By Danielle Susi
When I am feeling bored or boring I take the bus north to The Home Depot and walk around. I rarely buy anything and mostly just enjoy pushing an empty cart around because I like the rhythm of wheel-sound. I am happiest in high ceilings and the smell of cut plywood. Near the tile and the power tools I tell many helpful orange-aproned individuals that I’m just browsing.
I am between books right now—reading too many simple Internet posts and not enough in-your-hands literature. There are a few books circulating in and out of my workbag and nightstand, like Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony, and God, and Emilia Phillip’s chapbook Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike. I’m in a terrible cycle of reading ten or fifteen pages of a book then putting it back on my shelf. Everything I’m reading is good—great, even, but I can’t seem to commit. I’m not ready to open myself back up to the place where a book can make you raw, so for now, the high ceilings of the Internet will do.
I’m very interested in higher education policy and in radical movements on university campuses. When I read that the entire first-year MFA class at The University of Southern California dropped out, I was mildly shocked and a little thrilled.
The former-MFA students cite this reasoning in the first paragraph of their official statement:
We are a group of seven artists who made the decision to attend USC Roski School of Art and Design’s MFA program based on the faculty, curriculum, program structure, and funding packages. We are a group of seven artists who have been forced by the school’s dismantling of each of these elements to dissolve our MFA candidacies. 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.
Kanye West, whose first album, College Dropout, is primarily a critique of the state of higher education, received an honorary doctorate from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago this month. I was there. It was great. His speech was short and mostly humble.
In the weeks leading up to the ceremony some graduating students and folks on social media were not pleased, referring to the granting of the honorary degree as an insult to the school’s prestige and dignity. However, with examples like the mass dropout at USC, we can be sure that the decision of to whom these degrees are given is certainly not the source of the destruction of higher education.
A Jacobin Mag article states:
If there is an affront to academia, it is not the standard practice of granting honorary degrees—and certainly not to a musical virtuoso like West—but the increasingly abhorrent working conditions for educators, the artificially bloated costs for students, and the overall commodification of the institution.
The former-MFA candidates’ official statement continues by citing that they had no idea what faculty they would be working with, what the curriculum would be, and whether they would be graduating with massive debt that they did not anticipate. The statement continues:
Let’s not forget about the larger system of inequity that we paid into to try to get our degrees. USC tuition has increased an astounding 92 percent since 2001, compensation for USC’s top eight executives has more than tripled since 2001, and Department of Education data shows that “administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009.” Adjunct faculty positions—the jobs that freshly minted MFAs usually get, if they’re lucky—are paid at a rate that often does not even reach the federal minimum wage, while these adjuncts are paying off tens of thousands of dollars of student-loan debt.
Inevitably, this is a conversation almost all post-secondary students are faced with, if not affected by: going into thousands and thousands of dollars of debt to afford an education they will likely need to pay off in installments for over a dozen years while administrator salaries increase and adjunct salaries decrease—the salaries these graduates are fighting for. As the statement claims “A group of seven students is only a tiny part of the larger issues of the corporatization of higher education,” but ideally, the dissolution of the USC MFA program will bring more attention to the faltering conditions of the higher education ethos.
Danielle Susi is the author of the chapbook The Month in Which We Are Born (dancing girl press, 2015). Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Knee-Jerk Magazine, Hobart, and The Rumpus, among many other publications. She is a columnist for pioneertown and Entropy; a contributor to American Microreviews & Interviews, The Conversant, and The Angle; and the co-editor of HOUND. She received her MFA in writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Newcity has named her among the Top 5 Emerging Chicago Poets. Find her online at daniellesusi.com.