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Seats left empty by USC MFA students boycotting graduation. (photo by Selene Preciado for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — Yesterday was Graduation Day at the University of Southern California, however there was a conspicuous absence at the commencement ceremony for the Roski School of Art and Design. All but one of the graduating MFA students boycotted the ceremony in solidarity with their first-year classmates who announced they would be dropping out in response to a withdrawl of funding and curricular changes, as per a statement released yesterday. The one graduating student in attendance was there to deliver a speech, which the Dean had originally cancelled, only agreeing to include student remarks this past weekend.

The graduating Roski Masters of Arts degree students also delivered a collective speech, indirectly referencing the crisis:

“An art school is a space for contestation, debate, and creation of new avenues of thought … To us, the exercise of working collectively in this program has proven to be the most liberating for the mind, because an art school is a non-hierarchical place for open thought, learning, and expression, and as one of the leading universities in the country, we hope that USC continues to be a model to follow.”

In a statement issued yesterday, Dean Erica Muhl rebutted the students’ grievances, asserting: “The school honored all the terms in the students’ offer letters,” and that “studio visits and study tours remain part of the curriculum as the students requested.” (Requests to speak with the Dean or anyone from the administration via email and phone were not returned.)

A current Roski faculty member we spoke with who declined to be named also disputed the students’ claims. “There were people offering to help and discuss the changes with them but it seems they felt angry and not focused as much on getting answers as they were on agitating,” the faculty member told Hyperallergic. “This is understandable given the disappointment many of us have in the bigger picture changes in academia and the art world. But regrettable for those of us wiling to help and give them information — and all of us who wanted them to stay and finish their degree.”

“I believe in public education, but the fact is the structure of funding had to change,” the faculty member continued. “I believe they were aware of that from the time they arrived at USC, so their implication that this is a sudden event is not true. A given school or department has a budget and if one program is fully funded, other students or programs are paying for it. At some point in itself this is not equitable and in fact unethical in the sense that one group of students is being sheltered from economic realities at the cost of others. I wish education could be free for everyone but it’s not free almost anywhere in the world any more. Our job is to make the existing systems work as fairly as possible in order for students to get maximum support and a great learning environment.”

This perceived need for austerity however, stands in marked contrast to the $70 million gift promised by Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young (Dr. Dre) as part of their new Academy focused on Art, Technology, and Business. This gift was even mentioned by Dean Muhl (who is also director of the Iovine Young Academy) as part of her Roski School commencement speech, although many people I spoke with were unclear what relationship the Academy has to the Roski School, either pedagogically or financially.

“Simultaneously they’re saying there is no more money in the MFA program and there have to be cuts, but at the same time, there’s this huge influx of money for innovation and this arts business model,” said another Roski faculty member who also wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from the administration. “It’s an economic vision of austerity and neo-liberalism that is one-sided and short term, and does not take in to account the symbolic value of programs in the humanities,” the person explained. “This program, because of its very high regard in the landscape of art schools, was very important for USC.”

Dwayne Moser, who had been the program graduate coordinator until resigning this past February to work for artist Frances Stark — who had herself resigned from a tenured position last Fall — echoed these sentiments in an email he sent to Hyperallergic. “The School’s focus shifted noticeably under Dean Muhl, with many of the MFA Program’s accomplishments and core components, previously seen as being significant, becoming either ignored or actively dismantled. The renown that the Program genuinely did possess — I would hear this from art professionals in Europe, New York, etc. — was not at all in evidence amongst the School’s upper administration. Attempts to demonstrate the Program’s quality via alumni accomplishments or basic metrics like application figures were rebuffed. The Program came to be treated as a pariah within its own home School, with everyone — certainly including enrolled students — feeling the effects of this treatment.”

Although he did not directly address the upheaval that Roski is undergoing in his commencement speech, Veli-Matti Hoikka, the only graduating MFA student present, advocated for the relevance and power of art beyond a simple profit motive. “To some artists, pointing to the absolutely messed up things already here gives purpose,” he said. “Don’t shy away from that task. It is absolutely necessary for everyone of us to be very much suspicious of every single thing. Our work depends on it … As much as it is beneficial for our skills and interests to learn the new and master the tools of this moment, it is the eternal question of what it means to be human, existing in this moment, that can be communicated through dance as much as through science. And us, graduates of arts, are closer to that understanding with every act we commit to, with every experiment, with each moment of reflection.”

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Matt Stromberg

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he is a frequent contributor to Daily Serving, and Glasstire.

11 replies on “University of Southern California MFAs Boycott Graduation in Solidarity with #USC7”

  1. Art, Technology and Business, hmmmm. Sounds like the integrity of the MFA was bought out for Business interests.

  2. “I believe they were aware of that from the time they arrived at USC…” says a faculty member…who declined to be named. So, they left their jobs, family and homes to move across the country (or world) and were only then PERHAPS aware of the changes. Sounds reasonable. (sarcasm) This administrations sounds like a bunch of cowards and clowns. This is exactly the condescending harassment I received at SFAI when my award letters and Fellowship (which they awarded) were not honored. I believe these student 100%. What a shameful state of affairs. Money over everything is the new model. Pathetic.

  3. Ah, yes, when authority figures decide they want to maintain control of the argument and not allow for a moment’s hesitation in thinking they were right all along, they opt to use words like “agitation” when referring to the people protesting; it’s always easier to typecast someone who has a point to argue as agitators rather than as the aggrieved. Lazy, old-school, see-through, pathetic startegy by USC.

  4. ‘I believe in public education, but the fact is the structure of funding had to change,” the faculty member continued.’

    if that same faculty member allegedely believes in public education, da fuq is he/she doin’ @ U$C?

    Since when does U$C offer a public education and/or is considered a public $chool? If that faculty member wants to know what the #struggle in Public Universities truly is, he/she should reference the UC’s or the CSU’s instead.
    Thank you.

    1. I agree that this was a really bizarre statement.

      According to the Wall Street Journal, USC’s current endowment is $5.6 billion, which is in the top 20 of American higher ed institutions, and well above any of the individual University of California campuses, let alone other West Coast public institutions.

      Why even invoke “public education” in relation to the students’ protests when you’re at one of the richest private institutions in the US? WTF?

    2. USC is private, but a lot of the professors also teach elsewhere at public universities so they could possibly have some experience in the public sphere. But it is unrelated to the MFA students, they all have half tuition scholarships (aka $30k)

  5. This kind of corruption is now endemic to higher education. See “Notes from the Academic Underground” the the novel in progress at campusreports.com: Kill the English Department.

  6. Two words…Max Nikias. It’s all about money and only money. The advancement department is beyond rude and will only speak to you if you are giving at least a few hundred grand.

  7. The “Iovine/Young Academy” is an undergraduate program within the art school that just had its first class start this year, there are only a few dozen students. Yet they have this huge amount of money at their disposal which is causing negative changes for everyone who isn’t in that program, like the removal/relocation of the art and architecture library under the school. As a member of the undergraduate class i feel very left out and disappointed in my school.

    What’s ironic is that a lot of students (campus wide) wear Beats headphones… the cash cow of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine.

    I’d also like to mention that Erica Muhl moved from being the dean of the music school to the visual arts school and the academy AND now the new dance school as well. Honestly how is she supposed to do a good job if she just runs just about every art related school at USC?

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