One of the country’s most influential film schools is having a tough week.
Members of the American Film Institute’s faculty and administration are voicing their support for AFI Dean Jan Schuette following a letter from the school’s faculty union Tuesday calling for Schuette’s resignation. The letter came two weeks after a union vote of “no confidence” in Schuette’s leadership that passed 35-8, with roughly half of the 87-person faculty not voting. At least 30 faculty members also signed a letter last October expressing deep concern about Schuette’s leadership and the direction of the conservatory.
Three faculty members from AFI’s editing discipline have resigned in recent weeks, including 21-year veteran Howard Smith, who told IndieWire in an email that his resignation was directly in response to changes instituted by Schuette. “I resigned as Senior Lecturer in the Editing Discipline a week ago because of the Dean’s harsh decimation of the Editing Department, which he has pursued for the past year,” Smith wrote. “It has been very difficult.”
Other members of the faculty to resign include editing lecturers Stan Stalfas and Farrel Levy and screenwriting instructor Tom Rickman. Tuesday’s letter said six faculty members have resigned in total, “with more likely to follow.”
AFI’s faculty union claims that Schuette, who joined AFI from the German Film and Television Academy in 2014, has fired AFI faculty members without cause, cut off communication with other faculty members and undermined the curriculum of its students, known as “fellows.”
“Dean Schuette’s history of poor unilateral decisions; his routine dismissal of faculty input; his disregard for shared governance and academic freedom by imposing changes to curriculum, infrastructure and the admissions process without faculty consultation; his discouraging of collegial discourse and debate by canceling faculty meetings; and his recent transparently retaliatory firings of long term faculty members Phil Linson, Bob Mandel, Marie Cantin, Andy Wolk and Kevin Jones without due process has systematically eroded the faith, trust and confidence of faculty in his ability to lead us effectively,” the faculty union wrote in the letter to AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale.
Rob Spera, a lecturer at AFI and interim president of the school’s chapter of the American Association University Professors, claims that Schuette’s firing of five faculty members was in direct retaliation to their successful efforts to form a faculty union for collective bargaining with the AAUP last spring.
Marshall Herskovitz, co-chair of the AFI board of directors, refutes that claim, saying that four of the five faculty members were not fired, but simply did not have their contracts renewed, a common situation at AFI, which reviews every faculty member’s contract on an annual basis. “There are always changes in personnel for all sorts of reasons,” Herskovitz said. “There was one faculty member who was fired, but that person was fired for cause and the cause concerns circumstances that go back years that are very well documented and have nothing to do with unionization.”
Herskovitz said that Schuette did make mistakes in his communication practices with the faculty prior to their letter of complaint last October, but has since worked to rectify the situation, holding more than 50 one-on-one meetings with faculty members. For some faculty members, however, the damage had already been done, according to Herskovitz. “I think it has to do with small moments that took place where people felt they weren’t consulted or their opinions weren’t listened to and they were angry about it, and they were right to be angry,” he said. “For many people, their opinion was solidified at that point and they don’t feel any reason to change it.” Herskovitz added that he unequivocally supports the dean, calling him “a great leader.”
One of the changes that Schuette instituted at AFI was introducing the first ever exit interviews with fellows after graduation. At the end of his first year as Dean, the interviews revealed that a certain number of fellows were unhappy with their experience at AFI and felt that they had not been challenged enough, a situation Schuette told the faculty was an urgent matter that needed to be addressed, according to Herskovitz.
“I heard faculty members say, ‘What’s he talking about? We won all the Student Academy Awards last year,’ as if the place was already good enough,” Herskovitz said. “If people chose to be angry about that, that’s their business, but I fully support the dean having a mandate to make sure the school is as challenging and excellent as it possibly can be.”
One AFI executive who asked not to be identified attributed the dissent surrounding Schuette to a small but vocal group of faculty members that had simply grown accustomed to former Dean Bob Mandel’s style of management. “What’s happening here is a natural resistance to change by some folks who have been here for a long period of time and who have not experienced change,” the person said.
AFI has six total disciplines: Directing, Screenwriting, Producing, Editing, Cinematography and Production Design. Stephen Lighthill, Chair of AFI’s Cinematography Department and a member for the executive board of the International Cinematographer’s Guild, said there was institutional reluctance to bringing in a new leader from outside AFI before Schuette even arrived at the conservatory. “It was expressed to me outright that people had wished a person would have been hired from within. So many of us wanted to collaborate with the new dean, and a few didn’t,” Lighthill said. “People within the institution have to get their head around the fact that there is a lot of support for the dean on the part of the cinematography discipline and other disciplines.”
One of just seven full-time faculty members at AFI, Lighthill fully supports the faculty’s decision to unionize, but called the union’s no-confidence vote a “nuclear option” that was rushed despite requests for a public meeting of the union before taking such a vote. “They’ve been asked to come to the bargaining table and they’re not doing it,” Lighthill said. “They’re trying this in the court of public opinion, which is really bad for a small institution like this.”
AFI issued a statement in response to the union’s letter Tuesday saying the conservatory “embraces change to ensure its peerless educational experience evolves with the art form. This march to the future is often driven by passionate disagreement, and we have received conflicting opinions from within the faculty and are currently ensuring that all voices are heard in this process.” The conservatory had previously issued a statement on Monday saying the AFI board and administration “stand with the Dean of the AFI Conservatory.”
One of the apparent silver linings in the situation surrounding the Dean is that the fellows of AFI’s 2016-2017 school year, which started Monday, have been largely insulated from the conflict, which isn’t expected to prevent the school from functioning, Lighthill said. “We’ve said to the fellows that this is on the level of gossip at this point. We’re just trying to get back to work and do a good job.”
Herskovitz said that the fellows he’s observed “support the dean and really appreciate his insight and wisdom.” He added that the unrest among the faculty is a serious issue that needs to be resolved, but by no means unprecedented in the school’s history. “If you have a faculty made up entirely of artists, you can just assume that there’s always going to be a lot of passion, drama and passionate disagreement,” Herskovitz said. “This has always been true.”
Additional reporting by Anne Thompson.