UCLA’s vaunted Department of Film, Television and Digital Media got low marks in a recently concluded eight-year review by the school’s Academic Senate. The study found the department has “experienced chronic operational and procedural problems, a contentious and distrustful work environment, and generally low morale among its faculty, staff and students.”
Even so, the review (read it here) found that the department “currently has three particularly strong areas of excellence that we see as the foundation for its programs and activities going forward: its outstanding recent faculty hires and a resolutely inclusive approach to faculty renewal; the dedication of its professional staff to the academic mission and UCLA’s high standards and expectations; and an exceptionally diverse, engaged, and committed student body.”
Still, external reviewers who were brought in to examine the department’s practices found widespread problems. Margaret Stogner, a professor of film and media arts at the American University in Washington, D.C., found “alarming issues evident throughout” the department that “are putting the institution at risk for extensive reputational damage.”
External reviewer Peggy Rajski, an Oscar-winning filmmaker who is dean of Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film and Television, concluded that “if the department is not able to address the serious complaints coming from the student body and the contentious atmosphere in the faculty ranks, it seems hard to imagine how the program can successfully continue.”
External reviewer Greg Waller, provost professor of cinema and media studies at Indiana University Bloomington, said in his report that the department “is quite clearly at a crossroads … [after] what looks by all accounts to have been a very contentious and difficult period that nearly stretched this unit to the breaking point. … It was very rare to hear from anyone in the unit who spoke directly of successful and rewarding personal experiences in the department.”
UCLA’s Department of Film, Television and Digital Media is divided into two general areas of specialization – Cinema & Media Studies (CMS) and Production – and the much smaller Animation, Producers and Screenwriting areas.
“One of the more serious and enduring problems,” the review found, “is the long-standing antipathy between CMS faculty – whose traditions are academic, scholarly and broadly humanist – and Production faculty, whose dominant cultural values and professional ties, like those of the Animation, Producers, and Screenwriting areas, appear to lie outside academia in the media/entertainment industries. One interviewee remarked that (the Department’s) situation couldn’t be that dire because ‘we’re still winning awards.’ Faculty and staff repeatedly invoked ‘the industry’ as (the Department’s) lodestar – the purpose of the department, one said, is to ‘meet the needs of the industry.’ A faculty member dismissed former faculty in their area who hadn’t ‘worked in the industry.’ Another criticized some students as ‘quirky people who don’t fit in the industry.’” Another faculty member who had encountered criticism from colleagues reportedly insisted that the “university doesn’t know how to handle issues with faculty who have public profiles.”
The review, which was completed in June but is seen here publicly for the first time, also found that student criticism “was wide-ranging and vocal, though many students also praised their close advising relationships with faculty, and MFAs particularly appreciated the generally prompt and detailed feedback on their work. However, students also described certain faculty members, particularly adjuncts, as ‘aggressively anti-intellectual’ and ‘un-academic.’ Teaching assistants reported instances of certain instructors (notably adjuncts) requiring them to do work unrelated to instructional support, thus exceeding union work load and hourly limits ‘because [the instructors think] the TA isn’t a heavy job.” One faculty member was said to choose which students in that area got to take which courses, and to assign more talented students to ladder faculty advisors and others to adjuncts. Several students reported incidents of faculty derision or ad hominem shaming in class meetings and feedback on assignments (a problem identified in the previous review). One student claimed that ‘the majority of us have mental health issues,’ and at least a half-dozen others in the same meeting agreed. Another said that given the lack of academic rigor in their area, ‘I wish I’d gone to trade school.’ Lacking sufficient fellowship support or funding assistance from the department, one student reported having to live in their car in order to complete a thesis film.”
The review, which makes numerous recommendations to get the department back on track, concluded by stating:
“Many of the challenges that the Film, Television and Digital Media department face are not unique to UCLA. Financial pressures on the institution and on students, contending with best ways to streamline programs while keeping their integrity intact, updating and adding new programs that better suit the needs of the future – these are issues all film schools face today, even those that are well-financed. How to resolve these challenges is what is at stake here. Having strong leadership that can direct the passion and dedication of the faculty and staff, recruited externally, will make a significant difference. It is also incumbent on the faculty to set their egos aside and work toward the greater good of the department as a whole. Coming together to work on a strategic vision for the 21st Century is essential to your long-term success. The sum is truly greater than the parts in ensuring your school maintains a stellar reputation and flourishes.”
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