How USC’s Roski Art School Lost All Its MFA Students

The Roski School is fighting back after its lone MFA student quit, citing a 'downward spiral of predatory, wrongheaded, and woefully oblivious decision making' on the part of the school.

The small but esteemed Roski School of Art and Design at the University of Southern California has dramatically and publicly fallen from grace in the past year, after all seven students in the 2016 studio art MFA class dropped out last May in protest of diminished funding packages and forced faculty departures. 

Now, the only remaining student in the MFA program has also withdrawn from the Roski School. 

After one year in the program, HaeAhn Kwon announced her withdrawal in an embittered, punishing letter addressed to USC provost Michael Quick, citing a "downward spiral of predatory, wrongheaded, and woefully oblivious decision making" on the part of the school; a "delusional" administration and "lack of structure."  

A representative at USC provided The Daily Beast with a copy of both 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 echoed the disappointments expressed by the seven MFA students who dropped out en masse--namely, that the program failed to provide the resources they were promised when they applied.

In a statement explaining their decision to collectively drop out, the students claim that the MFA program was once "exceptionally well-funded" so that its students could graduate with teaching experience and without debt.

These financial resources were part of the program's appeal, but they allege that they were greatly diminished after they were admitted. 

Kwon was immediately dissatisfied 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 midterm, no finals, nor any review of any kind for my studio practice, which is an essential purpose of an MFA degree in visual art," she writes.

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

Romans fired back in her response that, after meeting with Kwon in January, Kwon was "still eager to avail herself of the fellowship, which paid all of her tuition, educational fees, room and board (including those of her spouse), provided a travel insurance and more." 

Kwon did not return requests for further comment from The Daily Beast. 

Both Kwon and the students who withdrew from the program last year have blamed many of school's failures on Dean Erica Muhl, who was appointed to the position in 2013 and has no experience in the visual arts.

Dean Muhl is a tenured professor of Fine Arts and Composition at USC's Thornton Music School, according to a lengthy bio on USC's website (a shortened version describes her as an "expert in music copyright infringement, plagiarism, music composition and orchestration"). 

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Faculty members who have left Roski since Erica Muhl was appointed Dean in 2013 say the art school has taken a backseat to the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation.

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

Muhl did not return an emailed request for comment. 

When compared to many of the protests on elite, undergraduate campuses in the past year, complaints from MFA students at Roski seem eminently reasonable.

Both are reacting to what educators have referred to as a "business model" approach to higher education.

Writing for Inside Higher Ed in 2009, a former vice president for academic affairs at LaGuardia Community College of 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 faculty and students, one which might have a deleterious impact on the very thing--teaching--which 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, the MFA students at Roski are responding to specific changes in the program which have led to its collapse--to the "the plummeting of the school's rankings, which now rest at sixty-nine," as Kwon put it.  

In a nod to last year's petition calling for Dean Muhl's ouster, Kwon

writes: "The question remains, how much is USC willing to lose in faculty, students, reputation, and integrity in order for this dean—a composer with no knowledge or professional awareness of art or design—to maintain control of Roski?"

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