'Heartbroken': 72 USC alumni write in support of withdrawn MFA students

'We do not want to see this jewel...recklessly discarded': alumni letter supporting withdrawn USC art students

More than six dozen alumni of the Roski School of Art and Design at USC published an open letter in support of the class of MFA students that withdrew from the university in May to protest changes in curriculum, faculty and funding. 

"As alumni of the University of Southern California Roski School of Art and Design’s Master of Fine Arts Program, we are dismayed to hear that Dean Erica Muhl’s actions and lack of support for the Program have caused the entire graduating class of 2016 to withdraw," reads the letter, which was released via email and published on a Tumblr account linked to the students who withdrew. 

"This was an extraordinary and painful action for these graduate students to have taken, and presents evidence of serious wrongdoing and extensive problems in the School," the letter continues. "We do not want to see this jewel of the University recklessly discarded, and neither should the President, Provost or the Board of Trustees of the University of Southern California."

In response to the letter, Roski Vice Dean Amelia Jones states via email to The Times: “The MFA is certainly not being ‘discarded.’ To the contrary, much thought and concern has been put into improving the curriculum and making the funding structure more robust, for the MA Curatorial Practice students (who have not been well funded in the past) as well as the MFAs. (It should be stressed that the curricular changes did not apply to the existing students, including those who withdrew, as they were on the old system.)"

Among the curriculum adjustments Jones references are the rescinding of guaranteed teaching assistant positions (these now require an application process) and changes to the faculty structure. 

"The removal of the program’s commitment to a core faculty of renowned professional artists responsible for ongoing one-on-one interactions," write the alumni, "as well as a rich and diverse lecture series, illustrates a complete disregard for the exceptional qualities of the program, and a lack of knowledge for what these personal and public components mean to artists and the art community."

The signatories to the public letter include prominent USC alumni such as performance artist Emily Mast '09, an artist who has staged work at the L.A. County Museum of Art; Amanda Ross-Ho '06, a well-known sculptor who has had one-woman shows at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago; and Elad Lassry '07, a conceptual artist who works with photography and whose pieces have been shown in museums and galleries in London, New York and Milan.

John Knuth, an L.A. artist who received his MFA from USC in 2005 and who has shown his work around the U.S. as well as Europe, stated in an email that "the collective alumni are heartbroken to see an educational and cultural gem be destroyed."

Knuth estimates that roughly nine out of 10 of the last decade's worth of MFA Roski graduates in studio arts signed on to the letter.

This follows another public letter, published late last month, by current and former Roski faculty in support of the students — including artist A.L. Steiner and curator and scholar John Tain.

"The decision by the first-year MFA class to drop out of school represents a failure by USC to retain and to engage productively with the students it recruited, and thus to meet its pedagogical mission," the letter stated.

Vice dean Jones, however, points out that despite the media attention from the students' withdrawal, USC has high expectations for its incoming class of first-year MFA students. "We have a great group of graduate students coming in this fall," she says. "I’m really excited about the parts of the new curriculum I’ve played a role in, including the ongoing visiting lecturer series, and we’re all committed to giving them as much support as we can as we move forward."

Jud Fine is a tenured professor in the fine art department, where he has worked for 35 years. During his time there, he has also served as studio chair, area head of sculpture and director of the MFA program. He didn't sign the original faculty letter, but reached for comment via email, he writes that he is in "complete support" of the students.

"I can not say what the future of the Roski School is, but I can say that the MFA program as it existed has been eliminated," he writes. "USC's MFA program had been one of the best programs at a research university in the country, attracting the most qualified students and, based on size, graduating a high percentage of practicing artists. The Roski MFA program in art was, in part, based on a high-quality lecture series, student financial support and, most importantly, an accessible faculty committed to the program and the students. In alienating and eliminating this faculty the program was doomed."

Roski's dean Muhl could not be reached for comment, but in an open letter to the students, published on USC's website in late May, she stated that she had "worked hard to accommodate every additional request by the students, and took every possible step to address their concerns." The students' withdrawal, she wrote, left her with "a great sense of loss." She also wrote that she remained "steadfastly committed to the fine arts and fine arts scholarship at Roski."

You can read the full alumni letter at mfanomfa.tumblr.com, a website maintained by the seven MFA students who withdrew in mid-May. And for the full text of Roski dean Erica Muhl's open letter to the USC Roski community see roski.usc.edu/news/deans-letter-to-the-usc-roski.html.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah. 

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