For years, students have come to the Roski School of Art and Design’s Masters of Fine Arts program to grow as artists in an environment that allows them to collaborate with their peers and learn from their professors.
However, in May 2015, Roski’s MFA class of 2016 collectively dropped out to protest administrative issues that they saw as pervasive and restrictive. Since then, the current MFA class has shrunk substantially, enrolling only one student, HaeAhn Kwon, compared to last year’s seven — and according to Kwon, few changes have come about as the result of the students’ collective action.
The seven students who made up the 2016 MFA class dropped out because they believed funding and curriculum changes were made with no consultation or transparency. In a statement published online, students said that because the school “refused to honor its promises to us, we are returning to the workforce degree-less and debt-full.”
“[Roski] reneg[ed] on funding and curricular promises made to us, [and] as a protest against the normalization of massive student debt, and to act on our desire to put our energies towards structures that encourage participation, agency, more weirdness and more joy,” former MFA student Lee Relvas released in a statement separate from the statement made by the entire MFA class.
The administration had no comment on whether changes have been made in response to criticism from the 2016 MFA class and alumni. For Kwon, however, being the only student has been “emotionally exhausting,” particularly in the “contentious context of this diminished [MFA] program.” Kwon, who focuses on drawing, installation and sculpture for her degree, has similar complaints to the seven former MFA students, and has also made efforts to reach out to Roski leadership, yet she has experienced no changes in curriculum.
“I’ve tried my best to indicate concerns and express the urgent need for changes to how [the] lack of structure is affecting my education, even meeting with the Provost,” Kwon said. “I’m sure any improvements to the program will take a long time, much longer than I will ever be able to witness.”
The lack of colleagues or fellow MFA students has been a major drawback for Kwon, who was told that all seven members of the previous MFA class were dropping out two weeks after she accepted the International Artist Fellowship, a fellowship reserved for international students. By the time she heard that the previous class had dropped out, she had already made arrangements to leave her home in Seoul, South Korea. Kwon said that after hearing about the changes that the students were protesting, the only thing keeping her at Roski was the free tuition, housing and a stipend that her fellowship offered.
“I spent most of the first term feeling horrible about what had happened here and how my involvement might appear to make me complicit with the perilous turns this program has taken,” Kwon said. “It has been emotionally exhausting to attempt to work here as the only MFA student. There is no camaraderie, which is obviously a huge disadvantage.”
Much of the class of 2016’s criticism was directed toward Roski’s leadership, and in particular newly-appointed Dean Erica Muhl, whom they felt lacked “background or expertise in the visual arts field whatsoever,” according to Relvas’ online statement. The class believed the leadership was overly detached and unaccountable, attempting to empirically measure, assign value and monetize everything for maximum profit.
Kwon agreed with the criticisms of the previous MFA class, and spoke about the challenges she will face once she graduates from Roski.
“In speaking to various members of the community in L.A., it was revealed to me that nobody who wants to participate in L.A.’s art community would ever want to attend this school, given its current negative associations,” Kwon said. “Many artists in L.A. have explained to me that being associated with USC is actually damaging in terms of future prospects for an emerging American artist.”
Muhl herself admitted this in an interview with the Los Angeles Times following the students’ collective dropout in 2015, when she said that “the negative publicity may have affected recruitment efforts.”
Many of the changes that the MFA students were protesting involved administrative changes, as several faculty members left Roski in recent years. In December of 2014, Frances Stark, a prominent Los Angeles artist and tenured professor, abruptly left the school after a decade of teaching. Around the same time, photographer and installation artist A.L. Steiner stepped down as the director of the MFA program. In February 2015, graduate coordinator Dwayne Moser, who had been at the school for six years, also left Roski.
Stark, who was reached via email by the Los Angeles Times, did not comment on why she left, but instead emailed a statement of support for the MFA students, affirming their criticisms in terms of “funding, curriculum and faculty structure, [which] all changed in relation to the program they agreed to enter.”
The absence of such prominent faculty members is felt at Roski for Kwon.
“There are still some strong artists and pedagogues among the remaining faculty, but I have to admit that the whole department feels completely fractured,” Kwon said. “Nobody is happy, [and] there seems to be tremendous unrest and uncertainty coupled with resentment and sadness.”
In response to these past criticisms, Roski Communications Coordinator Ellen Evaristo referenced Muhl’s statement regarding the dropout, in which Muhl expressed regret over the departure of the students yet defended the changes made to the MFA curriculum. Other members of the Roski school declined to comment.
While Kwon’s time at Roski is half over, she offered up some advice to future classes.
“The rumor circulating about next year is that a group of students are coming and I sympathize with them, because they probably think it’ll just be great to get to LA — just as I did — but they should brace themselves to feel very isolated from the community here,” Kwon said. “USC carries a very negative stigma in the broader context of Los Angeles, or perhaps in the whole of the American art world.”