The American Film Institute is facing an internal rebellion, as the faculty union has declared it has no confidence in the dean, Jan Schuette, and several instructors have resigned.
The no-confidence vote follows a year of rising conflict at the elite postgraduate conservatory, which claims such alumni as Terrence Malick and David Lynch. In the spring, the faculty voted overwhelmingly to form a union. Over the summer, five faculty members were dismissed in what the union claims was an act of retaliation.
“There’s been a disruption in the leadership of the conservatory that’s impacting everything,” said Kevin Jones, an instructor who was let go in June. “This is damaging the reputation of the school and someone needs to open their eyes and see that.”
Faculty members say the problems began soon after Schuette was hired away from the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin in 2014. Upon arriving, he held a number of meetings in which he said he wanted to improve the conservatory.
But according to Jones, he seemed intent on altering the way the institute handles thesis films, which students complete in their second year.
“Essentially he was trying to dismantle the rigorous approach to thesis,” Jones said. “He wanted to make it easier. He was trying to take a rigorous professional program and turn it into film camp.”
The faculty also objected to what many perceived as Schuette’s high-handed style, which did not allow for input and collaboration. In October, some 30 faculty members sent a letter to AFI CEO Bob Gazzale outlining their objections. In the letter, they alleged that Schuette was adopting many of the practices of the Berlin film school, generally without consultation. He would often say, “I am the dean, I can do whatever I want,” according to the letter.
He also remarked that AFI was “too inbred” in explaining his resistance to hiring AFI alumni for teaching positions, and said he did not want to hire “old white guys,” according to the letter. The letter also quotes Schuette as saying, “I don’t believe in awards and juries, because I’ve seen gay juries just give the award to the gay film,” which some found offensive. It also cited a discussion of need-based scholarships in which Schuette was quoted as referring to a “nice Jewish boy” as an example of someone who would not need a scholarship, which also caused umbrage.
The faculty also dug up articles in the German press which referred to similar complaints during Schuette’s tenure at the Berlin film school. According to the articles, students at the school protested Schuette’s decision to fire a instructor, and also raised concerns about “arbitrary” decision-making and poor communication.
The AFI faculty also complained that some instructors were let go without clear reasons, and that some new hires lacked qualifications for their roles.
“We could not communicate and there was no effort made to communicate from the dean,” said Tom Rickman, an instructor in the screenwriting program who resigned in protest. “It was done in this crude and nasty way.”
The institute hired a consulting firm to look into the complaints. Producer Marshall Herskovitz, an AFI trustee and co-chair of the Conservatory Committee, also got involved in the investigation. In an interview with Variety, Herskovitz said that faculty opinion was evenly divided about Schuette, and that many strongly supported him. Much of the opposition to Schuette seems to have been concentrated in the editing discipline.
“This was not a monolithic uprising,” Herskovitz said.
The administration did confer with Schuette about improving his outreach.
“The dean immediately responded and acknowledged that he had made errors — communication errors,” Herskovitz said. “He had not reached out to people in way he needed to do. He immediately set about to try to change the circumstance.”
Herskovitz strongly disputed the idea that Schuette wanted to relax the standards on thesis projects. In fact, he said that conversations with recent alumni showed that, if anything, the program needed to be even more rigorous. He also said it’s not surprising that a group of passionate artists would have strongly held views.
“There’s nothing at all strange about the fact that there’s drama at the American Film Institute,” Herskovitz said. “What you’re seeing are passionate disagreements about how to move forward.”
Many on the faculty were not satisfied with the administration’s review. Feeling their issues had not been heard, they began to organize a union. In March, they voted to join the American Association of University Professors on a vote of 54 to 7.
Most of the instructors at AFI are adjuncts. They are paid relatively well for adjunct work — perhaps $7,500 per semester. The faculty work on year-to-year contracts. There is no tenure. The union organizers say they were not motivated by pay and benefits, but rather by an interest in creating a faculty senate that would share governance with the administration and give faculty members more of a voice.
AFI did not oppose the unionization. After the vote, the institute pledged to work with AAUP.
“As always, the Conservatory remains committed to a positive and productive work environment for its faculty in order to assure the highest standards of training for its fellows,” the institute said in a statement.
In June, AFI let go five members of the faculty who had been supportive of the union. They included Rob Mandel, the dean who preceded Schuette and who had stayed on as a part-time instructor. The others let go were Jones, Marie Cantin, an associate dean; Phil Linson, a vice dean and former head of the editing program; and director Andy Wolk.
Herskovitz said the personnel changes were part of the ordinary turnover of faculty at AFI, and had nothing to do with the unionization drive. Rob Spera, the president of the union chapter, still works at AFI.
Two weeks ago, the union circulated a statement calling the firings “transparently retaliatory.”
“Dean Schuette’s history of dismissing faculty input; discouraging collegial discourse and debate by canceling faculty meetings; imposing changes to curriculum, infrastructure and the admissions process without faculty consultation; as well as the recent transparently retaliatory firings demand that the strong collective action of a ‘No Confidence’ vote is held to protect the future interests of faculty, staff and fellows as well as the future of the Conservatory,” the statement reads.
The vote passed 35-8.
Stan Stalfas and Farrel Levy, lecturers in the editing program, have since submitted their resignations. Students in the editing program have also sent a letter protesting the staffing changes. In his letter, Stalfas said that students had begun referring to the administration as “a dictatorial South American regime.”
In a statement on Monday, AFI said that the board and the administration “stand with the Dean of the AFI Conservatory.”
“World class film schools are fueled by a visionary dean and a passionate faculty,” the institute said. “The AFI Conservatory has both — and, often, it is differing opinions that catalyze positive change in this ever-evolving art form.”