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USC Roski Dean Denies the MFA Program Problems Claimed by #USC7

Dean Erica Muhl speaking to Artists House Music (via Artists House Music's YouTube channel)
Dean Erica Muhl speaking to Artists House Music (via Artists House Music’s YouTube channel)

LOS ANGELES — Hyperallergic has received a new letter sent from Dean Muhl to the USC Roski community. In the letter, she expressed sadness over the decision of the seven first-year MFA students to drop-out, but restated assertions made in her original statement, writing: “We honored in every respect the 2014 offer letters sent to them by the school.” This stands in direct contrast to the students’ claim that the Dean “was attempting to retroactively dismantle the already diminished funding model that was promised to us.”

She also refutes their statement that in early 2015, they “were presented with a different curriculum, one in which entire semesters would occur without studio visits,” writing “No changes were made to the program after the students arrived and registered at USC … Most importantly, the MFA program now and going forward continues to prioritize studio visits with internationally renowned resident and guest faculty.”

Most notably, the Dean refused to acknowledge that the students were even dropping out, saying “we have not recorded your withdrawal. Instead, we have granted each of you a two-year leave of absence.” Given the clear sense of betrayal felt by the USC7, it seems unlikely that they would choose to return to the program. The students did not return Hyperallergic’s requests for comment.

Read the full letter below:

May 21, 2015

Dear Roski Students, Faculty and Staff,

I was saddened more than I can express by the decision of seven first-year MFA students to leave the program.

I care deeply about the Roski School and its traditions. I respect and admire our faculty as fellow academics and artists, and our expert staff as colleagues and dedicated co-workers. The graduate and undergraduate students have always come first in every consideration, and every decision I have made.

The needs of these seven students have been paramount in my mind for months. We made every effort to talk with the students, to clarify the issues, and to come to a successful resolution for these highly valued and significant artists. We honored in every respect the 2014 offer letters sent to them by the school. I understand that the students found some of the school’s other communications confusing or unclear, and as dean I have already taken steps to correct those shortcomings.

Our faculty and I worked hard to accommodate every additional request by the students, and took every possible step to address their concerns. In the end, they asked for accommodations that would have meant making exceptions to long-standing university policies and guidelines — policies and guidelines that ensure fair and equal consideration of the needs of all students at USC, including undergraduates, and that the university was unable to alter or suspend. I believed throughout that they understood this, and that even though we were unable to change university policy, we would make sure that they would feel no financial impact.

Ultimately, a class of students decided to withdraw. As your dean the responsibility rests on me, and I feel a great sense of loss.

With this letter, I would also like to address and correct misinformation you may have read. No changes were made to the program after the students arrived and registered at USC. The only change made, months prior to their registration, was a course substitution in the usual summer offerings. This was necessary due to the difficulty of offering a lecture series in the summer, and limited faculty availability. Most importantly, the MFA program now and going forward continues to prioritize studio visits with internationally renowned resident and guest faculty, and to provide every opportunity for individual and group critique.

The students did ask for the full roster of faculty teaching in the program, and I regret not being able to provide it in a more timely manner. This was unavoidable due to a search for a senior artist that extended well into April. However, with the search concluded and key hires made, the students had the complete faculty cohort for the MFA prior to their withdrawal from the school.

Scholarship funding to the MFA program remains among the highest in the country, with available aid packages that cover between 90 and 96 percent of tuition costs for students, and include one fully funded fellowship for an international applicant each year. Beginning this fall, the MFA program will also offer one of only a handful of post-MFA teaching awards available in the U.S., which provides one graduating MFA student each year a generous stipend and a position as benefits-eligible part-time faculty. The school continues to fund an international trip for all graduating MFAs, and funding for visiting artists and scholars to the program is at an all-time high.

In this and in many other ways I remain steadfastly committed to the fine arts and fine arts scholarship at Roski. The recent addition to the faculty of an artist of international stature who will play a significant role in the MFA is consistent with my profound belief in and dedication to that program. Two recent full-time hires, one a scholar of international import, were made precisely to elevate and reinvigorate critical studies, theory, and curatorial practice, and to expand offerings and access to these important foundational disciplines to all of our students, graduate and undergraduate. Scholarship and merit funding has been greatly increased to the MA program, as well, and both that program and the MFA now benefit directly from a new resident artists and scholars program.

To further strengthen the fine arts at Roski, we have completed upgrades to the Painting studios, computer labs used by Photography and Intermedia, and the Digital Darkroom. I made these upgrades a priority, and through the dean’s office funded all but a small portion of the work on the fine arts areas of the school.

Different conceptions of the fine arts make us who we are as a school. We appreciate those varied views, for they enrich each other and our students. I also recognize that many of you still have questions, and that we need to create a space for ongoing and open discussion.

I view this letter as only the start of a conversation. I will be reaching out to many of you personally, and I encourage you to reach out to me. I am available in person and by phone over the summer, and look forward to talking with students and faculty.

Finally, I would like to address the students who withdrew and who are included in the distribution of this letter. I respect your decision and strong feelings on this issue, but I want you to know that we have not recorded your withdrawal. Instead, we have granted each of you a two-year leave of absence. If you let us know that you wish to rejoin the school before fall classes commence this year, or before the date that students are admitted next year or the year after, we will welcome and celebrate your return.

Best regards,

Erica Muhl

Dean

Update, May 25, 3pm PT: Since the writing of this post, the Dean’s letter has been posted to the USC Roski School website.

Hyperallergic has also received a “fact sheet” from the USC7 that contains a point-by-point response to the Dean’s original statement. It provides documentation contrasting what the students expected when they were accepted to the program with what they received. This covers loss of guaranteed funding, curricular changes including a significantly diminished studio visit program, and uncertainty over who would be teaching them after the departure of core faculty members.

[DOWNLOAD THE FACT SHEET (PDF, 2.8MB)]

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