Sole Student in USC Roski School’s Struggling MFA Program Drops Out

Can the program live on?

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

HaeAhn Kwon, the one student who accepted an offer of admission to the MFA program at the beleaguered Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California last year, has now dropped out.

Kwon, who came to USC on an International Artist Fellowship from Seoul, received a BFA from the Cooper Union in 2009, according to LinkedIn. She distributed an open letter to provost Michael Quick that explains her decision, based on what she calls the school’s “downward spiral of predatory, wrongheaded, and woefully oblivious decision making,” and calls the administration “delusional.”

The news comes as the latest blow to a program that has been at the center of controversy over the last year.

An entire class of MFA students dropped out of the school in May 2015. Among other complaints about faculty and curriculum changes, students maintained that the school had rescinded financial offers (the dean denied the students’ claims). Many observers see the school’s problems as intimately bound up with its formation of the 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. The students who dropped out in 2015 pointed out that she has no experience with the visual arts.

A statement from the class of students who left last year pointed out that USC tuition had increased 92% since 2001 and that compensation for USC’s top executives had more than tripled since that year. Adding to the school’s woes, faculty members like A.L. Steiner and Frances Stark either were dismissed or left the program during 2015.

Writing for artnet News, artist Sean J. Patrick Carney described the fiasco as an example of systemic problems in art education nationwide.

The school’s response follows the text of Kwon’s letter, below.

Dear Dr. Michael Quick,

I am writing to inform you of my decision to leave the MFA program at Roski School of Art and Design at USC. This decision was not an easy one, and I thought it pertinent to explain my motivations for adding my voice to all those who have already protested the devastating trajectory this school has taken.

As the only incoming student last year, I was already suspicious of the administration for alienating an entire year of MFA students. However, I entered the program against my intuition and the advice of many LA-based artists and educators because of the International Artist Fellowship, a scholarship to international students that is offered by your office and not through the Roski School. Although the strain of entering such a volatile situation was immense from the beginning, I moved from South Korea to Los Angeles in a spirit of solidarity with the former students, in the sense that I was determined to resist those structures that promote student debt. Although I knew I would be taking a risk entering a program fraught with controversy, I could not have anticipated the degree to which my entering this school would reaffirm the opinions of those who deem Roski to be on a downward spiral of predatory, wrongheaded, and woefully oblivious decision making.

As I write you today, I am still perplexed that the administration of a renowned educational institution would allow anyone to attend such a dismantled and disorganized program. As I mentioned in our meeting in the beginning of January, my fall semester was a shambles. While dealing with the fact that there was no cohort to be a part of, I was left to my own devices in addressing a delusional administration, including Dean Muhl, Vice Dean Jones, and Dean of Student Services Penelope Jones, regarding the fact that I was both socially isolated as well as pedagogically misdirected due to a lack of structure and foresight in the nonexistent studio component of this ersatz program.

To remind you, I had no functioning “Group Critique” class, the central component of an MFA degree, for which I was registered to meet twice a week for three hours each session. Instead, there was a single one-and-a-half-hour session in November, hastily put together with a 1st year MA student with a BFA background, and one of the new faculty members. In addition, when we spoke in January, I informed you of this fact, as well as of the startling information that the grade for this class was marked “Incomplete.” However, it was even more disturbing to find out last month that the mark was changed to a “B” on my transcript. I must ask you, how is it that a student could even PASS a class that was held on no more than one day? Further, the fall term entirely lacked the studio component of the program. In short, it did NOT exist—there was no midterm, no finals, nor any review of any kind for my studio practice, which is the essential purpose of an MFA degree in visual art. All of these benchmarks were in place the prior year, when the school had a functioning program with capable leadership, and the fact that their known removal was not resolved prior to my arrival was a travesty. Only after I inquired to then-recently-announced incoming Vice Dean Bustamante about the possibility of having a review was I—much to my surprise and dismay—informed by Vice Dean Jones that she had forgotten about it and suggested to postpone it until the spring.

Dr. Quick, this was my entire fall term, one of only four terms I would have in the program and the foundational term within the curriculum, and I was the only student there, yet somehow it was acceptable that a lapse of memory could determine my entire experience and the school’s responsibility to its graduate program. The fact is that no one held the responsibility of the MFA program, or the lack thereof, so it was absurd to read the published words of Vice Dean Jones claiming the MFA program to be “alive and well” in Artforum. How is such an abandonment and subsequent fraudulent awarding of course grades normalized as partial completion of an MFA degree? It should NOT be accepted that the jettisoning of the studio program goes unaddressed, nor should Roski be allowed to carry on without accountability for the unacceptable and irresponsible representation of a program whose only option seems to be to burn itself to the ground in hopes that some phoenix may eventually rise.

I am sorry to inform you that neither Dean Muhl nor any of the current Vice Deans has taken any of the steps that should be obvious in addressing the failures and flaws of this diminished program. The unstable structure of an MFA faculty comprised entirely of visiting faculty, compounded by a total absence of leadership, could not have been resolved by any new hires in the middle of the academic year. Considering the complete emptiness of the MFA department, Vice Dean Bustamante was put in the extremely challenging role of building a program amid complex and fraught relationships in and outside of the institution. It is hard to understand what her job could even be in such an impasse; with no evidence of concrete plans regarding potential changes or future initiatives, I feel strongly that next year will likely hold a continuation of the same problems I am outlining here.

Further to my own concerns, I was shocked to find that the curatorial students who were my only consistent proximate cohort were equally dismayed with the content and quality of the program. I mention this to indicate that mine is not a lone voice of dissent, though it may currently be the loudest due to its singularity. The general consensus among MA students at USC is that the program is a disappointment, though I will leave it to them and the administration currently responsible for it to work out why that might be.

This past spring, in order to avoid wasting time and guide my energy to studio practice, I had to stop asking myself the questions, How would anyone dare to call this an MFA program? Many from Roski’s tenured faculty to their undergraduate students are similarly asking this, and it is disturbing to me that many of the faculty and undergraduate students’ attempts to question the administration appear to have been silenced, much like the union talks amongst faculty earlier this year.  It is abundantly obvious that the school has all but disappeared, considering the departure of an entire graduate class, as well as the migration of outstanding faculty members Frances Stark, Sharon Lockhart, A.L. Steiner, and Charlie White, not to mention the plummeting of the school’s rankings, which now rest at a sixty-nine. The question remains, how much is USC willing to lose in faculty, students, reputation, and integrity in order for this dean—a composer with no knowledge or professional awareness of art or design—to maintain control of Roski?

I hope that this letter and the information it holds rings an alarm within USC as a whole; the current state of Roski is the university’s responsibility, and its ongoing failures are now the result of unwarranted tolerance for this level of destructive mismanagement, a case in which yet another educational community is dissolved by a corporate agenda. This is why I am leaving USC, in favor of attending a more rigorous and supportive program elsewhere. I must hold your office partly responsible and remind you that it is predatory to invite young artists to such a fractured program, with the Vice Dean of Art and the Vice Dean of Critical Studies falsifying the status and contents of the school in their own students’ and the public’s eye. During my time at Roski, it became clear that I had never entered an MFA program; instead, I was participating in a sham under the leadership of an unfit dean and an administration irresponsibly ignoring the crisis.

Sincerely,
HaeAhn Kwon

The school’s reply:

I write on behalf of USC Provost Michael Quick and as the director of USC’s International Artist Fellowship program. The fellowship supports promising young artists in our schools of dramatic arts, music, cinematic arts and art and design, including HaeAhn Kwon.

We were sorry to hear that HaeAhn is leaving the university and wish her all the best in her future endeavors.

We had lengthy conversations with HaeAhn prior to her arrival, and informed her that we were committed to working with her and providing every available opportunity to ensure she had the best possible experience, but that the one thing we could not provide was a graduate student cohort for her in the first year of her MFA program. Her correspondence and conversations with me and with members of the Roski School indicated she understood the circumstances and was still eager to avail herself of the fellowship, which paid all of her tuition, educational fees, room and board (including those of her spouse), provided a travel allowance and more.

During her time in the fellowship program, HaeAhn requested numerous accommodations to offset the lack of MFA colleagues, including a request for double studio space, all of which were granted. Her Spring group critique included two graduate artists, award-winning senior artists and a trio of exceptional faculty in Nao Bustamante, Edgar Arceneaux and Tala Madani. In addition, we have an extensive list of other faculty and visiting artists with whom she also worked.  Finally, HaeAhn received personal invitations from artists who offered impressive networking opportunities. To our dismay, she took advantage of very few of these.

As to the Roski School’s future, we are pleased to have a full MFA class enrolling in the fall—joining more than 465 total students enrolled in the school’s degree programs and guided by a prestigious and expanding community of new and world-class faculty of artists, scholars and curators.

Best,
Robin Romans, Ph.D.
Associate Vice Provost


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