USC Lost Its One and Only MFA Candidate — Now What?

Against her better judgment, HaeAhn Kwon came from South Korea to Los Angeles to attend the embattled MFA program at USC Roski School of Art and Design. “I was already suspicious of the administration for alienating an entire year of MFA students,” Kwon wrote in a letter to the school’s administration, published earlier this week. “However, I entered the program against my intuition …”

The once well-regarded program became infamous last year after the entire class of 2016 walked out, citing broken promises and a general lack of integrity on the administration’s part. The seven defectors were known collectively as the “USC Seven,” and were heralded by some for standing up to the corporatization of art and arts education. Others saw them as spoiled millennial whiners.

It was a major blow to the institution’s reputation and Roski was able to attract only a single MFA for the following year’s class. This MFA was Kwon. She was awarded an International Arts Fellowship, which paid full tuition, travel allowances, and room and board for her and her husband.

Despite the lavish fellowship, Kwon quickly realized that her intuition had been right. On Tuesday, only about eight months after she started the program, she announced that she too would be leaving the school. Her cutting announcement letter includes a list of broken promises that echoes the sentiments of the original Seven. It also describes gross incompetence. The administration apparently “forgot” that Kwon needed a review of her studio practice, which she describes as the “essential” fixture of any studio MFA program. She also received an "incomplete" for a class that only met once for an hour and a half (it was supposed to meet twice a week for three hours per session). After she complained, the grade was mysteriously changed to a "B" without her knowledge.

“I must ask you, how is it that a student could even PASS a class that was held on no more than one day?” Kwon asks in her letter.

Since she is the sole student of the MFA class of 2017, her departure means that the program has now lost two consecutive MFA classes in their entirety. Between Kwon, the USC Seven, the departure of several prominent art professors and the mysterious closure of its Master of Professional Writing program, things are not looking good for USC’s graduate division.

It hasn’t always been like this. Two years before Kwon arrived in L.A., Roski had a different name and a different dean. Its robust MFA program was ranked well within the top 50, and was embraced by L.A.’s conflagrant arts scene. Then Jimmy Iovine gave USC $70 million to create the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation (which, to my mind, recalls “The Derek Zoolander School for Kids Who Can't Read Good and Want to Do Other Stuff Good Too,” and probably attracts a similar sort of student). Iovine’s gift ignited a chain reaction, beginning with the appointment of a new dean, Erica Muhl, a former music professor with no fine art experience. Muhl is the daughter of Edward Muhl, the former head of Universal Pictures, which once owned Universal Music, the parent company of Jimmy Iovine’s music label Interscope.

Muhl’s flippant attitude and poor leadership have been the consistent through line connecting all the controversies. One of the prominent professors who left even before the USC Seven, Frances Stark, told the New Yorker, “The issues that led to this walkout, the lack of transparency or ethical behavior on the part of the U.S.C. Roski School’s upper administration, are precisely the ones that caused me to resign several months ago.”

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With regard to Kwon, the school refused to falter or apologize, just like it did during the USC Seven fiasco. It issued a characteristically snotty response which blames Kwon and indicts her as greedy and unappreciative. “HaeAhn requested numerous accommodations to offset the lack of MFA colleagues, including a request for double studio space, all of which were granted,” the administration’s letter reads. It goes on to list the opportunities she was afforded, before saying “to our dismay, she took advantage of very few of these.” It even goes out of its way to mention that Kwon’s fellowship included room and board for her husband.

The administration’s response did not, however, confirm or deny any of Kwon’s specific accusations. Instead, it kept an eye forward, offering one final dig to Kwon and anybody dumb enough to think this latest coup will make any difference to such a well-oiled academic machine.

“As to the Roski School's future, we are pleased to have a full MFA class enrolling in the fall — joining more than 465 total students enrolled in the school's degree programs and guided by a prestigious and expanding community of new and world-class faculty of artists, scholars and curators.”


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