The USC Roski Fiasco Points to the Corrosion of Art Education Nationwide

Can the "disruption" of art education lead anywhere good?

USC Roski School of Art, 2008. Photo Vincent Diamante, via Flickr.
USC Roski School of Art, 2008.
Photo Vincent Diamante, via Flickr.

Last month’s bold decision by an entire MFA class to drop out in protest over mistreatment by school administrators dramatically highlights systemic problems in art education from coast to coast.

Seven graduate students at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design left the school on May 15 over the school administration’s changes to their promised funding, faculty and curriculum. The decision, by students Julie Beaufils, Sid Duenas, George Egerton­Warburton, Edie Fake, Lauren Davis Fisher, Lee Relvas, and Ellen Schafer, came as a shock, to say the least.

Over the last several years, USC’s MFA program has been viewed as a model of what a graduate experience in studio art should look like: generous scholarship packages, teaching assistantships with cash awards, close ties to Los Angeles cultural institutions like MOCA, and a who’s-who list of visiting artists and faculty (see Entire 2016 MFA Class Drops Out of USC’s Roski School of Art and Design).

Ten current and former USC faculty members recently issued a statement of support of the students, also calling out the disconnected administration.

The students’ passionate public statement outlined what they claim amounts to an entire academic year of constructed obfuscation, consistent question-dodging, wildly inconsistent communication, and blatant disrespect from program administrators. The basic issue is that the program and support that they were promised during recruitment, which included a tuition-free second year with a teaching assistantship and cash award, turned out to be what they describe as a “classic bait-and-switch.”

Frances Stark, an artist who was a tenured faculty member, resigned from the program December of 2014, citing the administration’s “lack of transparency or ethical behavior.”

Screengrab of the Instagram feed of Frances Stark.

Screengrab of the Instagram feed of Frances Stark.

It’s All too Familiar

Having served on the faculty member of multiple post-secondary art schools including Virginia Commonwealth University and Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA), and having a considerable amount of arts education administrative experience at PNCA and New York University, I find all this depressingly familiar.

Leading the accused USC administration is Roski dean Erica Muhl, appointed in May 2013 despite virtually no actual relationship to contemporary art (see USC Roski Dean Denies Accusations by Students Who Dropped Out in Protest). In fact, it was Muhl who, amongst other administrators, championed changing the name of the school from Roski School of Fine Arts to Roski School of Art and Design just months after her appointment to the position of Dean, calling this a “subtle but momentous shift.” Momentous, yes. But subtle? Hardly.

Artists, by and large, think designers and start-up people are tools because, by and large, designers and start-up people are tools. I stand by that 100%—you can “user experience design” that on my headstone after cancer “disrupts” my “engagement” with existence.

What’s possibly even more troubling about Muhl’s relationship to the art students is that she is founding executive director of the USC Iovine and Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation, the start-up-themed pedagogic collaboration between USC and $70 million of Jimmy Iovine’s and Dr. Dre’s money. The academy is technically a different school than Roski, though Roski’s site directly links to it, and, since Muhl herself has been designated an upper administrator of both, one has to question its impact on the fine arts department.

USC claims the Iovine and Young Academy is “an environment for those rare undergraduate students whose interests span fields such as marketing, business entrepreneurship, computer science and engineering, audio and visual design, and the arts.” Please stop saying “the arts,” you tech-humping poseurs. It’s my opinion that any administrator comfortable with having job titles that include Professor of Art and Founding Executive Director of anything with “innovation” in the title needs to take a day off, have a cheeseburger, and do a little “me” work.

To study art is to learn to think critically, actually critically, not the way the Iovine and Young Academy uses the word. It’s not about the sophomoric buzzword “disruption,” it’s about the actual disrupting of one’s own social conditioning through the development of visual literacy and a profound, sometimes very upsetting, understanding of the political, social, and cultural paradoxes present in culture.

In fine art, innovation means pushing oneself beyond aesthetic tropes and posing what are often extremely uncomfortable questions. It has nothing to do with innovating the way corporations can use metrics and data to monetize the social behaviors of everyday people. Sure, there are plenty of artists who are cash-hungry, capitalist pigs. But at least when I suffer through listening to Jeff Koons give an interview I don’t hear the hell-spawned fucking information-incubus that I do every time Zuckerberg opens his volatile, poke-inventing mouth.

Art School, Disrupted

Following the students’ May 15 open letter, USC Roski’s administration quickly released its own public statement attempting to discredit the students’ accusations. The students responded with a new document, the USC Roski Drop-Out Fact Sheet. While the administration’s communications used vague and unconvincing arguments, the students’ annotated response is clear and provides formal documents from USC as evidence supporting their claims of deliberate deceit.

I interviewed the USC Seven collectively via email for this article, and their response to the obsession with start-up language now favored by USC is barbed and astute:

Tethering an entire program with an industrial design focus to a trendy theory of “disruption” seems misguided and overall shortsighted. The marketing of the Academy as a place of innovation and conceptual thinking all happens against the backdrop of an administration that is hostile to critique and dissent, and a school where faculty is mistreated, maligned and intimidated.

When cultural institutions recklessly adopt the language and values of start-up culture (or the shallow world of design) in an attempt to seem current, their constituencies suffer. But the effects aren’t limited to art-viewing audiences or student populations.

I also contacted writer Michael Pepi, who has extensively covered and taught classes on the complicated relationship between contemporary art and the tech sector, to ask his opinion about initiatives like the Iovine and Young Academy at USC. He said:

 It’s no secret that donors and other groups that exert control over cultural institutions have a sort of ideological stamp on those structures. The university and the museum are little more than organs for the values of the ruling class, or more directly, the state. But today it is more complex, since for the first time the new “robber barons” have a distinctly anti-intellectual bent, believing that private sector value creation has an educational worth to society, or that blind worship of “disruptive” innovation somehow stands in as an alternative (or replacement) for creativity and personal development. The shift that is evidenced by the Iovine & Young program is only the beginning. Institutions of higher education, in basically any discipline, are relied upon to train critical thinkers able to stand outside something like the new gold rush we’re seeing in Silicon Valley, not follow the hype cycle fomented by a cheerleading press.

As USC’s administration focuses on growing a program that sounds practically antithetical to an art education, they’re also throwing the Roski students under the bus. “These [MFA] students would have received a financial package worth at least 90 percent of tuition costs in scholarships and teaching assistantships,” Muhl’s letter from May 15th claimed. Not only is that factually false, it also conveniently disregards the costs incurred in addition to tuition fees. One need only examine the “Funding” section of the students’ fact sheet to see how the administration is spinning this.

Formal communications from Penelope Jones, assistant dean for student affairs, and then-MFA director A.L. Steiner in April 2014 both clearly state that they’d be assured a paid TA position before they entered the program. By the spring 2015, the end of their first year at USC, the administration sent a contradictory document telling them that for 2015-16, they’d “authorized faculty to prioritize awarding of TA-ships to qualified second-year MFA applicants.”

Even if it’s more likely than not that an MFA student would get a TA position and cash award in their second year, it’s absolutely not a guarantee. According to USC’s own financial aid calculations, if students didn’t receive the paid TA position that they were promised, their debt at the end of two years for school and living costs at “one of the most generously funded programs in the country” would likely be $75,252.40.

How Does Roski Solve a Problem Like A.L. Steiner?

It gets messier.

Artist A.L. Steiner, who recruited these students as MFA director and was a full-time faculty member at USC Roski until very recently, told me via email:

 In the spring 2015 semester, the seven first-year MFA students—who were recruited during my Directorship [in 2014]—were told by Roski’s administration that their funding promises, faculty and curricular offerings were changing, in advance of this cohort’s 2016 graduation. As you know, the students released a detailed statement regarding these matters. On May 13, 2015, Muhl informed me that she was declining to renew my one-year contract, which was ending on May 15, 2015. I’m the only full-time non-tenure track Roski professor whose renewal was declined.

Steiner is a respected visual artist with an active exhibition record whose work is in collections including New York’s Museum of Modern Art. She is a co-founder of Working Artists in the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E), a group that advocates for appropriate compensation for artistic labor. She has demonstrated a real, energetic dedication to education. At Roski, she was the only faculty member tapped to teach in the MFA program as well as the critical studies, intermedia, and photography programs. USC, or any program, should feel privileged to call her faculty.

Not renewing Steiner’s contract seems like a powerful way for Muhl’s office to intimidate other faculty. Steiner had voluntarily stepped down from her position as MFA director in the fall of 2014 (and was not replaced, the USC dropouts complain), but, as she describes it, only for personal reasons. Her father had died, she told me, and she wanted to focus on teaching instead of her administrative load.

Amidst increasing media heat, Muhl released a follow-up statement on May 21. After claiming to respect the students’ decision and their strong feelings on the issue, she says, “We honored in every respect the 2014 offer letters sent to them by the school,” then goes on to say that she “understand[s] that the students found some of the school’s other communications confusing or unclear, and as dean [she has] already taken steps to correct those shortcomings.”

What “other communications”? Does she mean the aforementioned official letters the students received from Steiner and Penelope Jones? Because those two letters seem pretty clear to me. The students were promised TA positions, a tuition-free year of study, and a cash award; to indicate that those letters confused the students is patronizing, if not entirely offensive.

The part that raises a red flag for me is her most recent letter’s closing. In a charade of generosity, she indicates that she has not recorded their withdrawal, opting instead to grant each of them a two-year leave of absence with the option to re-enroll.

At first glance, it may seem like she’s left the door open for further conversation. But that’s bullshit. How can a dean refuse to let you drop out of college? This granting of a leave of absence reeks of an accounting scheme. Judging by a new letter released by the students on Thursday the 28th, it appears that they’ve come to the same conclusion.

The time I’ve spent working in the administrations at private art schools leads me to be highly suspicious of what’s behind the school’s latest correspondence. I believe that Muhl is attempting to keep her student population numbers at what’s expected. Students who are on a leave of absence can still be counted as students, while those who have withdrawn cannot.

Academic deans, no matter how autonomous they may seem, do not operate in a vacuum. If it’s Muhl who is orchestrating this scheme, it’s quite possibly with a stamp of approval from provost Michael Quick and president Max Nikias, both of whom are likely pressuring her to keep, at the very least, some of the seven students who have dropped out. Administrations project anticipated tuition income for the following year and budget accordingly.

When USC opted to make changes to the funding promises and curriculum, including potential tuition dollars from students who didn’t get a now “competitive” TAship, I suspect they mistakenly assumed that the students wouldn’t have the audacity to actually collectively drop out. One or two maybe, but all seven? That was a hell of a gamble.

The students said much of the same in their original letter, stating, “Perhaps the University imagined that we would suffer any amount of lies, manipulations, and mistreatment for those shiny degrees.” It’s not easy to personally justify dropping out after going into debt and working so hard, no matter how awful the environment.

The school is now going to strange lengths to try to convince some of them to stay enrolled, despite the new policies and potential tuition costs, because any amount of income is still income. Simply honoring the original offers would have kept them in school, and at least avoided this public relations nightmare. It’s a little sadistic, but I’m getting a real kick out of imagining the conversations about all of this between USC Roski’s administration and the MFA class they’ve just recruited to begin this fall.

Unlike anything coming out of Muhl’s office to the public, the students’ final words to me over email highlight their thoughtful and realistic perspective on what happened this year at USC:

We all attended USC with the professional expectation that the financial promises made to us were specifically budgeted for us during our time at the University. We understand that department budgets change, especially for schools that have just secured a $70m donation, but we expected the financial changes would be made with respect for the obligations they already had promised.

Start-Up Art School

It’s difficult, after hearing this story, to maintain any optimism about the future of higher art education. From the Cooper Union debacle (see Scandal Erupts as New York Attorney General Investigates Cooper Union for Shady Financial Dealings) to the USC Roski fiasco, it’s demoralizing to hear how disconnected art school administrations are from what should be their mission: serving their students.

Frighteningly, the adoption of start-up mentalities that value quantitative data over qualitative learning may become the norm. And it’s no secret at all that the rapid expansion of administrative staffs at art schools is a major cause of the rise in tuition. For a heavy take on how tuition dollars at colleges in general are spent, I recommend viewing Andrew Rossi’s 2014 documentary The Ivory Tower.

Still, let’s not forget that there is still power in action. The USC Seven intends to maintain their cohort and produce an exhibition. The students will continue to learn from one another, which is how artists learn best. Indeed, sometimes we get a glimmer of hope, like when a group of students stand up for themselves and refuse to take any more shit.

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