On Monday, the fall semester began for USC's sole MFA art student, a woman from South Korea on a fully funded scholarship and educational visa. It's an absurdly small class for any MFA program, and particularly for USC's Roski School of Art and Design. Last May, the once-lauded program suffered a devastating blow when the entire class of 2016 left the school in protest of alleged broken promises and a perceived corporate takeover of the program.
Roski's new dean, Erica Muhl, is a classically trained musician and music professor who was hired to lead the school shortly after it received a $70 million-plus gift from Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. As previously reported, Muhl's father used to run the high-powered entertainment company under which Iovine and Dre operate today. When the prospective students walked out, they cited nepotism, Muhl's allegedly dismissive attitude toward the students and her overhaul of the fine art program as their reasons.
Since the initial announcement in May, there's been a chain of interesting developments. Muhl's first response was a lengthy letter denying that any promises had been broken and refusing to accept the students' resignation. Instead, Muhl said, she would grant them each a “two-year leave of absence.”
The students fired back with a point-by-point rebuttal.
“It has come to our attention that Dean Muhl made a public statement on May 21st 'granting' our class a two-year 'Leave of Absence' from the Roski School,” the MFA students' letter stated. “It is inappropriate for the dean or the University to coerce us into this leave of absence, which was not requested or desired.”
It was only a matter of time before alumni and faculty joined the fray, and, when they did, they were mostly against Muhl and for the students.
First, 10 faculty members wrote a “statement of solidarity” supporting the USC 7 and criticizing Muhl for “shifting resources and focus away from the execution of our core educational mission and towards bloated administrative salaries, lavish infrastructure projects, and a business model of education.” Many of these professors were adjuncts, who make up more than 75 percent of the Roski faculty and who might suffer from the corporatization of education even more than the students. Last year, statistics were released showing a high number of adjunct professors receive food stamps.
After the faculty's letter, 72 alumni wrote another open letter in support of the students, calling their protest “extraordinary” and saying Muhl's “extreme actions” had “created a culture of distrust.” They longed for the days when a Roski MFA would leave the school with no debt and two years of teaching experience, which would allow them to “immediately open their own studio practices.” Under Muhl's new program, that would no longer be the case.
Muhl fired back in her first public interview, with the L.A. Times. She denied that the students had been misled and denied that her strategy was a roundabout way of dissolving the MFA program altogether. She said the changes made to the program were “minor” and affirmed that she was “deeply committed, deeply committed to the MFA.”
In response, the MFA class of 2015 (one class ahead of the USC 7), who also had expressed frustration in dealing with Muhl, created a petition demanding Muhl's removal. “Our experience negotiating Dean Muhl’s unwillingness to reasonably communicate curricular changes significantly encumbered our degree progress at USC,” the accompanying letter said. “Dean Muhl disregards and fundamentally misunderstands the needs of a graduate-level studio art program.”
The petition received more than 800 signatures and support from John S. Gordon, former dean of Roski (1981-1987) and current director of the Center for Contemporary Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“I am deeply embarrassed by Dean Muhl’s and USC’s shameful treatment of the seven MFA candidates whose resignations have brought national disgrace upon the once-distinguished reputation of the USC Roski School of Fine Arts,” Gordon wrote.
USC Provost Michael W. Quick, a former professor of neuroscience, dismissed the petition as misguided. He defended Muhl and stated that no promises had been broken.
“Those students’ situation has been portrayed inaccurately,” Quick wrote. “Dean Muhl did not break curricular and funding promises to them. She has explained that the 2014 offer letters sent to them by the school were honored in every respect, without exception. I’m afraid that the students were given very bad advice.”
Jacinto Astiazarán, one of the MFA students in the class of 2015, says: “It would have been the simplest thing to do to have this last class [the USC 7] finish with the old structure. But for some reason that was never made clear, that wasn’t up for consideration.”
Astiazarán and the class of 2015 had been maintaining a Tumblr blog in support of the USC 7 at uscmfa.tumblr.com, but recently that site was removed by Tumblr. They changed the address to usc-mfa.tumblr.com, which, as of now, is still up.
As the dust settles, the USC 7 are continuing to make art and have held several group shows in recent months. They also just received a statement of support from the Free Cooper Union movement, a group of Manhattan students fighting against corporatizing changes of their own curriculum.
“There is an implicit expectation that students can simultaneously take on massive debts, hold down jobs, learn, advance their practices and re-emerge intact,” says FCU's open letter. “Roski is known for holding out against this paradoxical mentality, foregrounding the intrinsic value of education. We see the Roski community as having taken on the work of standing against a broad financialization of culture and dispelling the notion that the model of education we share is anachronistic.”