The Roski School of Art and Design has recently made changes to its Master’s of Fine Arts program following widespread criticism of the curriculum and the appointment of Erica Muhl as Dean.
Over the summer, Muhl welcomed five new faculty members in a hiring decision that was described as “transformative” on the Roski website.
However, despite these changes, problems persist that have affected Roski’s overall ranking on both a University-wide and a nationwide scale.
In May 2015, all seven students of Roski’s MFA class of 2016 withdrew, protesting curriculum and funding changes, loss of faculty and the appointment of Muhl, whom the former students believed was unqualified to head the art school.
These students created a Tumblr, “MFA NO MFA,” where they posted a letter addressed to Muhl, Provost Michael Quick, the Office of the Registrar and President C. L. Max Nikias.
In the letter, they accused the administration of luring them into the program with promises of teaching assistant positions and scholarships that would cover 82 percent of their tuition. However, when the University attempted to renegotiate these terms in Spring 2015, the former MFA students were left with only 65 percent of their tuition covered and a large amount of debt, according to their letter.
In response to the students’ complaints, Muhl issued a statement expressing her regret over the students’ collective withdrawal and her faith in the Roski MFA program, which she claimed was “one of the most generously funded programs in the country.”
Shortly after, several current and former faculty members of the Roski School issued a statement in support of the seven former students.
“For years, the University has been following a nationwide trend, shifting resources and focus away from the execution of our core educational mission and towards bloated administrative salaries, lavish infrastructure projects and a business model of education,” the statement said.
As a result of the controversy, Roski enrolled only one MFA student the following year, HaeAhn Kwon, who also withdrew from the University after one year despite having her tuition and other expenses fully covered via a fellowship.
Kwon said that she decided to leave because of the program’s lack of structure, according to a letter to Quick.
“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,” Kwon wrote in the letter. “Instead, there was a single one-and-a-half-hour session in November, hastily put together with a first-year [Master of Arts] student with a [Bachelor of Fine Arts] background, and one of the new faculty members.”
Kwon also said that the fall term lacked the studio component of the program, with no midterm, no finals and no any review of her studio practice, which she called “the essential purpose of an MFA degree in visual art.”
In response, Associate Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Robin Romans wrote that Roski offered Kwon numerous opportunities to succeed throughout the year and suggested that she did not take full advantage of these.
“During her time in the fellowship program, [Kwon] requested numerous accommodations to offset the lack of MFA colleagues, including a request for double studio space, all of which were granted,” Romans said in the statement. “Her spring group critique included two graduate artists, award-winning senior artists and a trio of exceptional faculty in Nao Bustamente, Edgar Arceneaux and Tala Madani. In addition, we have an extensive list of other faculty and visiting artists with whom she also worked.”
That spring, Roski’s U.S. News & World Report ranking for the MFA program dropped from No. 36 (in 2012) to No. 69.
For John Gordon, who served as Roski’s dean from 1981 until 1987, this drop in ranking reflects a regression to a past in which USC was regarded as a second-tier institution.
“Dean Muhl, while fully qualified to act as an academic leader and expert in her field of music composition, is not qualified to lead or otherwise chart the future of the Roski School,” Gordon wrote in an email to the Daily Trojan. “The University’s senior leadership certainly has the right to retrench to the mediocrity of its past, but those of us who worked so hard to build USC’s Art and Design programs are deeply saddened by the current path that President Nikias and Provost Quick have chosen to follow.”
Nevertheless, Vice Dean of Art Nao Bustamante is confident in Muhl’s abilities and the trajectory of the art school.
“I have every confidence in Dean Muhl’s ability to lead the Roski School of Art and Design into the future,” Bustamante said. “I’m looking forward to embarking on a new path with our students, faculty and staff to create a compelling learning environment where experimentation is the norm, and the production of art is linked to original research.”
Amrin Khurana, a sophomore majoring in art, said that while she is skeptical of Muhl’s qualifications, she shares Bustamante’s faith in the program.
“Roski provides students with direct access to high caliber job and internship opportunities,” Khurana said. “There is also a lot of liberty in choosing your classes, which essentially allows you to craft your own education.”
Ultimately, Khurana said that she is optimistic about potential curriculum changes that may occur in the future.
“There is an effort being made by the art school to hear students’ concerns,” Khurana said. “I don’t know whether changes are going to be made, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”