A wave of faculty firings and resignations has thrown the AFI Conservatory into turmoil as the famed Los Angeles-based film school begins a new term today. A longtime senior lecturer who resigned last week compared the administration of Jan Schuette, the film school’s dean since June 2014, to a “dictatorial South American regime.” In the last two months, five veteran instructors have been fired and four more have resigned in protest.
Faculty unrest has been brewing at the school since Schuette was named dean succeeding Emmy-winning director Robert Mandel, who stayed on as a member of the faculty after guiding the film school for nine years. Mandel, whose film credits include School Ties, was one of those fired.
In October 2015, 35 faculty members signed a letter to AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale complaining about Schuette’s management style. One of those who signed the letter told Deadline that Schuette had created a “hostile work environment” through “fear and intimidation.”
In response to that letter, the AFI board of directors hired an outside firm to investigate the allegations, and created a committee — made up of board members and distinguished alumni — to serve as ombudsman. “They met twice, but the faculty was not informed or invited to any of these meetings,” said a former lecturer.
In April, still frustrated by their continued lack of inclusion in decision-making, 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 out of 81 full- and part-time instructors.
Then, on June 16, the day after commencement, which celebrated the graduation of 116 students – who are known as “fellows” – five faculty members involved in the unionizing campaign were fired. An AFI board member, however, told Deadline that the firings had nothing to do with the organizing effort. “There was no resistance to the union movement,” he said, “and the leading members of the union movement are still at AFI.” That’s a key point because it’s illegal under than National Labor Relations Act to fire anyone for union activity.
Others fired were Gossip Girl 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.
Another source at the school noted that every organization makes changes, and that these were part of the normal course of business. “The non-renewal of some one-year faculty contracts is the status quo at AFI, and this year is no exception,” she said. “Change is constant and essential in keeping AFI’s educational standards as the art form evolves and changes.” She noted that new hires were made with diversity as a goal: Neema Barnette recently became the first African American on the AFI directing faculty, and Patricia Riggen the first Latina member of the directing discipline.
“World class film schools are fueled by a visionary dean and a passionate faculty,” the school said in response to Deadline’s inquiries. “The AFI Conservatory has both – and often it is differing opinions that catalyze positive change in this ever-evolving art form. The AFI Board of Trustees and the administrative leaders of the American Film Institute stand with the Dean of the AFI Conservatory. As always, we are committed to a positive and productive work environment for all faculty and look forward to providing an even stronger program of the highest quality for our Fellows.”
Last week, four longtime faculty members in the school’s editing program resigned in protest.
“I am leaving because I cannot bear looking into the eyes of young, idealistic people who continue to feel disappointed, bullied, and lied to,” wrote Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes editor Stan Salfas, who spent 17 years teaching editing at the Conservatory. “I cannot avert my eyes any longer from the disintegration of the editing program, or the hurt in the faces of my colleagues. I can no longer witness the destruction of the spirit of collaboration, the lack of trust and caring. The core of what I have struggled to teach is gone. In its place are empty words like ‘transparency’ and ‘respect.’ While behind those words I hear students speak of the serial lies they are told, the emotional scars they bear, the cloud of fear over their heads.”
Salfas wrote that he was particularly concerned about the firing of Linson, and what he called the “collapse” of the Sony Digital Arts Center, which houses the AFI’s postproduction facilities. “Since last June, as the SDAC collapsed around them, first year fellows were unable to complete editing their projects – nor was I able to critique them. The result — a crippling fissure in their collaboration with directors and producers who blamed them for the dysfunctionality. The self-confidence of these new editors wounded even as they began a journey into professionalism. As the program disintegrated from within, I watched its architect (Linson) stripped of his responsibilities with the Orwellian excuse that production and education would henceforth be separated. A notion contrary to every aspect of our curriculum and our basic belief that very simply ‘learning is by doing.’
Phil Linson acted as a moral center and a dedicated artist and humanist. Someone who consistently taught from a position of interpersonal responsibility and compassion. Someone who understood the essence of what editors do as based on deeply human values and open communication. Someone, who was finally discarded without any ‘empathy’ at all: even his name was omitted from the announcement of his firing.”
“These values,” Salfas wrote, “have been replaced now by a brutish mendacity inflicted on students and faculty alike, spreading throughout the conservatory. Is there any wonder why this spring, security was called to break up an altercation amongst thesis team members? Even now at the end, when the editing faculty had come together to put forward an interim discipline head, when our fellows had demanded faculty participation — and were promised it — our input was marginalized, then ignored.”
In his letter of resignation, Snakes On A Plane editor Howard E. Smith, who taught at the school for 21 years, said he is “devastated by what dean Schuette has done to decimate the editing discipline. Dean Schuette has promised ‘a new direction’ which he has yet to explain to either the editing faculty or the editing fellows. His actions with the support of the AFI administration have crippled our editing program, which has been exemplary for 26 years. To this day we, the editing faculty, have not been given any reasons for the staff firings nor the catastrophic firing of Phil Linson.”
In her letter of resignation, Farrel Jane Levy, the Nashville TV series editor who also taught at the school for 21 years, decried “the shoddy dismantling” of the school’s editing department.
“These were arrogant ‘changes’ that were imposed on us from above, with no consultation, no apparent interest, curiosity, or respect for what my colleagues and I have been achieving in our work at the school. Our fellows come to AFI to get a rich education in filmmaking. Instead, all too often for the past year, I have felt that the editing fellows have been guinea pigs, while the administration experimented with ‘changes.’ As things fell apart and the editing fellows did not know where to turn for technical and organizational guidance, many started blaming themselves. I felt helpless to explain or protect them from the dysfunction.”
Longtime instructor Donn Cambern, who edited Easy Rider and was Oscar-nominated for editing Romancing The Stone – said that he too was leaving AFI, partly due to health issues, but also in protest of the “the firing of Phil Linson, and in such a totally disrespectful way.”
“Add to that the firing of Bob Mandel and Andy Wolk, two of the finest working directors teaching in the AFI program,” he wrote in an email to AFI CEO Gazzale, and “the firing Marie Cantin and Kevin Jones. Now, with the resignation of Farrel, Howard and Stan, along with my not returning to teach, the editing discipline will suffer, and school starts this Monday (today).”
“While we are disappointed they have decided to leave,” a source at the school said, “it is common in academia and the for-profit world for people to choose to leave after change has been announced.”