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USC fine arts students drop out to protest ‘unethical treatment’

A USC student holds a sign reading "Student Power" at a protest on campus last year. (Flickr / Dale Chong)

A USC student holds a sign reading “Student Power” at a protest on campus last year. (Flickr / Dale Chong)

Using sit-ins, strikes, building occupation and debt refusal, students on college campuses around the United States, Canada and elsewhere have reached deep into a well-worn toolbox of tactics over the past several years to advance campaigns on everything from budget cuts to divestment from private prisons, fossil fuels and apartheid. On Friday, MFA students at the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design found yet another way to leverage their power: dropping out.

On Friday, all seven members of the prestigious, intimate MFA program released a joint statement explaining their reasons for leaving: “In short, due to the university’s unethical treatment of its students, we, the entire incoming class of 2014, are dropping out of school and dropping back into our expanded communities at large.” Many left jobs and homes in different cities and countries to attend the program, explaining that their choice was not one made lightly.

The group, who have been in negotiations with school administrators since the beginning of 2015, further cite dramatic changes to faculty staffing and curriculum, as well as inconsistencies between the financial aid packages they had been offered — including full tuition assistance in the first year, stipends and teaching assistantships — and those they received. Many were even told that they would need to compete for funding with students in different programs. Despite Roski’s alleged focus on art creation, students reported that they would go entire semesters without a studio visit, being told to focus instead on other areas. In their statement, the students called it “a bizarre choice for a studio-­art MFA.”

“Whatever artistic work we created this spring semester was achieved in spite of, not because of, the institution,” they wrote. “Because the university refused to honor its promises to us, we are returning to the workforce degree-less and debt-full.” At this weekend’s USC graduation ceremonies, all but one member of Roski’s class of 2015 boycotted in solidarity with what they call the #USC7.

The withdrawal comes as, nationally, undergraduates in the class of 2015 become history’s most indebted, a title that — in all likelihood — they will pass on to next year’s fledgling alumni. According to their statement, Roski’s prospective class of 2016 had received no teaching experience in their first year, and were the first since 2011 to take on debt as a result of their enrollment. Tuition at USC writ large has increased 92 percent since 2001, while the school’s top eight administrators have seen their pay triple in the same time.

Despite the fee hikes, USC’s arts programs have recently been involved in a number of lucrative public-private partnerships. Erica Muhl, dean of the school and a musician by training, also heads up the Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy, made possible by a $70 million donation from Iovine, a producer, and Young, the Interscope Records co-founder otherwise known as Dr. Dre. The university, as well, recently began hosting a co-branded master’s program with Wired magazine centered around design, tech and business, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Of the changes, one Roski faculty member who wished to remain anonymous told the arts blog Hyperallergic that the program has taken up, “an economic vision of austerity and neo-liberalism that is one-sided and short term, and does not take into account the symbolic value of programs in the humanities.”

Artnet News reports that the students plan to continue working together in some fashion in the Los Angeles area, as they apply for jobs and different programs, “devising new spaces for collective weirdness and joy.” It may be difficult to imagine an entire undergraduate class dropping out in protest of a school’s policies, but actions like that of the USC7 could pave the way for increasingly dramatic collective action, as higher education becomes more expensive and inaccessible.