MFA program with one student
The dean of USC’s Roski School of Art and Design talks about changes that provoked an academic exodus.
Can a major university art school program continue if it has only one student?
Ever since the entire 2016 class of seven studio arts MFA students withdrew from USC’s Roski School of Art and Design in May over changes to faculty, curriculum and funding, many have wondered about the future of the school’s master of fine arts program.
In an exclusive interview with The Times, Erica Muhl, dean of the Roski School, reveals that for the fall semes- ter set to begin in less than two months, only one incoming student is enrolled in the studio art MFA program’s class of 2017.
Muhl, however, is undaunted. She says the university is committed to maintaining the program that has long produced internationally known artists, including Paul McCarthy, Amanda Ross- Ho and Elad Lassry.
Until now, Muhl, who joined Roski as interim dean in 2012 and became dean in 2013, has issued only a couple of public statements on the matter using the university’s website. More than 70 alum- ni of the program made their own public statement in an open letter critical of “reckless changes” to the program, involving core faculty, artist studio visits and guaranteed teaching assistant positions for the MFA students.
During a brief telephone conversation, which has been edited for space and f low, Muhl discusses the changes to the MFA program and her vision going forward. The Roski MFA program has been known as a strong studio- based program. Why were changes made?
Our MFA has always and will continue to provide a studio- based experience. But we want students to benefit not just from what Roski can offer but what all of USC can offer: all of our faculty in the arts and humanities and social sciences, the entire universitywide network. We had to open avenues for the students to interact with other students and faculty at USC. This would happen by creating electives — and by greater interactions with our other MA students, such as curatorial practices. ... My vision is to broaden Roski’s reach so that students have the benefit of interacting with those other areas more effectively but, more importantly, so that the university has the benefit of interacting with our students. Why do you think you only have one student for fall?
The negative publicity may have affected recruitment efforts. But we have an incredibly strong program and we will continue to support it. We are going to support an International Artist Fellow [ a fully funded position] who will attend in the fall. We are looking to pause recruitment and then continue to recruit at a later date. Is that a nice way of fading out the studio arts program?
I am deeply committed, deeply committed to the MFA. We will begin recruiting this fall, so we are hoping to have a very robust class. [ For the incoming MA in curatorial studies,] there are eight students enrolled. That’s a robust class for that program.
All of the salient aspects of the [ studio arts] program remain in the program. That includes the ability to access, on a regular basis, not just core faculty but also high- profile visiting artists. We’ve increased that ability going forward. We’ve added a deeper dive with our visiting artists in the graduate lecture series by adding a seminar- type session. We’ve added a new program, a resident artists and scholars program, which will bring artists in residence.
We’ve had good feedback on this, the ability to hear and see and talk with artists, but also curators, critics and scholars — some of whom do studio visits. That is part of the program we intend to continue. The other element is that we’re one of the few programs in the country that has built a vibrant critical studies curriculum at the graduate level. How will the faculty work with this one MFA student? Will there be dedicated core faculty attached to the program? Or will the student be added to other departments?
Core faculty in the MFA program always taught undergraduate as well, so that is still the same. We still have a dedicated core of faculty in the MFA. I have not altered that. Core faculty were always responsible for studio visits. They’re also an important part of envisioning the team, and they craft the entire experience for every MFA student. Also, we have a very strong group of adjunct faculty for the MFA as well. The goal is a strong collaboration so that the MFA experience is quite unified.
This will be one fantastic experience for the International Art Fellow. I’ve spoken with her. She’s really looking forward to interacting with the master’s students as part of her cohort. In addition to being the Roski dean, you are director of the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, which has a creative component but is also entrepreneurially minded with technology and business elements. How does this fit with what Roski does?
It doesn’t fit into the Roski School. It’s a separate entity. It’s one that we’re very proud of and we feel is very important. But the philosophy behind Iovine and Young has nothing to do with the philosophy behind the Roski School. I’m a classically trained artist. I deeply believe in traditions and depth and what we have created here at Roski. And I am committed to maintaining that core. The MFA program has been under the guidance of an interim director. Will it have its own director?
We just made a significant hire. But I can’t announce it yet. We’ll announce that in the fall. All of this comes at a time when some have been critical of the corporatization of academia — of programs that are industry- friendly and get away from traditional courses of liberal arts study that are more about critical thinking.
As a dean, I’ve never been given any instruction and I’ve never seen any real philosophy like that at play at USC. Our goal is to create excellence in everything that we do. Always as a dean, I always have my eye on the feasibility of everything that we do and being able to fund unique and special programs.
USC ROSKI School Dean Erica Muhl says she is “deeply committed” to its MFA program.