It was the walk-out heard ’round the world. On May 10 seven first-year students from the USC Roski School of Fine Arts MFA program formally dissolved their degree candidacy in a letter to embattled Dean Erica Muhl. The letter was later published in Art & Education with a foreword by writer and USC lecturer Sarah Lehrer Graiwer. At issue were a number of changes in the program format and funding model that the “USC 7” claimed changed after they accepted their positions in the class. This dismaying course of events was initiated in part by USC’s decision to change Roski from a school of Fine Art to a school of Art and Design, while accepting a $70 million donation from rapper and “Beats” entrepreneur Dr. Dre and music producer Jimmy Iovine to open a corporate-funnel School of Art, Business, and Technology–a move that led to high-profile resignations by Roski faculty members Frances Stark and A.L. Steiner. Since the letter’s publication, USC has denied the allegations and entrenched its stance, while the USC 7 have vowed to continue their MFAs with a series of independently organized lectures, exhibitions, and critiques. The letter is reproduced in full below:
“We are a group of seven artists who made the decision to attend USC Roski School of Art and Design’s MFA program based on the faculty, curriculum, program structure, and funding packages. We are a group of seven artists who have been forced by the school’s dismantling of each of these elements to dissolve our MFA candidacies. In short, due to the university’s unethical treatment of its students, we, the entire incoming class of 2014, are dropping out of school and dropping back into our expanded communities at large.
The Roski MFA Program that attracted us was intimate and exceptionally well-funded; all students graduated with two years of teaching experience and very little, if any, debt. We were fully aware of the scarcity of, and the paucity of compensation for, most teaching jobs, so this program seemed exemplary in creating a structure that acknowledged these economic and pedagogical realities. However, a different funding model was presented to us by the Roski administration upon our acceptance to the program: we would receive a scholarship for some of our first-year tuition; and for the entirety of our second year we would have a teaching assistantship with fully-funded tuition, a stipend, and benefits, upon completion of our first-year coursework. We, the incoming class of 2014, were the first students since 2011 to take on debt to attend Roski, and the first students since 2006 to gain no teaching experience during our first-year in the program. Moreover, when we arrived in August 2014, we soon discovered that the dean of the Roski School was attempting to retroactively dismantle the already diminished funding model that was promised to us, as well as make drastic changes to our existing faculty structure and curriculum.
The dean of the Roski School of Art and Design was appointed by the university in May 2013, despite having no experience in the visual arts field. She, along with Roski’s various vice and assistant deans, made it clear to our class that they did not value the program’s faculty structure, pedagogy, or standing in the arts community, the very same elements that had attracted us as potential students. The effects of the administration’s denigration of our program arrived almost immediately. In December 2014, Roski’s MFA program director stepped down from her position, and was not replaced with another director; shortly thereafter that month, the program lost a prominent artist, mentor, and tenured Roski professor, her pedagogical energies and input devalued by the administration. By the end of the Fall 2014 semester, we quickly came to understand that the MFA program we believed we would be attending was being pulled out from under our feet. In January 2015, we felt it necessary to go to the source of these issues, the dean of the Roski School.
In a slew of unproductive, confounding, and contradictory meetings with the dean and other assorted members of the Roski administration in early 2015, we were told that we would now have to apply for, and compete with a larger pool of students for, the same TAships promised to us during recruitment. We were presented with a different curriculum, one in which entire semesters would occur without studio visits, a bizarre choice for a studio art MFA. Shocked by these bewildering and last-minute changes, we reached out to the university’s upper administration. We were then told by the vice provost for Graduate Programs that the communication we received during recruitment clearly stating our funding packages was an “unfortunate mistake,” and that if the program wasn’t right for us, we “should leave.” Throughout this grueling process of attempting to reason with the institution, the Roski School and university administration used manipulative tactics of delaying decisions, blaming others, contradicting each other’s stated policies, and attempting to force a wedge of silence between faculty and students. At every single turn, the dean and every other administrator we interacted with tried to delegitimize and belittle our real concerns, repeatedly framing us as “demanding” simply for advocating for those things the school had already promised us.
As of 5 p.m. on May 10, 2015, after four months, seven meetings that we held in good faith with the administration, and countless emails, we had no idea what MFA faculty we’d be working with for the coming year; we had no idea what the curriculum would be, other than that it would be different from what it was when we enrolled, and that it was in the process of being implemented by administrators outside of our field of study; and finally, we had no idea whether we’d graduate with twice the amount of debt we thought we would graduate with.
Since February 2015, we have been communicating in writing to the provost of the university, the vice provost for Graduate Programs, the dean of the Roski School, and other USC administrators that we could not continue in the program if the funding and curricular promises made during recruitment were not honored; thus, the university is not blindsided by our decision, nor has it been denied ample time and opportunity to remedy these issues with us. Perhaps the university imagined that we would suffer any amount of lies, manipulations, and mistreatment for those shiny degrees.
Let’s not forget about the larger system of inequity that we paid into to try to get our degrees. USC tuition has increased an astounding 92 percent since 2001, compensation for USC’s top eight executives has more than tripled since 2001, and Department of Education data shows that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009.” Adjunct faculty positions—the jobs that freshly minted MFAs usually get, if they’re lucky—are paid at a rate that often does not even reach the federal minimum wage, while these adjuncts are paying off tens of thousands of dollars of student-loan debt. USC follows this trend of supporting a bloated administration with whom students have minimal contact, to the diminishment of everyone else. Our experience has shown that, despite having ultimate power over the program structure and curriculum, the administration has minimal concern for students. Meanwhile, faculty voices are silenced and adjunct faculty expands, affecting their overall ability to advocate for students. In a classic bait and switch, we seven students lost time, money, and trust, and the larger community lost an exemplary funding model that attempted to rectify at least some of these economic disparities. What we experienced is the true “disruption” of this accelerating trend.
We each made life-changing decisions to leave jobs and homes in other parts of the country and the world to work with inspiring faculty and, most of all, have the time and space to grow as artists. We trusted the institution to follow through on its promises. Instead, we became devalued pawns in the university’s administrative games. We feel betrayed, exhausted, disrespected, and cheated by USC of our time, focus, and investment. Whatever artistic work we created this spring semester was achieved in spite of, not because of, the institution. Because the university refused to honor its promises to us, we are returning to the workforce degree-less and debt-full.
A group of seven students is only a tiny part of the larger issues of the corporatization of higher education, the scandal of the economic precarity of adjunct faculty positions, and the looming student-debt bubble. However, the MFA Program we entered in August 2014 did one great thing: it threw us all together, when we might not have crossed paths on our own. We will continue to hold crits ourselves and be involved in each other’s work. We will be staging a series of readings, talks, shows, and events at multiple sites throughout the next year, and will follow with seven weeks of “thesis” shows beginning in April of 2016. Our collective and interdependent force is energizing as we progress toward supportive and malleable spaces conducive to criticality and encouragement. These sites are more important than ever in the current state of economic precarity that reaches far beyond the fates of seven art students. We invite everyone to reach out to us with proposals, invitations, and strategies of their own, dreams not of creating a “better” institution, but devising new spaces for collective weirdness and joy.
Julie Beaufils, Sid Duenas, George Egerton-Warburton, Edie Fake, Lauren Davis Fisher, Lee Relvas, and Ellen Schafer
firstname.lastname@example.org “Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System,” Final Release Data, National Center for Education Statistics, accessed January 2, 2015.  IRS 990 Forms FY 2001–2007, Part 2, Item 25, and Schedule III and IRS 990 Forms FY 2008–2012, Part IX, Line 5.  “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much,” Paul F. Campos, New York Times, April 4, 2015.  See the website of the Adjunct Project  75 percent of the USC faculty is contingent”