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Dean Erica Muhl's open letter to the 'USC Seven' and debating the future of art school

As USC deals with fallout from withdrawal of MFA class, a debate rages about the place of art in education

The withdrawal of an entire class of seven MFA students from USC's Roski School of Art and Design almost two weeks ago has reverberated around the art world and academic circles — with the news generating a raft of Internet chatter about everything from the corporatization of education to the future of MFA programs as we know them. 

One thing's for sure, it doesn't appear that this story is going away any time soon. Back-and-forth responses between the school's dean and the students have appeared on separate websites. On Tuesday, the students told me via email that they will likely meet this week to discuss Muhl's latest letter and whether they will respond to it.

Last Thursday, Roski dean Erica Muhl published a lengthy open letter on the university's website outlining her position on the conflict. In it, she states that she is "saddened" by the students' decision to leave the program and says that the university will not record their action as a withdrawal.

"Instead, we have granted each of you a two-year leave of absence," she writes. "If you let us know that you wish to rejoin the school before fall classes commence this year, or before the date that students are admitted next year or the year after, we will welcome and celebrate your return."

The students, all of whom were candidates for master's degrees in studio art, announced their withdrawal via a group letter on an arts education website roughly 10 days ago in protest to changes in faculty, curriculum and funding.

Among the reasons cited by the students for their withdrawal were the abrupt resignation of a key faculty member along with changes to required coursework — a shift that eliminated studio visits over the course of the summer term. The students also protested that teaching assistant positions (or "TA-ships"), which they say had been guaranteed during recruitment, would instead be awarded on a competitive basis via an application process.

Muhl was not available for comment on this story, but addresses some of these issues in her open letter:

"I would also like to address and correct misinformation you may have read. No changes were made to the program after the students arrived and registered at USC. The only change made, months prior to their registration, was a course substitution in the usual summer offerings. This was necessary due to the difficulty of offering a lecture series in the summer, and limited faculty availability. Most importantly, the MFA program now and going forward continues to prioritize studio visits with internationally renowned resident and guest faculty, and to provide every opportunity for individual and group critique."

Muhl also highlights the school's scholarship funding programs ("among the highest in the country") and discusses the recent addition of new faculty (whom she does not name).

The students on Friday posted a group refutation to an earlier statement by Muhl to a Tumblr account titled "MFA No MFA."

"Resolution was never reached, despite our repeated and consistent good-faith efforts to assure our promised funding and curriculum with the Dean and Vice Provost," they state. "We made it clear that we were only requesting fulfillment of the University's stated terms upon which we entered the MFA Program."

One of the big sticking points was the question of the teaching assistant positions. 

"In an effort to recruit our cohort," the students write, "the Roski Administration represented to us that if we enrolled, we would receive second-year TA-ships, without application or qualification."

The TA-ships are tied to the all-important question of funding: TAs not only have their tuition waived, they also receive a stipend and medical benefits, a position that drastically cuts tuition costs and debt load.

An offer letter sent to one of the seven students in the spring of 2014 states that TA-ships are awarded based on "satisfactory progress," while an archived version of the Roski website from that period states: "No special application is necessary for these awards; all applicants are automatically considered."

"Each of us reasonably relied upon that representation to make a major life and career choice, to our detriment," state the seven students in their Tumblr post.

Muhl did not address the question of TA-ships in the open letter released last week. However, in her initial statement on the matter, she wrote:

"The school honored all the terms in the students' offer letters. We offered the students scholarship support with an option to apply for a TA-ship in their second year. Subject to the students meeting the standard requirements of basic preparedness and satisfactory progress, they would have been first in line for TA-ships on their return for a second year (except for one student who already had full financial support)."

Will Muhl's efforts to reach out cause the students to reconsider their action? While they've agreed to meet about the dean's letter, the students said in their email to The Times on Tuesday that their position hasn't changed: "We stand by our drop out and the information presented in our fact sheet" — the one posted on Tumblr.

In the meantime, the case of the so-called USC Seven has garnered national attention, reported on in USA Today, the New York TimesPacific Standard and New York Magazine's Vulture.

Late last week,  the New Yorker chimed in with a smart think piece on the subject, by Rhode Island School of Design professor Roger White, who discussed the fact that USC is now home to more entrepreneurally minded arts programs, such as the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, which integrates design, technology and management.

"The situation at USC is a small scene in a much larger drama, one concerning the place of art in the new, more corporate university order," he writes. "Traditionally, art education has been a little too vocational to fit in with the rest of the humanities. But lately it seems that art education isn’t vocational enough. Or, at least, it’s out of step with the pedagogical model to which universities are turning in an effort to make their arts offerings both more alluring and more lucrative."

As the USC students and the administration go back and forth over what promises were and were not kept, a larger debate now rages about the future of art in education.

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah.

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