Today is graduation day at USC’s Roski School of Art and Design, but the celebration has been clouded by controversy: The entire first-year class of Masters of Fine Art (MFA) students in the two-year program has announced that they will be leaving the school after what they claim to be unethical treatment.
The drastic move comes after months of fruitless negotiations between Roski's MFA class of 2016 and the administration. This morning, the MFAs released a 1,400-word statement announcing their decision. It alleges that they were made promises by USC that were rescinded by the administration at the direction of a new, controversial dean, Erica Muhl.
“The Roski MFA program that attracted us was intimate and exceptionally well funded; all students graduated with two years of teaching experience and very little to no debt,” the statement says. But during their first year, things started changing. The students were called into a meeting where they were told that they would have to compete for teaching assistant positions they once were guaranteed. The promised TAships would cover their entire second-year tuition of $38,400 and a $10,000 stipend, as well as providing them coveted teaching experience.
The students resented being pitted against one another. "We refused to enter that process," says one of the MFAs, who asked not to be named in order to maintain solidarity with her cohort. "We weren’t going to compete for them, where we once were all going to get them.”
The MFAs also allege that the new curricula removed an intimate studio visit program in which each core professor made three private visits to each student's studio, another key and persuasive part of the original package. “By the end of the fall 2014 semester, we quickly came to understand that the MFA program we believed we would be attending was being pulled out from under our feet,” the statement says.
The students also didn't like that the program had lost two big-name faculty members, as MFA director A.L. Steiner stepped down in November and professor Frances Stark resigned in December. The MFAs allege that the professors resigned their posts due to the same drastic changes proposed by the new administration. The vacancies were filled by adjuncts.
Relying on adjuncts is a growing practice for big private schools such as USC, which seem to increasingly use corporate tactics to keep costs down and keep salaries high at the top end. The proportion of USC's faculty that is adjunct has bloated to 75 percent in recent years, while the salary for USC's top eight officials has tripled since 2001. Tuition has increased 92 percent in the same period.
To try to salvage the situation, the MFAs had a series of meetings with administration officials. At first, the officials promised the students that they could be grandfathered into the old program, the one for which they had signed up. In February, the students decided unanimously to be grandfathered into the old program. Then the promises started to deteriorate.
“The meetings we had with them resulted in nothing. They often deferred meetings, deferred responses,” says the MFA student. “It was articulated that we were being demanding and difficult.”
After months of fruitless meetings, they received a final communiqué from the vice provost for graduate programs, Sally Pratt. According to the MFAs' statement, the provost said that the information they received during recruitment about their funding packages was an “unfortunate mistake,” and that if the program wasn’t right for them, they “should leave.”
Today Muhl, the Roski dean, issued a statement in response to the students' claims:
I regret that several of our MFA students have stated they will leave the program over issues that were presented to us and that we considered to have been resolved, specifically having to do with financial aid and curriculum.
The USC Roski MFA program remains one of the most generously funded programs in the country. These students would have received a financial package worth at least 90 percent of tuition costs in scholarships and TAships.
The school honored all the terms in the students’ offer letters. We offered the students scholarship support with an option to apply for a TAship in their second year. This was in keeping with practice at Roski except for a recent three-year period when two-year TAships were the norm. Subject to the students meeting the standard requirements of basic preparedness and satisfactory progress, they would have been first in line for TAships on their return for a second year (except for one student who already had full financial support).
Changes are made to the curriculum on an ongoing basis. Minor changes were made to the MFA curriculum prior to the students' arrival in fall 2014, mainly involving one elective in the summer of 2015. Studio visits and study tours remain part of the curriculum as the students requested.
I have met with the students at length and hope for an opportunity to continue engaging them in a full and open conversation.
(Despite several calls and emails to various people at USC, no one else would comment on the matter, aside from this statement.)
Muhl is responsible for the program’s changes, though as the students point out, her background is as a musical composer, not a visual artist, and she has little or no experience in the fields of art and design. In 2013 she was appointed dean of Roski, having previously served as a professor of composition at the USC Thornton School of Music. Her appointment coincided with another drastic move by USC, the inauguration of a new undergraduate program called the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy of Arts, Technology and the Business of innovation. The academy was created with a $70 million gift from Iovine and Andre Young, aka Dr. Dre.
Muhl is the daughter of Edward Muhl, the former head of Universal Pictures. Iovine and Dr. Dre’s Interscope Records is a subsidiary of Univeral Music. At the top of her LinkedIn profile, above "Dean of the Roski School," Muhl's lists her position as "Executive Director, USC Iovine and Young Academy."
The MFA students issued a subsequent statement addressing Muhl's connection to Iovine, which read, in part:
The Academy states on their website that the school wishes to promote "professional thought leaders across a multitude of global industries"; in effect, they wish to sell students on the idea of joining the capitalist, globalized 1 Percent through the nexus of "creativity." Meanwhile, at Roski, the Dean attempted to enforce a corporate-style management, in which she had ultimate decision-making power, silencing faculty and students alike.
The students also allege that they have been treated cruelly in their interactions with Muhl. “It was made very clear from our first meeting with the dean, which was very hostile in nature, that the administration has no value in our program,” says the MFA student. “She refused to admit it was even the top 30 or 40 in the country, and said something like, ‘You really think you’re even a top 30 program’? Which was really, really shocking to hear. Then she basically said that our program was draining the funding from the art school at large," which would include the undergraduate side of the art school and the new Iovine Young Academy.
U.S. News and World Report lists USC as the 36th best MFA program in the country. The MFAs allege that because Muhl knows little about the art world, she is unaware that despite the seemingly mediocre ranking, USC is a highly respected program.
One of the MFA students, George Egerton-Warburton, moved to L.A. from Australia to attend what he thought was a prestigious program. He was on an international scholarship that he will now lose, along with his student visa. His cohorts are scrambling to find a way for him to stay.
The students believe that all they were asking for was the program that was advertised to them.
“It doesn’t make sense to put this underdeveloped program on us,” says the MFA. “It seems like it would be so much easier to just let us finish our promised program, and let the incoming class do the new program.”
Free from USC, the students still plan to put on what would have been their thesis shows next year, and are soliciting projects and opportunities from the public.
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