USC Roski Graduate Fine Arts building (Photo Credit: Jacinto Astiazarán)

USC Roski Graduate Fine Arts building (photo by Jacinto Astiazarán and used with permission)

LOS ANGELES — Earlier this week, the USC Roski MFA class of 2015 submitted their petition to the University of Southern California (USC) administration calling for the removal of Dean Erica Muhl. As Hyperallergic previously reported, the former students started the petition last month in response to what they described as “the systematic downward trajectory that Dean Erica Muhl’s tenure has steered the world-renowned Roski MFA Program.” Specifically, they refered to the “breaking funding and curricular promises” leading to the withdrawal of the entire MFA class of 2016 this past May.

The petition received over 760 signatures, including quite a few from prominent artists and arts professionals, including Martha Rosler, Catherine Opie, and former Dean of the USC School of Fine Arts John S. Gordon. Their comments were included in a letter (reproduced below) that accompanied the petition.

The graduates also released a letter they received from Provost Michael W. Quick (also found below) in response to their July 16 letter announcing the petition. “It is heartwarming to know of your enthusiastic dedication to the program,” he writes, and expresses “sadness over the decision of seven students to withdraw as a group.” Ultimately, however, he finds the students’ grievances unfounded. “Those students’ situation has been portrayed inaccurately. Dean Muhl did not break curricular and funding promises to them,” he states. The class of 2015 writes that Quick’s letter “made it clear to us and the public at large that USC leadership continues to delegitimize our experience as graduate students and irresponsibly minimize the public representation of our colleagues’ withdrawal.”

The entire letter is reproduced below and can be viewed here:

3 August 2015

Dear President Nikias, Provost Quick and Mr. Edward P. Roski Jr., Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the University of Southern California:

In light of the grievous administrative damages that have incurred widespread disrepute to the Roski School of Art and Design, we, the Master of Fine Arts class of 2015, hereby present the attached public petition for the removal of Dean Erica Muhl. This petition has been signed in solidarity by over 760 concerned and invested voices from the international art and academic communities. Together, we continue the call for USC leadership’s accountability in acknowledging an administrator’s destructive actions and blatant disregard of the feedback and experience of its faculty and students in support of the future of fine arts higher education at USC.

Our legitimate concerns for the restitution of the MFA program’s quality and relevant contribution to the cultural community continue to be ignored. Erica Muhl has placed the school in a litigious position through the unethical manner with which she handled the withdrawn class of 2016’s funding and curricular offers, as we know intimately, having also been coerced by the administration to accept undesired curricular changes that were not endorsed by our core faculty. Provost Michael Quick’s reply to our initial letter made it clear to us and the public at large that USC leadership continues to delegitimize our experience as graduate students and irresponsibly minimize the public representation of our colleagues’ withdrawal.

Among the many distinguished signees of our petition, some resonating comments of support include:

John S. Gordon, Director of the Center for Contemporary Arts, Santa Fe: “As a former Dean of the USC School of Fine Arts (1981–1987), I am deeply embarrassed by Dean Muhl’s and USC’s shameful treatment of the 7 MFA candidates whose resignations have brought national disgrace upon the once distinguished reputation of the USC Roski School of Fine Arts.”

Martha Rosler, preeminent artist, activist and educator: “The agreement under which students enter school is a contract, not subject to the whims of administrators. The conditions at SC were good for the top administrators, not for the art students.”

Catherine Opie, renowned photographer and educator: “As a professor at UCLA in art, I believe that the dean does not clearly understand how this has not only affected the students that the university is there to serve, but the ripple that has resulted in disbelief in the greater Los Angeles community.”

Judith Rodenbeck, recognized scholar: “‘Disruption’ of contractual obligations is unacceptable. And the casualization of the academic labor force — as well as, evidently, the infantilization of graduate students — is bound to dismantle what was a really interesting program. As a management strategy this is appalling, and the inverse of groveling for celebrity money in the name of innovation.”

Furthermore, it has been frustrating to witness USC leadership ignore the fact Erica Muhl was admittedly unable to recruit students to fundraise her new studio-based MFA program. She offered no dedicated graduate faculty, unlike previous years, or clear funding offers to prospective students during the Spring admissions process, yet expected the withdrawn class of 2016 to invest in this dubious program for their second year. Along with the level of public embarrassment her failure as dean has brought to the University, why does USC continue to support an unfit administrator?

This community’s call to action is an accurate, responsible and legitimate response to the Roski administration’s irresponsibility. Erica Muhl’s removal will be the start of USC’s effort to abide by their own educational mission and best practices to resolve the Roski School’s glaring crises. As it stands, the disinterest shown by USC to this very real problem will otherwise continue to be seen as an example of resounding negligence in higher education.


The USC Roski MFA class of 2015

Provost Quick’s letter dated July 17, 2015:

Dear Jacinto and other students of the Roski MFA’15 class:

President Nikias has asked that I write back to you on behalf of both us, in reply to your letter of July 16. (Mr. Roski and other trustees do not make academic decisions at our university.)

Your passion for the good of the school comes through very clearly. It is heartwarming to know of your enthusiastic dedication to the program, and your appreciation for its stellar reputation, the faculty’s commitment, and the relationships you have forged,

We all share your sadness over the decision of seven students to withdraw as a group. Completing the program would have given them opportunities to continue to learn and grow as artists.

Those students’ situation has been portrayed inaccurately. Dean Muhl did not break curricular and funding promises to them. She has explained that the 2014 offer letters sent to them by the school were honored in every respect, without exception. She also made the commitment that, even if the students refused to follow university policy about teaching assistantships, the school would make sure they would feel no financial impact. No curriculum changes were made after the students arrived at USC, and the only change made, months earlier, was a course substitution in the summer schedule. I’m afraid that the students were given very bad advice. We all hope that they will decide to rejoin the school in the future.

Dear Muhl and the faculty are deeply committed to strengthening the MFA program and the entire Roski School. The recent successful search for a senior Art faculty member, to start midyear, is one of several hires under her leadership that add to the already remarkable talent of the faculty.

As your own artistic careers flourish in the years ahead, I am confident you will be able to view with pride the upward trajectory of the program, and its enhanced stature.

I thank you for writing me to explain your point of view. I wish you all the best, and welcome you to the honored ranks of Roski MFA alumni.



Michael W. Quick, Ph.D.
Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic AffairsUniversity of Southern California

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Matt Stromberg

Matt Stromberg is a freelance visual arts writer based in Los Angeles. In addition to Hyperallergic, he has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, CARLA, Apollo, ARTNews, and other publications.