Entire 2016 MFA Class Drops Out of USC’s Roski School of Art and Design

What do Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine have to do with it?

The campus at the University of Southern California's Roski School, via the school's website.

The full 2016 MFA class of seven at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design has dropped out in protest. The students say that they came to the decision after the Los Angeles school altered financial offers and dismissed valued faculty.

The students are Julie Beaufils, Sid Duenas, George Egerton ­Warburton, Edie Fake, Lauren Davis Fisher, Lee Relvas, and Ellen Schafer.

According to several sources, students and a faculty member who spoke to artnet News on the condition of anonymity, the school terminated the employment of faculty artist A.L. Steiner this week after she stepped down from her position as head of the MFA program. Artist Frances Stark left her faculty position with the school this past November, according to a representative at her gallery Gavin Brown’s enterprise.

Stark has made a widely praised artwork dealing with recent events at USC. Her video installation Bobby Jesus’s Alma Mater b/w Reading the Book of David and/or Paying Attention is Free (2013) was on view at the 2013 Carnegie International, at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Art. In her view, the art school is being subsumed into the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation, a program funded by a $70-million gift from record producer Iovine and rapper Dr. Dre.

The school appointed composer Erica Muhl as founding executive director of the Iovine Academy and dean of the Roski School in 2013. She’s the daughter of Edward Muhl, formerly head of production for Universal Pictures. The students point out that she has no experience with the visual arts.

“There are a lot of other programs around the country that marry business and technology,” Muhl told the Wall Street Journal in a revelatory interview. “But they’re all missing that arts and cultural component. The difference with us is we start with the arts part.” Iovine, in the same story, said, “We want kids who can work at Beats or at Apple.”

The developments at USC take place against a backdrop of rising student debt and increasingly tenuous positions for faculty, who often serve in non-secure adjunct positions. The Cooper Union, a New York college of art, architecture and engineering, began to charge tuition in 2013 after granting full scholarships to all students for over a century, giving rise to a lawsuit and an investigation by the New York attorney general (see Cooper Union Alumni Sue School Over Tuition Scheme and Scandal Erupts as New York Attorney General Investigates Cooper Union for Shady Financial Dealings).

The students’ statement points out that USC tuition has increased 92% since 2001 and that compensation for USC’s top executives has more than tripled since that year.

Founded in 1883, the Roski School offers BA, FA, MA, MFA and MPAS (master of public art studies) degrees. Among the faculty, according to the school’s website, are Shannon Ebner, Sharon Lockhart, Tala Madani, Rochelle Steiner, and Charlie White. (The site also still lists A.L. Steiner as part of the faculty.)

Among the program’s graduates are the artists Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Alex Israel, Emily Mast, Ry Rocklen, and Amanda Ross-Ho.

At their website, the students say that the MFA program was formerly “exceptionally well-funded,” allowing students to graduate with teaching experience and little to no debt. They say that once they were accepted, however, the financial offers they had received were altered.

Since 2011, the students claim, all incoming MFA candidates received a teaching assistantship (TA) that carried a full tuition scholarship for their first year. Under a new arrangement that started with this class, they say, they would get the TAship only during the second year, they would have to take a $12,800 class, thus considerably reducing the amount of the scholarship, and they would have to compete to get the TAships at all.

The students also say that an essential aspect of the program, in which students have studio visits from faculty and visiting artists and critics, would be gutted. Among recent visitors to the program, they say, have been artists John Baldessari, Meg Cranston, and Fred Wilson, as well as Museum of Modern Art curator Stuart Comer and artist-activist duo the Yes Men.

Summer travel was also offered when they were recruited, they say, but that too has come under threat.

The students plan to work together in some collective fashion in the Los Angeles area.

The school did not immediately return a voicemail requesting comment.

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