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An Entire MFA Class Dropped Out to Protest the Changing Face of Arts Education

Academic programs meant to foster creativity are re-orienting toward more entrepreneurial endeavors—and alienating students in the process.
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(Photo: Nagy-Bagoly Arpad/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Nagy-Bagoly Arpad/Shutterstock)

A group of art students at the University of Southern California are giving new meaning to the counterculture rallying cry of "turn on, tune in, and drop out": An entire class of first year students at USC’s Roski School of Art quit the prestigious MFA program last week in protest of changes to the curriculum.

The core of the argument is financial. The students have accused the university of "unethical treatment," listing, among other organizational and administrative changes, a decrease to the program’s tuition assistance—implemented only after the students matriculated. "[W]e have no idea what MFA faculty we’d be working with for the coming year," the students said in a statement. "We have no idea what the curriculum would be, other than that it will be different from what it was when we enrolled and is currently being implemented by administrators outside of our field of study; and finally, we have no idea whether we’d graduate with twice the amount of debt we thought we would graduate with."

To an outside observer with a superficial understanding of art school curriculum (you paint stuff, yes?), the mass protest seems tantamount to whining about a bureaucracy that virtually every college student has to cope with. Besides, with demand for designers and artists on the rise, art graduates aren’t doing that poorly: Despite drastic declines in National Endowment for the Arts funding, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projected in 2011 that jobs in the arts would grow faster than the overall economy. Similarly, a recent survey from the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project suggests that arts degrees are actually paying off, with recent graduates reporting that they had "found meaningful employment, are satisfied with their lives, and are pleased that they chose to go to an arts school."

Art may be a vocation to students, but art education is quickly becoming vocational school.

While this may seem like a largely vanilla grad school gripe, there’s also a deep philosophical streak running through this protest. The students are accusing the university of didactic malfeasance, alleging that the school’s administration "did not value the Program’s faculty structure, pedagogy or standing in the arts community." The core of the protest isn’t about California’s strip-mining of the humanities, but that the idea of art school in our post-recession economy is more fixated on producing marketable job skills rather than nurturing the creative sense. Art may be a vocation to students, but art education is quickly becoming vocational school.

There’s certainly evidence to that claim: Hyperallergic reports that the rebellion comes as the university welcomes the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, a $70 million gift from music industry fixtures ostensibly focused on "art, technology, and entrepreneurship" and boasting the techno-utopian promise of "The Degree Is in Disruption." The establishment of the Academy follows the appointment of new Roski school dean Erica Muhl, a music veteran who "wears other hats at the university," the Los Angeles Times reports: "Soon after her arrival as dean, Muhl oversaw a name change: from the Roski School of Fine Arts to the Roski School of Art and Design."

The Academy is a symbol of the academic re-orientation the students are lashing out against. "[F]aculty voices are silenced and adjunct faculty expands, affecting their overall ability to advocate for students," they write. "We seven students lost time, money, and trust in a classic bait-­and-­switch, and the larger community lost an exemplary funding model that attempted to rectify at least some of these economic disparities. What we experienced is the true ‘disruption’ of this accelerating trend."

For these (former) students, the numerical "success" of arts school in the face of economic belt-tightening actually accentuates a pedagogical problem: Economic pressures are forcing arts programs to re-brand themselves toward "entrepreneurship" and "disruption," rather than the artistic project that elite MFA programs like USC’s are known for. In many ways, the departure of these seven students isn’t simply an indictment of USC’s troubling administrative practices, but of the sad pressures that MFA programs face under economic pressure. The seven certainly see their departure as a call to arms: "A group of seven students," they write, "is only a tiny part of the larger issues of the corporatization of higher education, the scandal of the economic precarity of adjunct faculty positions, and the looming student-­debt bubble."

Despite growing demand for arts graduates in design firms and even large corporations, diminishing arts funding is forcing humanities programs to focus now on producing marketable, work-ready graduates, rather than encouraging the sort of education process that fosters creativity and encourages the artistic development of its student. Observers may dismiss the actions of the USC seven as a stunt designed to bring the administration to the bargaining table, but the underlying message will likely resonate far beyond the university campus.