Claiming that “the AFI Conservatory is on the brink of unraveling,” a majority of the famed film school’s faculty has called for the firing of its dean. The move comes a day after Deadline reported that a wave of faculty firings and resignations had rocked the school as it began a new term Tuesday.
The union representing the instructors said “a vast majority of faculty” at the school has voted “no confidence” in the leadership of Dean Jan Schuette and requested that he immediately be “relieved of his duties and responsibilities.”
In a statement, the school said it “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.”
On October, 30 members of the faculty signed a petition expressing their concerns about Schuette’s leadership. In April, the faculty voted overwhelmingly to unionize. According to the union, the American Association of University Professors, the faculty’s main concern is one of “shared governance – having a meaningful voice in the direction of the institution.” The vote was 54-7.
In June, five faculty members who’d been involved in the unionizing campaign were fired. Rob Spera, a lecturer at the school and the interim president of the local chapter of the AAUP, said he believes that the firings of his fellow union organizers is a classic example of retaliation. “As interim president, I was the most visible, so it wouldn’t make sense for them to fire me,” he said. “The others were very vocal, and they were instrumental in the union movement. They were key leaders – we all were. In the past nine years, three people were let go. Then, seven weeks after we unionized, the current dean fired five people who were the top union organizers. In fact, they were the ones who inspired the movement back in October.”
Asked if the union is planning to file a retaliation complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, Spera said: “I believe that’s going to take place. That’s in the process. I think it’s crying out for it.”
Producer Marshall Herskovitz, an AFI alumnus who co-chairs the AFI board of directors, strongly disagrees. “It was not retaliation,” he told Deadline. “No one in the administration has in any way tried to resist unionization. There has only been an absolute embrace of the desire to unionize. The administration reached out and offered to help in any way to facilitate the process. I myself am a member of four different guilds and strongly believe in the importance of unions. And AFI is now beginning the process of working out a contract with the newly unionized faculty. It always takes some time, and entails negotiations and conversations on a plethora of issues. And the board of AFI welcomes this change along with all the other changes that are a necessary part of creating a great film school.”
As for the firings, Herskovitz said: “Only one person was fired for cause, and that had nothing to do with unionization but rather with issues that go back several years. And the administration stands by that decision. The other four people simply did not have their contracts renewed, which happens every year at AFI. There was nothing new or different about the fact that four faculty members’ contracts were not renewed. It was not retaliation. The strongest and most vocal proponents of union organization are still teaching on the faculty at AFI.”
One of those axed was Schuette’s immediate predecessor, former dean Robert Mandel, who’d stayed on at the school as a senior lecturer. Others let go were director Andy Wolk; editor Phil Linson, the school’s vice dean of production and post-production; and producers Marie Cantin and Kevin Jones, the Conservatory’s head of creative mentors.
Last week, four longtime faculty members in the school’s editing program resigned in protest.
In a letter today to AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale, the opposing faculty said that “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.”
Today’s letter claims that “Schuette’s actions are in direct contrast with AFI’s mission and values, as well as its culture of collaboration and fair dealing. Moreover, his leadership through faculty exclusion, fear, and intimidation has created hostile workplace conditions and a disruption in normal operations negatively impacting the educational experience of the fellows.”
Herskovitz, however, said Schuette has his full support. “I stand by the dean,” he said. “I think the dean is an incredibly intelligent and passionate filmmaker himself with a great understanding of how to inspire young filmmakers to become their best. I hope we can find a resolution that allows all parties to feel at least reasonably content. In the meantime, our priority is to the Fellows and their experience at the Conservatory. I can tell you, having been there yesterday, that the place is vibrant and inspiring and filled with excitement. And I am committed to making sure that that experience for the fellows is not diminished.
“It’s in the nature of artists to be extremely passionate about what they do,” he added. “There has never been any question that the dean and the faculty want nothing more than to make the AFI the greatest film school in the world. There’s just disagreement about how to do it. I understand that there is real and passionate opposition to the dean, but our independent research led us to believe that that opposition was not across the board. In fact, many faculty members strongly support the dean. It’s also important to note that communication issues that were raised in the October letter from the faculty were addressed very aggressively and the dean has made substantial efforts to improve his relationship with the faculty, including more than 50 one-on-one meetings with faculty members.”
One of the instructors who resigned last week complained that Schuette runs the school as if it were a “dictatorial South American regime” – a perception, Herskovitz said, that “has to be seen as a manifestation of the passion I referred to among the faculty, rather than an accurate reflection of reality at AFI. This is a complicated situation that will be resolved by the collegial efforts of all parties involved.”
Stephen Lighthill, head of the cinematography discipline and a former president of ASC, also stands by Schuette. “I think the dean is doing a good job,” he told Deadline. “The previous dean was slow in making changes, and change was overdue here, so I’m supportive of the changes that Jan has introduced. Anyone who walked in the front door in 2014 to take over the dean’s job would have faced a lot of resistance. I think one of his initial initiatives, which was to introduce exit interviews with second-year students, revealed that we had some problems in the way we were producing thesis films and relating to Fellows, and I think that that revealed the necessity of changes that had to be made in second-year production. And that’s the root of the disagreement within the faculty that we’re dealing with here today.”
And, like Herskovitz, Lighthill also maintains union activity had nothing to do with with the staff changes. “I have been a member of the Camera Local my entire life, and I am a strong unionist and I support unionizing here at AFI. This has nothing to do with retaliation against those unionizing. It has to do with competence on the job.”