MFA pro­gram with one stu­dent

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Carolina A. Mi­randa carolina.mi­randa@latimes.com

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.

Damian Do­var­ganes AP

USC ROSKI School Dean Erica Muhl says she is “deeply com­mit­ted” to its MFA pro­gram.

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