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The entire USC MFA 1st year class is dropping out

Our colleagues at Art&Education have reported that the entire first year MFA class at USC Roski School of Art and Design in Los Angeles had dropped out. Check out the story below.

We are a group of seven artists who made the decision to attend USC Roski School of Art and Design’s MFA program based on the faculty, curriculum, program structure, and funding packages. We are a group of seven artists who have been forced by the school’s dismantling of each of these elements to dissolve our MFA candidacies. In short, due to the university’s unethical treatment of its students, we, the entire incoming class of 2014, are dropping out of school and dropping back into our expanded communities at large.

The Roski MFA Program that attracted us was intimate and exceptionally well-funded; all students graduated with two years of teaching experience and very little, if any, debt. We were fully aware of the scarcity of, and the paucity of compensation for, most teaching jobs, so this program seemed exemplary in creating a structure that acknowledged these economic and pedagogical realities. However, a different funding model was presented to us by the Roski administration upon our acceptance to the program: we would receive a scholarship for some of our first-year tuition; and for the entirety of our second year we would have a teaching assistantship with fully-funded tuition, a stipend, and benefits, upon completion of our first-year coursework. We, the incoming class of 2014, were the first students since 2011 to take on debt to attend Roski, and the first students since 2006 to gain no teaching experience during our first-year in the program. Moreover, when we arrived in August 2014, we soon discovered that the dean of the Roski School was attempting to retroactively dismantle the already diminished funding model that was promised to us, as well as make drastic changes to our existing faculty structure and curriculum.

The dean of the Roski School of Art and Design was appointed by the university in May 2013, despite having no experience in the visual arts field. She, along with Roski’s various vice and assistant deans, made it clear to our class that they did not value the program’s faculty structure, pedagogy, or standing in the arts community, the very same elements that had attracted us as potential students. The effects of the administration’s denigration of our program arrived almost immediately. In December 2014, Roski’s MFA program director stepped down from her position, and was not replaced with another director; shortly thereafter that month, the program lost a prominent artist, mentor, and tenured Roski professor, her pedagogical energies and input devalued by the administration. By the end of the Fall 2014 semester, we quickly came to understand that the MFA program we believed we would be attending was being pulled out from under our feet. In January 2015, we felt it necessary to go to the source of these issues, the dean of the Roski School.

In a slew of unproductive, confounding, and contradictory meetings with the dean and other assorted members of the Roski administration in early 2015, we were told that we would now have to apply for, and compete with a larger pool of students for, the same TAships promised to us during recruitment. We were presented with a different curriculum, one in which entire semesters would occur without studio visits, a bizarre choice for a studio art MFA. Shocked by these bewildering and last-minute changes, we reached out to the university’s upper administration. We were then told by the vice provost for Graduate Programs that the communication we received during recruitment clearly stating our funding packages was an “unfortunate mistake,” and that if the program wasn’t right for us, we “should leave.” Throughout this grueling process of attempting to reason with the institution, the Roski School and university administration used manipulative tactics of delaying decisions, blaming others, contradicting each other’s stated policies, and attempting to force a wedge of silence between faculty and students. At every single turn, the dean and every other administrator we interacted with tried to delegitimize and belittle our real concerns, repeatedly framing us as “demanding” simply for advocating for those things the school had already promised us.

As of 5 p.m. on May 10, 2015, after four months, seven meetings that we held in good faith with the administration, and countless emails, we had no idea what MFA faculty we’d be working with for the coming year; we had no idea what the curriculum would be, other than that it would be different from what it was when we enrolled, and that it was in the process of being implemented by administrators outside of our field of study; and finally, we had no idea whether we’d graduate with twice the amount of debt we thought we would graduate with.

Since February 2015, we have been communicating in writing to the provost of the university, the vice provost for Graduate Programs, the dean of the Roski School, and other USC administrators that we could not continue in the program if the funding and curricular promises made during recruitment were not honored; thus, the university is not blindsided by our decision, nor has it been denied ample time and opportunity to remedy these issues with us. Perhaps the university imagined that we would suffer any amount of lies, manipulations, and mistreatment for those shiny degrees.

Let’s not forget about the larger system of inequity that we paid into to try to get our degrees. USC tuition has increased an astounding 92 percent since 2001,1 compensation for USC’s top eight executives has more than tripled since 2001,[2] and Department of Education data shows that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009.”[3] Adjunct faculty positions—the jobs that freshly minted MFAs usually get, if they’re lucky—are paid at a rate that often does not even reach the federal minimum wage,[4] while these adjuncts are paying off tens of thousands of dollars of student-loan debt. USC follows this trend of supporting a bloated administration with whom students have minimal contact, to the diminishment of everyone else. Our experience has shown that, despite having ultimate power over the program structure and curriculum, the administration has minimal concern for students. Meanwhile, faculty voices are silenced and adjunct faculty expands,[5] affecting their overall ability to advocate for students. In a classic bait and switch, we seven students lost time, money, and trust, and the larger community lost an exemplary funding model that attempted to rectify at least some of these economic disparities. What we experienced is the true “disruption” of this accelerating trend.

We each made life-changing decisions to leave jobs and homes in other parts of the country and the world to work with inspiring faculty and, most of all, have the time and space to grow as artists. We trusted the institution to follow through on its promises. Instead, we became devalued pawns in the university’s administrative games. We feel betrayed, exhausted, disrespected, and cheated by USC of our time, focus, and investment. Whatever artistic work we created this spring semester was achieved in spite of, not because of, the institution. Because the university refused to honor its promises to us, we are returning to the workforce degree-less and debt-full.

A group of seven students is only a tiny part of the larger issues of the corporatization of higher education, the scandal of the economic precarity of adjunct faculty positions, and the looming student-debt bubble. However, the MFA Program we entered in August 2014 did one great thing: it threw us all together, when we might not have crossed paths on our own. We will continue to hold crits ourselves and be involved in each other’s work. We will be staging a series of readings, talks, shows, and events at multiple sites throughout the next year, and will follow with seven weeks of “thesis” shows beginning in April of 2016. Our collective and interdependent force is energizing as we progress toward supportive and malleable spaces conducive to criticality and encouragement. These sites are more important than ever in the current state of economic precarity that reaches far beyond the fates of seven art students. We invite everyone to reach out to us with proposals, invitations, and strategies of their own, dreams not of creating a “better” institution, but devising new spaces for collective weirdness and joy.

Read the whole text on Art&Education.

*Image of USC’s Watt Hall courtyard courtesy USC

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It’s strange to me that the “dropout” actually has the feeling of a resignation, as you would when you strike… I remember after foundation year at RISD when people left to go elsewhere, I always had this sense of a personal challenge: why are you staying? There are other options, you know. Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that (obviously) it’s possible to exit.

Also, it kind of gives the lie to how MFA programs work: like any elite university, what you do is you hire the best faculty which attracts the best students who then teach themselves. So now they’re teaching themselves…


This is awesome! I’m in a different USC MFA program, and would love to invite your class to collab with us, join shows, etc. Is there some kind of contact info you can provide?

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It doesn’t seem too strange to me since graduate students occupy a kind of precarious space between student and employee, and it seems like administrations says they’re one or the other when it suits them better (e.g. you’re a student, not an employee, when you demand your contract and negotiations of that contract be honoured).

In some ways (well, a lot), it’s very much like a strike. The contracts that were signed guaranteed work and funding and since that contract was breached they’re responding in what seems to be the only way that will effectively tarnish the cultural capital of the institution, the very cultural capital that provided the grounds for the administration to bloat as much as it has.

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Carolina Miranda has interviewed Erica Muhl, the heavily criticized dean of the USC Roski School of Art, and whose policies are understood to have precipitated the dropping out of the entire MFA program spare one student. Read the interview below, or on the LA Times.

Can a major university art school program continue if it has only one student?

Ever since the entire 2016 class of seven studio arts MFA students withdrew from USC’s Roski School of Art and Design in May over changes to faculty, curriculum and funding, many have wondered about the future of the school’s master of fine arts program and weighed in on the future of arts education in general.

In an exclusive interview with The Times, Erica Muhl, dean of the Roski School, reveals that for the fall semester set to begin in less than two months, only one incoming student is enrolled in the studio art MFA program’s class of 2017.

“We have one,” she says. “That’s it.”

Muhl, however, is undaunted. She says the university is committed to maintaining the program that has long produced internationally known artists, including Paul McCarthy, Amanda Ross-Ho and Elad Lassry.

Until now, Muhl, who joined Roski as interim dean in 2012 and became dean in 2013, has issued only a couple of public statements on the matter using the university’s website. More than 70 alumni of the program made their own public statement, in an open letter critical of “reckless changes” to the program, involving core faculty, artist studio visits and guaranteed teaching assistant positions for the MFA students.

During a brief telephone conversation (which has been edited for flow), Muhl discusses the changes to the MFA program and her vision going forward.

The Roski MFA program has been known as a strong studio-based program. Why were changes made?

That’s a very broad question. I’ll answer it a little broadly at first. I consulted very closely with faculty over the course of nearly two years, and we decided together to make a few salient changes to the program — changes that will not affect the class of 2016, the students who just withdrew. These changes would not have affected their curriculum. There were those who were very comfortable with the program the way that it was. But this was the right decision for the university.

Our MFA has always and will continue to provide a studio-based experience. But we want students to benefit not just from what Roski can offer but what all of USC can offer: all of our faculty in the art and humanities and social sciences, the entire university-wide network. We had to open avenues for the students to interact with other students and faculty at USC. This would happen by creating electives – and by greater interactions with our other MA students, such as curatorial practices.

You’ve said these changes wouldn’t have affected the class of 2016, yet the students say part of the reason they withdrew is because they faced new requirements that were not part of the original curriculum: a pedagogical, or teaching-related, course and a new course called Global Art.

The pedagogy course was not required for the class of 2016. And the Global Art component was brought about inside a theory course that was already required. That was initiated in the summer of 2014 by the previous MFA director. Plus, we provided an international trip for the MFA, fully funded, to Mexico City. We thought it resonated with students. We thought it was an opportunity for them to work with other faculty and students at USC.

The students allege that the trip — which had been guaranteed to them in their offer letters — was going to be canceled.

They did bring that up with me. We did discuss that the international trips require a great deal of planning and budgetary considerations. They pointed out that they wanted something in their curriculum in the fall of 2015. We worked to provide that for them. That would have been part of their curriculum. I believe the trips that were planned with those faculty were to the California-Mexico border region, and there would have been local trips in and around the Los Angeles area to studios, galleries and museums.

Are the changes part of a new direction for the Roski School of Art and Design?

Regarding the MFA itself, we consider the changes we’ve made to be pretty minor especially in the context of a two-year course of study. Some don’t feel that is so. But I feel that we’re crafting it in a way that is unique to USC and distinguishes it from its peers.

That’s part of the over-arching vision for Roski. The MFA program is a very fine arts program within a major research university. But it has not taken advantage of all the resources and funding, all the other areas of the university. My vision is to broaden Roski’s reach so that students have the benefit of interacting with those other areas more effectively but, more importantly, so that the university has the benefit of interacting with our students.

Why do you think you only have one student for the fall?

The negative publicity may have affected recruitment efforts. But we have an incredibly strong program, and we will continue to support it. We are going to support an International Artist Fellow [a fully funded position], who will attend in the fall. We are looking to pause recruitment and then continue to recruit at a later date.

Is that a nice way of fading out the studio arts program?

I am deeply committed, deeply committed to the MFA. We will begin recruiting this fall, so we are hoping to have a very robust class. [For the incoming MA in curatorial studies,] there are eight students enrolled. That’s a robust class for that program.

All of the salient aspects of the [studio arts] program remain in the program. That includes the ability to access, on a regular basis, not just core faculty but also high-profile visiting artists. We’ve increased that ability going forward. We’ve added a deeper dive with our visiting artists in the graduate lecture series by adding a seminar-type session. We’ve added a new program, a resident artists and scholars program, which will bring artists in residence.

We’ve had good feedback on this, the ability to hear and see and talk with artists, but also curators, critics and scholars — some of whom do studio visits. That is part of the program we intend to continue. The other element is that we’re one of the few programs in the country that has built a vibrant critical studies curriculum at the graduate level.

How will the faculty work with this one MFA student? Will there be dedicated core faculty attached to the program? Or will the student be added to other departments?

Core faculty in the MFA program always taught undergraduate as well, so that is still the same. We still have a dedicated core of faculty in the MFA. I have not altered that. Core faculty were always responsible for studio visits. They’re also an important part of envisioning the team, and they craft the entire experience for every MFA student. Also, we have a very strong group of adjunct faculty for the MFA as well. The goal is a strong collaboration so that the MFA experience is quite unified.

This will be one fantastic experience for the International Art Fellow. I’ve spoken with her. She’s really looking forward to interacting with the master’s students as part of her cohort.

In addition to your role as Roski dean, you are also director of the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, a program that has a creative component but is also entrepreneurially minded with technology and business elements. How does this fit with what Roski’s art department does?

It doesn’t fit into the Roski School. It’s a separate entity. It’s one that we’re very proud of and we feel is very important. But the philosophy behind Iovine and Young has nothing to do with the philosophy behind the Roski School. I’m a classically trained artist. I deeply believe in traditions and depth and what we have created here at Roski. And I am committed to maintain that core.

The intersection of Roski and Iovine and Young is very informal, but it’s very positive for both programs. The Roski School has benefited in the way of guests and events. More important is the fact that there is interchange and exchange and interaction with Iovine and Young students. It certainly benefits the Iovine and Young students. That’s an undergraduate program.

The MFA program has been under the guidance of an interim director. Will the program have its own director?

We just made a significant hire. But I can’t announce it yet. We’ll announce that in the fall.

All of this comes at a time when some have been critical of the corporatization of academia — of programs that are industry-friendly and get away from traditional courses of liberal arts study that are more about critical thinking. What’s your reaction to that?

As a dean, I’ve never been given any instruction and I’ve never seen any real philosophy like that at play at USC. Our goal is to create excellence in everything that we do. Always as a dean, I always have my eye on the feasibility of everything that we do and being able to fund unique and special programs. But that is not something that I have experienced personally.

Last week, six dozen alumni wrote you an open letter about their displeasure with the goings-on at Roski. What would you say to them given the opportunity?

The alumni care very deeply about this school. They did not contact me before writing that letter. But I hope to speak to them at a future date. There are students on that list with whom I’ve had important interactions in the past, some of whose work I know very well. And I welcome the opportunity to talk with them.

*Image of Erica Muhl above via Artnet

Also, here is the letter of support from Roski Alumni mentioned in the above interview, originally posted on Tumblr:

June 18th, 2015

To the University of Southern California and the Arts & Humanities community,

As alumni of the University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design’s Master of Fine Arts Program, we are dismayed to hear that Dean Erica Muhl’s actions and lack of support for the Program have caused the entire graduating class of 2016 to withdraw. This was an extraordinary and painful action for these graduate students to have taken, and presents evidence of serious wrongdoing and extensive problems in the School.

Over the past decade, USC’s MFA Program became one of the top programs of its kind in the nation. As alumni, we are heartbroken to see our once highly respected program so swiftly and grievously diminished. As former students, we see this renowned and intimate program’s finest attributes— Teaching Assistant positions and scholarships, committed MFA core faculty with a rotating Directorship and a robust visiting artist series— now depleted or removed altogether.

The Teaching Assistantships that set USC apart from other leading programs provided graduate students invaluable first-hand experience as educators, and greatly enriched the educations of both the MFA candidate and the undergraduate students whom they mentored. Furthermore, the provided TAships and scholarships helped offset tuition costs— an incredibly important and progressive incentive in assisting graduates to matriculate without the massive debt that has become the norm in higher-education. In the absence of extreme debt, coupled with experience in the classroom, Roski’s MFA graduates were able to immediately establish studio practices, apply for teaching positions, and pursue exhibition opportunities following their graduation. This fact is proven by the high percentage of USC MFAs involved in international exhibitions, public discourse, and post-graduate teaching placement.

The presence of a committed MFA faculty core and the promise of direct critical discourse—a benchmark of the program—has been removed, as seen on the current website promoting the Roski School’s transformed MFA program. Also transformed is the previously robust visiting artist lecture series, which ran weekly in the graduate building and provided on-site discussions, additional studio visits, and a broadly-engaged community of local and international visitors. The removal of the program’s commitment to a core faculty of renowned professional artists responsible for ongoing one- on-one interactions, as well as a rich and diverse lecture series, illustrates a complete disregard for the exceptional qualities of the program, and a lack of knowledge for what these personal and public components mean to artists and the art community.

The current dean’s documented extreme actions, severely affecting both students and faculty, have created a culture of distrust. The heart of any educational program does not reside in its administrative management, but rather in the energy, knowledge, passion and wisdom of its faculty, as well as in the transformative ideas and good faith of its students. This combined enthusiasm and sense of inspiration have been at the center of what made the USC MFA Program so special over this past decade. This is a history that has now been abruptly foreshortened due to a lack of vision, and a perverse misunderstanding of the community that feeds – and is fed by – such programs across the nation.

Over the past decade, the program had matriculated artists whose work has been presented in the Venice Biennale, Whitney Biennial, and the Hammer Museum, among other leading institutions around the globe, and has been the subject of extensive critical focus in leading art journals and publications. For a generation of Los Angeles-based artists, the USC MFA moniker on our CVs has been a badge of honor, representing immense educational, professional and personal value, as well as the support, commitment and trust instilled in us by the School and the larger University. We do not want to see this jewel of the University recklessly discarded, and neither should the President, Provost or the Board of Trustees of the University of Southern California. The damages incurred by the departed MFA students, along with evidence of reckless changes made to the MFA program we attended, has lead us to conclude that the current dean does not faithfully support USC’s internationally recognized program.

We stand in solidarity with the MFA class of 2016, and with the current and former MFA faculty that built, supported and defended the value of contemporary studio practice. We ask that the University consider the damage done to those who have left, and also to all of the MFA alumni that the University invested in over these past ten years. We strongly advocate that the legacy of our MFA Program be respected, and furthermore, upheld by prominent practitioners within our field of study at the University. As alumni, we sincerely hope that our collective voices resonate with those capable of implementing change for the better at The Roski School of Art and Design.


The MFA Alumni of the University of Southern California, Roski School of Art

Kelly Sumiko Akashi, MFA ‘14
Carolina Caycedo, MFA ‘14
Becket Flannery, MFA ‘14
Julia Kouneski, MFA ‘14
Young Joon Kwak, MFA ‘14
Nevine Mahmoud, MFA ‘14
David Muenzer, MFA ‘14
Christopher Richmond, MFA ‘14
Chris Engman, MFA ‘13
Jibade-Khalil Huffman, MFA ‘13
Dwyer Kilcollin, MFA ‘13
Lila de Magalhaes, MFA ‘13
Paul Salveson, MFA ‘13
Rachelle Sawatsky, MFA ‘13
Barak Zemer, MFA ‘13
Karen Adelman, MFA ‘12
Tyler Coburn, MFA ‘12
Chris Coy, MFA ‘12
Erin Foley, MFA ‘12
Marc Horowitz, MFA ‘12
Sean Townley, MFA ‘12
Kristen Van Deventer, MFA ‘12
Patrick Walsh, MFA ‘12
Neal Bashor, MFA ‘11
Ryan Garrett, MFA ‘11
Onya Hogan-Finlay, MFA ‘11
Gelare Khoshgozaran, MFA ‘11
Vernon Price, MFA ‘11
Sarah Rara, MFA ‘11
John Seal, MFA ‘11
Andreas Warisz, MFA ‘11
Alyse Emdur, MFA ‘10
Cayetano Ferrer, MFA ‘10
Alex Israel, MFA ‘10
Sean Kennedy, MFA ‘10
Lisa Ohlweiler, MFA ‘10
Samantha Roth, MFA ‘10
Kenneth Tam, MFA ‘10
Tellef Tellefson, MFA ‘10
Christian Herman Cummings, MFA ‘09
Michael Hayden, MFA ‘09
Lee Lorenzo Lynch, MFA ‘09
Emily Mast, MFA ‘09
Nicole Miller, MFA ‘09
Dianna Molzan, MFA ‘09
Michael Parker, MFA ‘09
Nick Kramer, MFA ‘08
Joel Kyack, MFA ‘08
Maya Lujan, MFA ‘08
Mores McWreath, MFA ‘08
Lisa Williamson, MFA ‘08
Lawrence Rengert, MFA ‘08
Christopher Badger, MFA ‘07
Justin Beal, MFA ‘07
Patrick Jackson, MFA ‘07
Nick Jones, MFA ‘07
Jenn Kolmel, MFA ‘07
Elad Lassry, MFA ‘07
Jason Starr, MFA ‘07
Ann Trondson, MFA ‘07
Jonathan Butt, MFA ‘06
Lindsay Ljungkull, MFA ‘06
Ry Rocklen, MFA ‘06
Amanda Ross-Ho, MFA ‘06
Greg Wilken , MFA ‘06
Marya Alford, MFA ‘05
Chris Barnard, MFA ‘05
Paul Crow, MFA ‘05
Erik Frydenborg, MFA ‘05
John Knuth, MFA ‘05
Laura Riboli, MFA ‘05
Nicole Russell, MFA ‘05
Julie Shafer, MFA ‘05

Another update from Roski: the graduating class of 2015 is now asking for Dean Muhl’s resignation.

From their Tumblr:

16 July 2015

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

We, the 2015 graduating Master of Fine Arts class of the Roski School of Art and Design, are writing to express our feelings of loss and alarm over the May 15th, 2015 withdrawal of our esteemed classmates and the events that have unfolded since that time. We echo our fellow alumni’s recent letter expressing disbelief in the systematic downward trajectory that Dean Erica Muhl’s tenure has steered the world-renowned Roski MFA Program.

Our experience negotiating Dean Muhl’s unwillingness to reasonably communicate curricular changes significantly encumbered our degree progress at USC. Over the past year, we felt increasingly ostracized from our own program. After many meetings with Dean Muhl and her staff, it became clear that our investment was not one the Roski administration wished to understand or support. The administration’s consistent lack of transparency, evasive communication and persistent belittling of its students resulted in the significant loss of respected faculty members and staff during the 2014-15 school year. We struggled through the noise of a program in crisis that reached breaking point with the withdrawal of the class of 2016, which was unprecedented but not unexpected. During our final Summer 2015 semester, our studio facilities lay nearly empty, bled of a once robust community with ties to a broader cultural discourse and its accompanying support systems.

Dean Muhl has alienated students, faculty and alumni and offered convoluted and untruthful information to the public in an attempt to obfuscate the devastating impact of her actions and the failure of her administration. USC is sheltering a highly paid administrator who has operated unethically by breaking funding and curricular promises to its students. In continuing to allow Dean Muhl to maintain her position, USC is demonstrating that it does not honor its commitments to its students.

These disruptive tactics have made it clear to us, as well as the public at large, that Dean Muhl disregards and fundamentally misunderstands the needs of a graduate-level studio art program, despite the valuable advice of our committed faculty. In light of the stated losses, we are requesting that the University remove Erica Muhl as Dean of the Roski School of Art and Design, as she has proven herself unfit to uphold the charge of leadership in the field of fine arts higher education.

We celebrate the bonds we have formed with our peers and faculty, whom we thank for strengthening and engaging us beyond the limits of the institution. These relationships have proven unshakable in the face of the strategic dismantlement of a formerly renowned studio arts program. Following such a quick downfall, our sincere hope through this effort is for a reevaluation of the future of the program to which we enthusiastically dedicated ourselves the past two years.


The USC Roski MFA graduating class of 2015

Jacinto Astiazarán
Lena Daly
Orr Herz
Veli-Matti Hoikka
Sofía Londoño
Alli Miller
Alana Riley
Fleurette West


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