USC’s 2016 MFA Class Drops Out in Protest of “Unethical Treatment”

Monday, May 18, 2015
(original: Roski School of Art and Design)

The seven first-year students in the USC Roski School of Art and Design’s MFA program dropped out en masse last week, citing “unethical treatment” by the university.

The claimed a “classic bait-and-switch” by administrators, who promised a master’s program that includes two years of teaching experience and very little debt while learning from an “inspiring faculty.” That is not what they got, they say.

“We became devalued pawns in the University’s administrative games,” they wrote in a group letter. “We feel betrayed, exhausted, disrespected and cheated by USC of our time, focus and investment. . . . We are returning to the workforce degree-less and debt-full.”

“It's a different program from what I enrolled in,” George Egerton-Warburton told the Los Angeles Times. The Australian national chose USC over Columbia University and Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design.

Highly-coveted teaching assistant positions had been scaled back considerably. “We were told that we would have to apply for, and compete with a larger pool of students for the same TA-ships promised to us during recruitment,” the student letter said.

The students said visiting-artist courses that the school was known for have been replaced to a large extent by classes in teaching and criticism. Well-known faculty have left the program. Prominent Los Angeles artist Frances Stark departed in December after a decade of teaching, along with A.L. Steiner, a photographer and installation artist.

Graduate coordinator Dwayne Moser left in February and there was talk that faculty was being forced out to make way for cheaper teacher adjuncts. One student, Julie Beaufils, said she only applied to one school, Roski, and it was because of Stark’s presence.

Roski School dean Erica Muhl posted a response to the students that seemed surprised by their feelings, much less their actions. “I regret that several of our MFA students have stated they will leave the program over issues that were presented to us and that we considered to have been resolved, specifically having to do with financial aid and curriculum.”

They apparently were not resolved to everyone's satisfaction.    

Although their letter included specific complaints about how they were treated, they also registered a broader protest over the “corporatization of higher education, the scandal of the economic precarity of adjunct faculty positions, and the looming student-debt bubble.” 

There have been a lot of changes at the small, but highly-respected MFA program since Erica Muhl, who has a background in music, became dean in 2013. She changed the name from School of Fine Art to School of Art and Design. That is not a subtle difference.

Design is hot; fine art is not.

Muhl is also the director of the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, a new USC program that combines art, design, computer science and business. It is funded by a $70-million grant from rapper Dr. Dre and the co-founder of Interscope Records.

Muhl, Wired and Condé Nast are also partnering in a new online master’s program that integrates design, business and technology.  

Writer/critic Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer said she was baffled by the “conspicuously unqualified” Muhl’s decisions.

She has “elected to squander, self-destructively, the school’s significant reputation, unique standing, and immense so-called ‘cultural capital’ by antagonizing faculty and students alike in a misguided structural overhaul that valorizes neo-liberal corporate clichés of ‘disruption’ over critical discourse, intellection, and deep studio practice.”

–Ken Broder        


To Learn More:

Entire First-Year MFA Class Drops Out in Protest at the University of Southern California (by Matt Stromberg, HyperAllergic)

Behind the Impasse That Led USC's 2016 MFA Students to Withdraw in Protest (by Carolina A. Miranda, Los Angeles Times)

Five Questions with the USC MFA Dropouts (ArtInfo)

Leave a comment