Did you hear the one about the entering class of 2014 at USC dropping out? Yes, all seven of them, all together, en masse. Their public statement, I thought, was strong and persuasive, and I hope their statement gets the attention – both within and outside of USC – that it deserves. The students offer that administrators, led by someone with no arts training, created a curriculum and forced it upon the program; the kicker is that no studio visits are to be a part of the curriculum! HUH? The students also report that tuition packages promised when the students were recruited to USC were withdrawn, and it still hasn’t been determined what will be put in its place. Further, it was intuited that these and other changes forced the resignation of the program’s Director, who was not replaced. The resignation and the puzzling curricular changes mean that students don’t even know what their second year program will look like, even as they’re being forced to come up with more of (all of?) the means to pay for it. Students asked for meetings and exchanged emails with administrators for months (where students say they were either lied to or given flim-flam answers), and finally, students say they warned the administration in February that they will take action if no redress is made. That action came this week. Good for them!
Sadly, the changes allegedly being made to USC’s MFA program are not that unique. Just as sadly, protests by faculty and students across the country against changes like these haven’t yet slowed the four horsemen of the US higher ed apocalypse. (1) College and university budgets nationwide are heavily slanted toward admin salaries and away from programming and faculty/staff salaries. (The issues about ‘administrative bloat” are complex, though: see here, and here.) (2) Administrator-designed curricula are being forced upon faculty and programs (whereas faculty are supposed to be the ones who design curriculum). It’s also the case that legislatures are getting into the curriculum game. (3) Tuition hikes, along with the unhealthy reorganization of student aid packages, decrease access and increase competition. And anyone who has noticed the growing insecurity of PhD employment knows that (4) higher education institutions everywhere witness the draining of permanent faculty slots, and those remaining tenure track jobs have wages are just about where they were in 1970; meanwhile, those permanent faculty losses are replaced by marginalized and precariously employed adjuncts teaching without benefits and on insufficient wages – these are 70% of PhDs working in the academy, the fuel on which these institutions are run.
Okay, so technically, this blog post isn’t exactly about inequality as I’ve normally been writing about it. But I argue that this is relevant. Eventually the elimination of intellectual investment in future generations has got to cause permanent gouges in our local and global economy and society. These seven brave former students are canaries in the higher ed coal mines – their demise comes as a warning sign, perhaps, that the whole apparatus might soon blow. Is anyone with real power paying attention?