like the non-profit it is. I agree that this is certainly in the best interest of students, but that is not necessarily the perspective of all the other shareholders, thus a solution defies the easy explanation of criticizing the Kovner program as a cause.

    What is to be done? Many of your suggestions are sound: Juilliard absolutely should expand its enhanced programmatic content for the wider student body, and indeed it has. The majority of opportunities available to students today didn’t exist when I was a student, from the simple frequency of masterclasses (we didn’t have even one on my instrument during my time) to touring programs for the orchestra, etc. The institution ought to do even more and better, so you as current students should push the administration in that direction. Deriding the Kovner program (which was likewise not in place when I was a student) isn’t the way. The School should definitely improve its assistance packages, but as I’ve previously made clear, scholarship and financial aid are and should remain distinct things. The best should be awarded moneys based on merit alone, and everyone can potentially receive need-based awards as their individual circumstances dictate assuming they are admitted to the School.

    As well, Mr. Pattison’s concern about jazz students’ not being considered for Kovner fellowships is misplaced. There are scholarships underwritten at Juilliard as in any institution earmarked for specific uses. Bruce has his own interests — which happen to be classical music generally and the music of Brahms most of all, not jazz or dance, thus he and Suzie have chosen with this gift to fund those interests. We’re misreading the situation completely to suggest that this ‘makes a worrying insinuation about the importance and worth of African American music to the school.’ Again, when I was a student, there was no jazz program, and the School’s long time ignorance of this fact made exactly that insinuation. Since that time, however, the jazz program’s creation, vibrant success, specialized facilities, and named scholarships are, if anything, testament to Juilliard’s determination that jazz is of immense value.

    The fact that the present discussion is in progress is of course a far more productive situation than ever occurred when I was a student, and as an interested alumnus who has always thought about this subject, I would urge you to simply bring your concerns to President Polisi and find productive ways of addressing them, rather than by denigrating a fellowship which is functioning exactly as its underwriter determined, much as other tuition-free academic programs at Juilliard do.

  7. As a former Juilliard employee and graduate student alumni of a different (albeit equally problematic) conservatory, I wanted to respond to some of the neoliberal apologetics that appear in this thread.

    To begin with, I would like tip my hat to the brave student who openly publicized these concerns. It’s sad that many people who are/were victimized by the same fundamentally unfair system would rather utilize so much energy legitimizing the status quo, than join in solidarity with a younger generation of student musicians who are more plagued by these problems than ever before.

    First of all, as a commenter noted, Juilliard is indeed run as a business. That’s precisely the problem. Interestingly, the renown of this “business” rests primarily upon the reputations and work of some of the greatest artists America has ever produced. But interestingly the majority of these legendary artists attended the school when it existed primarily to serve the arts and contribute to society. Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Patti LuPone, Kevin Kline and John Williams can be counted among the ranks of the school’s alumni, and it’s more than a little ironic that their legacies are now used to encourage future students to pay a small fortune in tuition fees when they themselves paid next to nothing to attend.

    And to preempt claims that their tuition was waived was because they were anointed artists with superhuman gifts, that just isn’t true at all. A voice teacher at my undergraduate state school attended Juilliard in the 1970s, and she was able to pay for her attendance with a donation concert and by sleeping at the YWCA. She had a respectable career, but was essentially just another hard working soprano who came from a middle class background. Despite the obstacles she faced, she was able to thrive in opera because access to the upper echelons of classical music was not so littered with classist biases.

    Second, the claims about the supposed “illegitimacy” of the focus on the Kovner award are sophistry of the highest order. The author made it plain that they were focusing on the entire structure of how financial aid is distributed at Juilliard, and was using Kovner as an example. None of this would cause as much ire among the student body if there weren’t some students who are coasting along for free (even when many of them come from rich families), and other students who are there merely as cash cows whose tuition payments are utilized to further inflate the institution’s already bloated endowment. Criticizing the focus on the scholarship while disregarding the larger context in which it was discussed is either a willful misrepresentation of the article or just a comment made in bad faith.

    Finally, of course the arts are competitive, but there is a difference between competing to get accepted into a school, and being treated like a second class citizen after matriculating. It would be better for the student body if the school were structured like other elite music schools in the states (and almost all of the conservatories in Germany and much of Europe), and simply didn’t accept as many students whose needs they have neither the intention nor the capacity of meeting. But that would also mean a lot of teachers and administrators might lose their jobs or be demoted to adjuncts, and that a lot of students from wealthy backgrounds couldn’t rely on mommy and daddy’s ability to foot the bill to give them an edge over students from lower income households. A lot of this staunch resistance to reform stems from naked self-interest.

    As to the “Juilliard has no obligation” bit, they can’t have it both ways. They can’t maintain that students are really “customers” paying for a “good” as opposed to students of art in order to silence them for objecting to the way the “product” is being distributed, while remaining tax exempt as an institution of higher learning. If Juilliard is recognized by the federal government as a viable educational institution and receives tax breaks for this status, it is absolutely in the public interest for students and anyone else to discuss expenditure of its resources and its role in the larger community.

    To that end, openly valuing certain members of a team over others often destroys morale. The Berlin Philharmonic (consistently ranked as the one of the top two orchestras in the world) pays permanent members a flat rate with principals only getting 15% more pay. Each member of the full orchestra also has a vote for conductors as well as new members, so egalitarianism does not have to preclude artistic excellence.

    The trite contrition about the exclusion of the jazz program from consideration for the Kovner fellowship (and the uncomfortable reality that large numbers of African-Americans are drawn to the art form), brings to light just how problematic it can be for schools to have financial awards with nebulous criteria. The platitudes about Juilliard finally even having a jazz program (and thus by extension being welcoming of black artistry) ring especially hollow in light of surprisingly forthright comments from both Audra McDonald and Viola Davis, who, besides being two of the most decorated black artists in the history of American stage, television and film, have openly criticized their experiences at the school in interviews. Davis described her dramatic training there as “Eurocentric,” and McDonald tried to commit suicide partly due to feeling strangled in an environment that tried to pressure her into making an operatic sound, and didn’t support her desire to pursue musical theatre.

    Attempts to dismiss these multifaceted concerns as merely “sour grapes” could likewise be interpreted as either the belligerent whining of privileged people desperate to hold on the status quo so they can continue to receive benefits and opportunities they do not actually need (much less deserve), or people who have internalized the unfair system because that’s easier than trying to enact reforms. Education in classical music or anything else is not a good to be sold, and the value of all things in society cannot be quantified within a capitalistic worldview. Education and classical music have intrinsic value, and I have no idea what it is going to take for people need to realize that certain experiences in life should not be commercialized and commodified. Musicians, teachers and school administrators would do well to view their work as a service, and not merely as instruments of profiteering. A school cannot exist to serve the arts and enrich the artistic development of young performers while simultaneously and unscrupulously plundering to increase its profit, nor can Juilliard continue to serve those two diametrically oppositional ideological masters. While it cannot be blamed for the state of classical music education in the United States, but with an endowment of almost a billion dollars and the clout that comes with being a famous conservatory, Juilliard could certainly do a better job of representing the interests of their students and the art forms it should be serving.

  8. I am not a writer. My intent was not to create an award-winning work of journalistic excellence. My intent was to articulate to the best of my ability several concerns, far from being mine alone, with the Kovner Fellowship Program and, more importantly, to open a public dialogue fostering concrete ideas for how Juilliard can be changed for the better.

    Internet rants and aggression are extremely valid responses – displayed publicly, they send the message that we care what happens behind the closed doors of our school’s administration.

    These responses are far from the end goal, however. Short-term goals are systematic change within the Kovner Fellowship with regards to transparency and the decision making process as a whole, as well as correcting the unjust hierarchy Juilliard has forced upon us. Long-term goals involve the restructuring of financial aid so that money is no longer a deterrent for deserving candidates of The Juilliard School.

    There will be student-led meetings in the near future (after break obviously) determining our goals as instigators of change and determining action we are willing to take. These will not be spaces to vent, but rather places to offer constructive demands for the institution. Abolishing the Kovner Fellowship program is not a goal. Making the program transparent and mending the Juilliard community is.

    Complacency is not an option if we want things to get better. Kovners recipients and non-Kovner recipients can together agree that something needs to be done.

    So let’s do something.

  9. COMMENT REMOVED: A comment advertising another scholarship. REASON REMOVED: It seemed like spam. — SJ

  10. COMMENT REMOVED: A comment asking another commenter what factual inaccuracies were in the piece. REASON REMOVED: It was submitted anonymously. —SJ

  11. COMMENT REMOVED: A comment critiquing generalizations made by the editorial, including the problematic nature of comparing schools’ endowments when student body size differs. REASON REMOVED: It was submitted anonymously. —SJ

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