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USC7 Respond to Roski School Dean as Faculty Weigh In

A letter sent to the USC7 by Dean Erica Muhl on April 21, 2015 (image via mfanomfa.tumblr.com/)
A letter sent to the USC7 by Dean Erica Muhl on April 21, 2015 (image via mfanomfa.tumblr.com)

LOS ANGELES — The seven first-year MFA students who dropped out of the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design have issued a statement in response to last week’s letter from Dean Erica Muhl, rejecting her offer of a two-year leave of absence.

“We already officially withdrew from USC on May 15th, but the dean’s statement forces us to withdraw once again,” they wrote. They also counter the administration’s assertion that they were offered “90% funding,” stating that 82% would have been covered with teaching assistantships, while only 65% would have been covered without them, potentially leaving each of them with $75,252.40 of debt, double what they had expected. (The whole statement is reproduced below.)

Current and former Roski faculty also issued a statement, expressing solidarity with the USC7, urging the administration to “honor its commitments to its students.” They see the current situation as part of a larger set of issues including the rise in adjunct faculty with dwindling salaries and stability. “For years, the University has been following a nationwide trend, 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,” they wrote. (Read the whole faculty statement here.)

Some of the key issues up for debate are what the students were promised, when they were promised it, and what they received. The fact sheet compiled by the students includes the April 24, 2014 award letter they received from then MFA Director A.L. Steiner, stating: “If you make satisfactory progress in your first year, you will be eligible for a Teaching Assistantship in the second year.” The letter seems to imply that TAships are based on academic completion and makes no mention of competition between students for a position. Former MFA coordinator Dwayne Moser confirmed this, telling Hyperallergic via email: “In my five and one-half years working at the Roski School … there was never an application process for TAships. Satisfactory completion of the first-year curriculum was always required, as was advancement to degree candidacy. But these were not competitive standards, pitting MFAs against one another or other graduate students. Documentation of TAship award processes that preceded my time at Roski were consistent with this no-application approach.”

An email sent to the MFA students on April 1, 2014 (also included in the fact sheet), by Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Penelope Jones makes clear what the students were led to expect. “In the second year, you would have a TAship, so your cost of tuition would be free,” it reads.

However, a letter sent by Dean Muhl to the students a year later, on April 21, 2015, presents a very different situation, stating: “TAships are competitive and awarded to qualified applicants based on merit.” Students would now have to compete, not only with their fellow MFA students, but with students in the MA Curatorial Studies program as well. Furthermore, according to Steiner, Dean Muhl had the seven second-year MFAs assigned solely to TAships in Critical Studies for the 2014–15 academic year, removing all TAs from Fine Arts classes.

Steiner questioned the legality of Muhl’s focus on the award letter and dismissal of the earlier email. “In Muhl’s May 21 public letter, she claims that USC has no legal or ethical obligation to honor anything outside of the singular ‘offer letter,’ including written and spoken funding promises made during recruitment by University agents such as Assistant Dean Penelope Jones,” Steiner said. “Is such a position legally substantiated?”

We put her question to Russell Korobkin, a law professor at UCLA who specializes in contract law. According to Korobkin, it depends on when the students accepted. Since the students accepted the offer after the email, but before the award letter, the email is relevant. “Until the offer has been accepted, either side can change the terms. You can’t change the terms of an agreement once it’s made.” Even if the students accepted after the award letter was sent out, the email “would still be highly relevant evidence for interpreting ambiguous language that was used in the past,” Korobkin explained. “I think the University would have a very hard time arguing that their previous promises should be interpreted in a way that does not obligate them to provide TAships, when they themselves explained, ‘what we really meant was you’ll get a TAship.’” Regardless of whether the email is binding, Korobkin noted, “this doesn’t resolve the problem of whether the current action breaches the promise that was made in the letter.”

Beyond issues of legality, the way the University has handled this crisis reflects poorly on what was one of the most competitive and highly regarded art programs in the country. “Would current or prospective students, their families, alumni, and donors agree to such University-wide practices of offer revocation?” asked Steiner.

The Dean’s Office had not responded to Hyperallergic’s request for comment by the time of publication.

The USC7’s full response to Dean Muhl is below:

May 28th, 2015

To Dean Muhl, Provost Quick, the Registrar, and President Nikias of the University of Southern California:

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. It is inappropriate for the dean or the University to coerce us into this leave of absence, which was not requested or desired. On May 15th, our entire class sent official letters of Withdrawal to all pertinent USC administrators, and released a public statement regarding our withdrawal from USC as a collective act of protest.

Seven students do not drop out of an MFA program, tens-of-thousands of dollars in debt, without cause, hardship and dismay. Rather than engage with the University’s PR campaign to discredit our statements, we invite the public to examine the documents in our Fact Sheet outlining the funding and curricular promises made to us during recruitment, and how each of these were intentionally reneged upon by Roski administration once we were enrolled in their MFA Program (documents below and also available to download at http://mfanomfa.tumblr.com).

Regardless of how many times the dean repeats the phrase that the school “honored in every respect the 2014 offer letters”, the fact remains that our class was recruited with information provided in detailed correspondences from representatives of the Roski School (such as the one exemplified by Assistant Dean Penelope Jones in our “Funding” Fact Sheet), prior to our acceptance of the School’s offers and our receipt of offer letters.  The Roski Administration represented to us that if we enrolled, we would receive second-year TAships, without further application or qualification.  Each of us reasonably relied upon those representations in order to make a major life and career choice to attend USC’s MFA Program. The Roski Administration’s representations in the offer letter, in conjunction with recruitment communications, created a legally enforceable contractual obligation which was materially breached by the University’s administrators in the Spring 2015 semester.

USC’s PR spin that nothing was wrong and that the dean was offering us “90% funding” is an outright lie. Under the terms with which the Roski School recruited us on, 82% of our tuition would have been covered by scholarships and TAships; each of us planned to graduate from the two-year MFA Program with an average of $37,626.20 of debt for tuition and living costs. However, due to the University’s attempt at a forced renegotiation in Spring 2015, each student was faced with the possibility of leaving the two-year program with $75,252.40 in debt for tuition and living costs. If we had acquiesced to the terms of this forced renegotiation, only 65% of a student’s tuition would have been covered. Our class was 100% united in our refusal to participate in this illegal and unethical bait-and-switch scheme.

As we experienced before we publicly and collectively withdrew, USC continues to attempt to reframe our cohort’s promised funding, curricular and faculty structures as special “accommodations”; furthermore, the description of these promises as  “exceptions to long-standing university policies” is public evidence of the University’s ongoing attempt to dismiss their legal and ethical obligations to our class. We had never asked the University for anything other than what was reasonably promised to us by the Roski School as matriculated graduate students. The debt we have already incurred in the Program will affect us for decades to come, and our financial loss does not begin to measure the unquantifiable loss of the promised mentorship with valued Core faculty, our promised curriculum, and the close engagement with the work of our peers.

Since releasing our statement, we have received hundreds of emails of support because our experience resonates so strongly with faculty and students worldwide. Our situation is far too familiar, and far too typical among institutions of higher learning, for any amount of USC’s PR spin to succeed in discrediting our statement or our experiences. The University has entrenched itself in an insular bubble of lies and manipulations, shirking responsibility for their illegal and unethical treatment of our cohort and abuse of our trust.  By making our withdrawal a public collective act of protest, we trust that the facts will bring some measure of accountability to the institution.  By making our withdrawal a public collective act of protest, we hope to create a more flexible and dynamic space for criticality and engagement beyond that insular bubble.

The Dean’s latest public statement is further demonstration of USC’s administrative dysfunction.  She may wish to obfuscate the truth and refuse to recognize our group’s Withdrawal purely for administrative and statistical benefit; however, we have released thorough, factual responses and documents to counter the dean’s false and misleading statements.  We already officially withdrew from USC on May 15th, but the dean’s statement forces us to withdraw once again.  We wish to fully withdraw from the University of Southern California, effective immediately.

Sincerely,
Julie Beaufils, Sid Duenas, George Egerton-Warburton, Edie Fake, Lauren Davis Fisher, Lee Relvas and Ellen Schafer

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