M.F.A. Exodus

Entire class quits program at the University of Southern California.

May 18, 2015
Illustration for open letter by M.F.A. students leaving USC

Seven students, making up the entire first-year class in the visual arts master of fine arts program at the University of Southern California, issued an open letter saying that they were quitting.

While students drop out of graduate and professional programs all the time, and the program is a small one, losing an entire class of students is unusual -- and attracted immediate attention.

The students say that since they enrolled, in the fall of 2014, the program has changed in ways that have led valued faculty members to leave, that have reduced the value of the financial aid packages they have received, and that have left them questioning the commitment of the university to the program. They say that they would have graduated -- and now leave without a degree -- with debt that they believe they were promised they would not need, and without some of the teaching experience they expected to pick up. And they say that the good financial packages for which the program had been known were a big part of the original attraction to USC.

"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," the letter said. "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."

University officials said that they were aware of the concerns of some students and had been working to address them.

Erica Muhl, dean of the USC Roski School of Art and Design, issued a statement Friday in which she expressed "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, specifically having to do with financial aid and curriculum." Muhl said that the program the students were leaving "remains one of the most generously funded programs in the country. These students would have received a financial package worth at least 90 percent of tuition costs in scholarships and T.A.-ships."

Specifically, she said that USC "honored all the terms in the students’ offer letters." And she said that curricular changes were not as dramatic as suggested by the students, but that "changes are made to the curriculum on an ongoing basis."

The dispute comes at a time that USC -- long considered strong in terms of its arts programs -- has been adding arts programs in high-profile areas. In 2013, USC announced a $70 million gift from Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young (the latter better known as Dr. Dre) to create the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business of Innovation. An article in The Los Angeles Times suggested that tensions have come to a head because of "concern among some students and faculty that USC might be marginalizing the work of the fine arts department in favor of creating buzzier academic programs that draw the tech set."

Via email, DeWitt Godfrey, professor of art at Colgate University and president of the College Art Association, said that there are tensions at other art colleges that may be similar to what is going on at USC. But he argued against viewing art curricular changes as either/or choices.

"I have heard at institutions (art schools) that combine art and design that design enrollments are up, and technology is used by designers in different ways than artists, those shifts are disrupting the old hierarchy that privileges the fine arts," he said. "Both sides have much to offer the other and we should make more of the intertwined histories rather than amplify false differences."


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