University of Southern California MFAs Boycott Graduation in Solidarity with #USC7

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