How USC’s Roski School of the Arts lost all of its MFA students

The small but esteemed Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California has fallen dramatically and publicly out of favor over the past year after all seven students in the 2016 Studio Art MFA class dropped out. last May to protest against the reduction of funding programs and the forced departure of professors.

Now, the sole remaining student in the MFA program has also withdrawn from the Roski School.

After a year on the program, HaeAhn Kwon announced his withdrawal in a bitter and punitive letter to USC Provost Michael Quick, citing a “downward spiral of predatory, misguided, and woefully oblivious decision-making” on the part of the ‘school ; a “delusional” administration and a “lack of structure”.

A USC representative provided The Daily Beast with a copy of Kwon’s letter and a response statement from Robin Romans, associate vice provost at USC and director of the school’s International Artist Fellowship program, which brought Kwon from Seoul to Los Angeles.

Much of Kwon’s letter echoes the disappointments expressed by the seven MFA students who dropped out in droves that the program did not provide the resources they were promised when they applied.

In a statement explaining their decision to collectively drop out, the students say the MFA program was once “exceptionally well-funded” so its students could graduate with teaching experience and debt-free.

These financial resources were part of the attractiveness of the program, but they allege that they were greatly diminished after their admission.

Kwon was immediately unhappy upon arriving at the Roski School and met with the administration after her first semester about the program’s lack of a studio component.

“There was no mid-term, no final, or criticism of any kind for my studio practice, which is an essential goal of an MFA degree,” she writes. .

“All of these benchmarks were in place the previous year, when the school had a functioning program with competent leadership, and the fact that their known removal had not been resolved prior to my arrival was a travesty.”

Romans fired back in his response that after meeting Kwon in January, Kwon was “still eager to avail of the scholarship, which paid for all of his tuition, tuition, room and board (including those of her spouse), provided travel insurance and more.

Kwon did not return The Daily Beast’s requests for additional comment.

Kwon and students who withdrew from the program last year have blamed many academic failures on Dean Erica Muhl, who was appointed to the position in 2013 and has no visual arts background.

Dean Muhl is a tenured professor of fine arts and composition at USC’s Thornton Music School, according to a lengthy biography on USC’s website (an abridged version describes her as an “expert in copyright infringement”). musical author, plagiarism, musical composition and orchestration”).

Faculty members who have left Roski since Erica Muhl was named dean in 2013 say the art school has taken a back seat to USC’s Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation.

In addition to being Dean of Roski, Muhl is also the founding executive director of Iovine Academy, which was funded by a $70 million gift from rapper Dr. Dre and Iovine, a record producer.

Muhl did not return an email request for comment.

Compared to numerous protests on elite undergraduate campuses over the past year, MFA students’ complaints at Roski seem eminently reasonable.

Both are responding to what educators have called a “business model” approach to higher education.

Writing for Inside Higher Ed in 2009, a former vice president of academic affairs at LaGuardia Community College at the City University of New York argued that this approach has “led to a culture of entitlement and instant gratification” on campuses. and “creates a dangerous imbalance”. in the power relationship between professors and students, a relationship that could have a deleterious impact on the very thing – teaching – that it is supposed to improve.

And that was in 2009, when student protests were relatively quiet compared to today.

The distinction is that while many of these undergraduate protests are part of a larger movement, Roski’s MFA students are responding to specific changes in the program that led to its collapse – to “the fall of the school ranking, which rests at sixty-nine,” as Kwon puts it.

In a nod to last year’s Change.org petition calling for the ousting of Dean Muhl, Kwon

writes: “The question remains, how much is USC willing to lose in faculty, students, reputation and integrity for this dean – a composer with no knowledge or professional conscience of art or design – to keep the Roski control?”

Kayleen C. Rice