On a late afternoon in July, the Roski Master of Fine Arts class of 2015 gathered inside the graduate student fine arts building that had been their studio, their classroom and their meeting place for two years. Paint covered the walls and each had his or her own studio once filled with everything from paint to black lights, woodwork and sculptures. But now, two days before the students were to vacate the space permanently, many of the studios were empty and locked, with remnants of unfinished projects scattered in the hallway.
What was left of this once-robust artist workspace, the students said, is a metaphor for a master’s program that began to crumble around them. It’s for that reason that one July afternoon, they authored a petition and letter to President C.L. Max Nikias, Provost Michael Quick and Trustee Edward Roski calling for the resignation of Erica Muhl, dean of the Roski School of Art and Design.
“The program that we had signed on for and the program that was internationally renowned for nearly a decade no longer exists as we leave here,” said 2015 M.F.A. graduate Alli Miller.
Muhl became dean of the Roski School in 2013 and, according to students, her leadership has taken the M.F.A. program on a downward trajectory.
The 2016 Roski class made headlines in May when all seven members resigned from the program because of “the University’s unethical treatment of students,” specifically regarding changes made to the curriculum and receiving of teacher assistantships.
In a statement released that same month addressing the withdrawal of the class of 2015 Muhl said: “I regret that several of our M.F.A. students have stated they will leave the program over issues that were presented to us and that we considered to have been resolved.”
Muhl declined to be interviewed for this story.
In their petition, the class of 2015 expresses solidarity with its first year cohorts and echoes its frustration with the Roski administration. The students said the petition also mirrors the concerns expressed in a letter of support for the 2016 students authored by the USC M.F.A. Alumni, 2005-2014.
In May, all but one member of the 2015 graduating class boycotted commencement.
“This is the only thing we can do, but it was a last resort,” said 2015 M.F.A. graduate Veli-Matti Hoikka. “Our point is partially as the graduating class to echo the complaint of the dropped out class and convince the public at large that [the class of 2016] was not incorrect or misled, and the experience we had was similarly flawed.”
The petition has garnered more than 800 signatures including John Gordon, former dean of the Roski School from 1981-1987, and many prominent members of the art community, including MOCA Curator Bennett Simpson, artist Martha Rosler and artist and UCLA photography professor and USC graduate Catherine Opie.
Quick responded to the class of 2015’s letter, thanking the students for voicing their concern and stating the narrative of the class of 2016 was portrayed inaccurately.
“No curriculum changes were made after the students arrived at USC, and the only change made, months earlier, was a course substitution in the summer schedule,” Quick said in the letter. “I’m afraid that the [students in the class of 2016] were given very bad advice. We all hope that they will decide to rejoin the school in the future.”
The First Signs of Trouble
The class of 2015 said the troubles began long before these two actions were ever made public.
In August 2014 the students submitted proposals for summer travel, but by the end of the fall semester the Roski administration was silent about the trip they funded in previous years. From there, students said, the cracks in the program only deepened.
In December 2014, core faculty member Frances Stark left the program, and shortly thereafter, A.L. Steiner stepped down as program director. It wasn’t until January, when both the 2015 and 2016 studio art MFA students met with Muhl for the first time, that they were told there was no funding for them to travel this summer.
Meanwhile, the students said curricular changes continued to take place without consultation with any of the core faculty members. The class of 2015 said they were required to take two new classes that were master’s of arts classes — which did not include a studio component — rather than the fine arts classes they expected.
While their first year cohort was fighting to get teaching assistantships, the class of 2015 was struggling with the assistantships they had been given; oftentimes they were placed in critical studies classes rather than the studio art classes better suited to their skill set. M.F.A. student Sofía Londoño said she TA’d the same class three times.
Meanwhile, faculty continued to leave. In February, Dwayne Moser, the program coordinator, resigned. By the start of the summer semester, all the core faculty with whom the students had worked closely had departed and summer classes were being taught by adjuncts.
Questions About the Future
The class of 2015 said they are concerned about the future of the studio art M.F.A. program, particularly given the school’s recent emphasis on technological integration.
Muhl, who served for 23 years as tenured faculty in the Thornton School before her appointment as Dean of the Roski School, now concurrently works as director of the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy. The program launched in Fall 2014, and integrates studies in art, design and computer science, as well as business and venture management.
There is only one student enrolled in the M.F.A. studio art program next year, and she is coming to USC as part of the International Artist fellowship. Miller said the student, HaeAhn Kwon, is from Seoul, South Korea, and studied alongside Miller as an undergraduate at Cooper Union. Though some members of the class of 2015 have spoken with Kwon, they say she appears reluctant to make judgments about the program until she arrives.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in June, Muhl said the school had suspended recruitment efforts for the time being.
As their tumultuous second year at USC comes to a close, students are also concerned for their future and the potential devaluing of an M.F.A. degree from USC.
“When I started, this program was robust,” Hoikka said. “I didn’t expect it to break down as I was pedaling for more speed, and I feel angry that I lost a lot of momentum because this fell apart.”
Multimedia by Michelle Tak and Kevin Reeves.