USC MFA Students Withdraw En Masse

The LA Times reported a couple days ago that an entire class of USC MFA students has withdrawn from the university. While the whole class was only a handful of students, I find this to be a very interesting case. The students claim that after they matriculated, a great deal of things about the program changed and that they all decided that the changes were too great to continue and finish the program. Apparently, there were a number of changes to the curriculum and the faculty. Additionally, the students felt that TA opportunities that had been promised were not actually being offered.

Without knowing all the finer details of the story, it sounds like both sides may have some valid points. USC is correct when they say that curriculum changes and arrivals and departures of faculty members are things that happen everywhere. This is obviously true, and while it is perfectly valid for a student to withdraw if, for example, the faculty member that they were to work with leaves the institution, it also isn’t in any way newsworthy.

What the students are alleging is much more serious than that. They seem to be alleging that the entire program has been revamped so that the program that they joined effectively no longer exists. If true, this is much more troubling. If USC wants to remake the program, it ought to have an obligation to either wait until the current students graduate to make the changes or to help them transfer to equivalent programs. The fact that the new director of the program has no background in fine arts suggests that the students’ version of the events may in fact be the truth. Again, none of this would be a problem if USC openly stated what they were doing. They do have the right to decide what programs they want to offer. However, they need to make their plans clear to prospective students.

Once again assuming that the students’ claims are true, this also highlights some problems with how some sectors of higher education are changing. Focusing on things like “interdisciplinary” cooperation between different academic programs can easily end up damaging rather than enhancing the original programs in order to garner some press coverage about a new “innovative” academic program.  I would guess that the joint USC/Conde Nast master’s program (though it’s institutionally separate from the MFA) will fall into the damaging category. It looks good to the press and generates a lot of buzz but probably doesn’t actually serve the students very well. Furthermore, I wasn’t really aware that Conde Nast and were respected enough to be partners for a reasonably prestigious university like USC, and I would fear that such a program would really be a long and expensive job interview for a single company that will only take the top one or two students. I think there are so many possible issues with direct corporate influence on an academic program that no university that’s really serious about its academics should even consider this kind of deal. There are reasons why universities typically have policies that donors’ money is welcome but their influence is not.