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<nettime> Entire USC MFA 1st Year Class is Dropping Out
nettime's_autodidact on Fri, 15 May 2015 23:00:39 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Entire USC MFA 1st Year Class is Dropping Out


Entire USC MFA 1st Year Class is Dropping Out

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

     LOS ANGELES -- The University of Southern California's Roski School of
     Art and Design's internationally-renowned MFA program is, sorrowfully,
     over as we have come to know and love it. For most of the past decade,
     this graduate program has excelled as an exemplary institutional model
     and major epicenter of pedagogical mentorship, cultural critique, and
     artistic rigor with outstanding faculty and celebrated alumni
     registering far-reaching ripple effects across the landscape. And so, it
     is nothing short of scandalous (and utterly baffling) that the
     university administration, led by recently appointed and conspicuously
     unqualified Dean Erica Muhl, 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 cliches of "disruption" over critical
     discourse, intellection, and deep studio practice. Caught in the middle
     of such tumult, the first-year MFA students collectively reevaluate
     their course of study.

          - Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer

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

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.

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


mfanomfa {AT} gmail.com

[1] "Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System," Final Release Data, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed January 2, 2015.

[2] IRS 990 Forms FY 2001-2007, Part 2, Item 25, and Schedule III and IRS 990 Forms FY 2008-2012, Part IX, Line 5.

[3] "The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much," Paul F. Campos, New York Times, April 4, 2015.

[4] See the website of the Adjuct Project

[5] 75 percent of the USC faculty is contingent

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