The faculty union at the American Film Institute today called upon the administration to fire Jan Schuette, the dean who took command of the elite conservatory in 2014.
In a letter to CEO Bob Gazzale and the AFI board, the union warned that the school is “on the brink of unraveling.” The letter alleged that Schuette had failed to consult with the faculty and created a culture of “fear and intimidation.”
Though the conflict has been brewing for at least a year, the union decided to go public with its concerns when five union members were dismissed this summer. The union accuses the AFI of retaliating against its membership, which the institute denies.
“The dean has lost the faith and trust and support of the faculty,” said Rob Spera, a directing instructor who led the effort to form a faculty union this spring. “He no longer can lead us. We’ve gotten past the point where we can sit in the room together and discuss.”
AFI issued a statement in response to the union’s letter: “The AFI 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.”
Over the last several weeks, several instructors have resigned in protest of Schuette’s leadership. Spera said the conflict now threatens the quality of instruction at the conservatory.
The union has presented itself as defending the rigorous program at AFI. Students — known as “fellows” — do three projects in their first year and a single thesis film in their second year. Spera contends that Schuette has made the program less demanding.
“There’s talk of streamlining, of less supervision,” Spera said. “Those have been the buzzwords. They want to ‘cut the fellows loose.’ … Basically there are going to be fewer people doing more work with less experience.”
The administration has pushed back on that claim. Marshall Herskovitz, an AFI alum who serves on the Board of Trustees, strongly defended Schuette’s commitment to a rigorous program.
“The hallmark of AFI is that when you go there, it kicks your a–. That’s what makes it a great place,” Herskovitz said. “No one is a stronger proponent of the idea that your world should be rocked when you go to AFI than me. And no one is a stronger proponent of that than the dean.”
Some of Schuette’s supporters noted that he has made efforts to diversify the faculty in order to serve a more diverse student body. Stephen Lighthill, the head of the cinematography discipline, said that Schuette has tried to improve the educational experience by finding instructors who are better at working collaboratively.
“I think that sometimes there are people who are esteemed in their profession, but actually do not hit the right note when they’re in the classroom,” Lighthill said. “They feel like they’re still on set when they’re in the classroom. Different rules have to prevail.”
Schuette has taken a more assertive role as dean than his predecessor, Bob Mandel, Lighthill said.
“There’s always changes a new leader is going to want to initiate, and there’s a lot of resistance to a new, more proactive person in the dean’s position,” Lighthill said. “That resistance has been the vocal minority from the beginning.”
Tal Lazar, an AFI alum who teaches cinematography, said that the union was reacting emotionally to the dismissal of the instructors.
“Some of these people have a very good reason for not teaching here any more,” he said.
Lazar said the union had not engaged in adequate internal discussion before calling for Schuette to be fired.
“I’m not saying there isn’t a problem, but there needs to be a conversation about it,” he said. “That is not happening here. The emotional reaction will not get us what we want.”
Spera said he hoped that relations would improve after the faculty voted overwhelmingly in April to join the American Association of University Professors. Instead, he said relations have only deteriorated. He said that Schuette has failed to communicate, and that the board has failed to recognize that the dean is “not up to the task.”
“You have to be in a room having dialogue to have disagreement,” Spera said. “They have shut this down and hoped it would go away by itself.”
Two weeks ago, the union voted 35-8 in support of a resolution of no confidence in Schuette’s leadership.
“We are left with no choice,” Spera said. “We feel we’ve been backed into a corner.”
Lighthill contended that the union has pursued a “nuclear option,” and has shown by talking to the press that it does not have a real strategy for settling its differences with the administration. He also said the conflict would not derail the new school year at AFI, which began on Monday.
“Our fellows are going to classes. Our faculty is jumping into a new year with new energy,” he said. “I think most of us are really trying to ignore the chatter and do our job.”