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LOS ANGELES — Citing “the University’s unethical treatment of its students,” the entire class of first year MFA students at USC’s Roski School of Art has decided to leave the school, according to a statement they released today. The seven students list a number of grievances leading to their decision, beginning with a significant decrease to the generous tuition subsidization that they had expected before their acceptance to the program. They also criticize the school’s administration that “did not value the Program’s faculty structure, pedagogy or standing in the arts community.” As a result, they say, the Program Director left in December 2014, followed by the resignation of tenured professor Frances Stark.
After numerous meeting with the administration, they write:
[W]e have no idea what MFA faculty we’d be working with for the coming year; we have no idea what the curriculum would be, other than that it will be different from what it was when we enrolled and is currently being implemented by administrators outside of our field of study; and finally, we have no idea whether we’d graduate with twice the amount of debt we thought we would graduate with.
In the midst of this upheaval, the university was eagerly celebrating the arrival of the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, which came with a $70 million gift from the music industry giants. Focused on art, technology, and entrepreneurship, the undergraduate program is also headed by Erica Muhl, the newly appointed Dean of Roski. The Academy’s tagline, “The Degree is in Disruption,” employs a favorite techie term, which the student statement addresses:
[F]aculty voices are silenced and adjunct faculty expands, affecting their overall ability to advocate for students. We seven students lost time, money, and trust in a classic bait-and-switch, and the larger community lost an exemplary funding model that attempted to rectify at least some of these economic disparities. What we experienced is the true ‘disruption’ of this accelerating trend.
Read the full statement below:
We are a group of seven artists who made the decision to attend USC Roski School of Art and Design’s MFA program based on the faculty, curriculum, program structure and funding packages. We are a group of seven artists who have been forced by the School’s actions dismantling each of these elements to dissolve our MFA candidacies. In short, due to the University’s unethical treatment of its students, we, the entire incoming class of 2014, are dropping out of school and dropping back into our expanded communities at large.
The Roski MFA Program that attracted us was intimate and exceptionally wellfunded; all students graduated with two years of teaching experience and very little to no debt. We were fully aware of the scarcity of, and the paucity of compensation for, most teaching jobs, so this program seemed exemplary in creating a structure that acknowledged these economic and pedagogical realities. However, a different funding model was presented to us upon acceptance to the Program by the Roski administration: we would receive a scholarship for some of our first-year tuition, and would have a Teaching Assistantship with fully-funded tuition, a stipend, and benefits for the entirety of our second year upon completion of our first-year coursework. We, the incoming class of 2014, were the first students since 2011 to take on debt to attend, and the first students since 2006 to gain no teaching experience during our first-year in the program. Moreover, when we arrived in August 2014, we soon discovered that the Dean of the Roski School was attempting to retroactively dismantle the already-diminished funding model that was promised to us, as well as make drastic changes to our existing faculty structure and curriculum.
The Dean of the Roski School of Art and Design was appointed by the University in May 2013, despite having no experience in the visual arts field. She, along with Roski’s various Vice and Assistant Deans, made it clear to our class that they did not value the Program’s faculty structure, pedagogy or standing in the arts community, the very same elements that had attracted us as potential students. The effects of the administration’s denigration of our program arrived almost immediately. In December 2014, Roski’s MFA Program Director stepped down from her position, and was not replaced with another director; in short succession that month, the program lost a prominent artist, mentor, and tenured Roski professor, her pedagogical energies and input devalued by the administration. 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. In January 2015, we felt it necessary to go to the source of these issues, the Dean of the Roski School.
In a slew of unproductive, confounding and contradictory meetings with the Dean and other assorted members of the Roski administration in early 2015, we were told that we would now have to apply for, and compete with a larger pool of students for the same TAships promised to us during recruitment. We were presented with a different curriculum, one in which entire semesters would occur without studio visits, a bizarre choice for a studio-art MFA. Shocked by these bewildering and last-minute changes, we reached out to the University’s upper administration. We were then told by the Vice Provost for Graduate Programs that the communication we received during recruitment clearly stating our funding packages was an “unfortunate mistake,” and that if the Program wasn’t right for us, we “should leave.” Throughout this grueling process of attempting to reason with the institution, the Roski School and University administration used manipulative tactics of delaying decisions, blaming others, contradicting each other’s stated policies, and attempting to force a wedge of silence between faculty and students. At every single turn, the Dean and every other administrator we interacted with tried to de-legitimize and belittle our real concerns, repeatedly framing us as “demanding” simply for advocating for those things the School had already promised us.
As of 5pm on May 10, 2015, after four months, seven meetings that we held in good faith with the administration, and countless emails later, we have no idea what MFA faculty we’d be working with for the coming year; we have no idea what the curriculum would be, other than that it will be different from what it was when we enrolled and is currently being implemented by administrators outside of our field of study; and finally, we have no idea whether we’d graduate with twice the amount of debt we thought we would graduate with.
Since February 2015, we have communicated in writing to the Provost of the University, the Vice Provost for Graduate Programs, The Dean of the Roski School, and other USC administrators that we could not continue in the Program if the funding and curricular promises made during recruitment were not honored; thus, the University is not blindsided by our decision, nor has it been denied ample time and opportunity to remedy these issues with us. Perhaps the University imagined that we would suffer any amount of lies, manipulations, and mistreatment for those shiny degrees.
Let’s not forget about the larger system of inequity that we paid into to try to get our degrees. USC tuition has increased an astounding 92% since 2001¹, compensation for USC’s top 8 executives has more than tripled since 2001², and Department of Education data shows that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009”³. Adjunct faculty, the jobs that freshly-minted MFAs usually get— if they’re lucky — are paid at a rate that often does not even reach the federal minimum wage4, while paying off tens of thousands of dollars of student-loan debt. USC follows this trend of supporting a bloated administration with whom students have minimal contact to the diminishment of everyone else.
Despite having ultimate power over the program structure and curriculum, our experience has shown that the administration has minimal concern for their students. Meanwhile, faculty voices are silenced and adjunct faculty expands, affecting their overall ability to advocate5, for students. We seven students lost time, money, and trust in a classic bait-and-switch, and the larger community lost an exemplary funding model that attempted to rectify at least some of these economic disparities. What we experienced is the true “disruption” of this accelerating trend.
We each made life-changing decisions to leave jobs and homes in other parts of the country and the world to work with inspiring faculty and, most of all, have the time and space to grow as artists. We trusted the institution to follow through on its promises. Instead, we became devalued pawns in the University’s administrative games. We feel betrayed, exhausted, disrespected and cheated by USC of our time, focus and investment. Whatever artistic work we created this spring semester was achieved in spite of, not because of, the institution. Because the University refused to honor its promises to us, we are returning to the workforce degree-less and debt-full.
A group of seven students is only a tiny part of the larger issues of the corporatization of higher education, the scandal of the economic precarity of adjunct faculty positions, and the looming student-debt bubble. However, the MFA Program we entered in August 2014 did one great thing: it threw us all together, when we might not have crossed paths on our own. We will continue to hold crits ourselves and be involved in each other’s work. We will be staging a series of readings, talks, shows and events at multiple sites throughout the next year, and will follow with seven weeks of “thesis” shows beginning in April of 2016. Our collective and interdependent force is energizing as we progress toward supportive and malleable spaces conducive to criticality and encouragement. These sites are more important than ever in the current state of economic precarity that reaches far beyond the fates of seven art students. We invite everyone to reach out to us with proposals, invitations and strategies of their own, dreams not of creating a “better” institution, but devising new spaces for collective weirdness and joy.
Julie Beaufils, Sid Duenas, George Egerton-Warburton, Edie Fake, Lauren Davis Fisher, Lee Relvas and Ellen Schafer
1 “Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System”, Final Release Data,National Center for Education Statistics, accessed January 2, 2015.
2 IRS 990 Forms FY 2001-2007, Part 2, Item 25, and Schedule III and IRS 990 Forms FY 2008-2012, Part IX, Line 5
3 “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much”, Campos, Paul F. The New York Times, April 4th 2015.
5 75% of USC faculty is contigent
UPDATED, 6:00pm ET: A USC spokesperson released the following statement to Hyperallergic:
From Erica Muhl, dean of the USC Roski School of Art and Design:
“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.”