Inside the AFI Faculty Revolt: Has the Dean "Lost Control" or Brought Needed Change?

Stefan Falke
Jan Schuette

As Jan Schuette begins his third year as head of Hollywood's elite film school, he faces a divided faculty and questions over new policies as players on both sides of a divided campus reveal the root of the stalemate.

As the first week of the new semester at the American Film Institute Conservatory drew to a close last Friday, the elite film school, with long-standing ties to some of the biggest names in Hollywood, found itself in the middle of unaccustomed drama.

Newly unionized faculty members had issued a vote of no confidence in Dean Jan Schuette and called for his immediate resignation, while others have stepped forward to voice their support. On the bucolic campus that sits on a hillside above Hollywood, colleagues and instructors have found themselves pitted against one another. Editing instructors have led the attack, while cinematographers have leapt to Schuette's defense. New initiatives instituted by Schuette, who took over leadership of the 47-year-old institution in 2014, have been applauded by some and decried by others. One source who visited the campus says the amount of controversy has been exaggerated, insisting, "This is not an issue on campus, nobody is talking about it." But some students — or fellows, as they are known in AFI parlance — as well as recent graduates have begun to take sides.

The AFI even found itself drawn into the Birth of a Nation uproar when Schuette, responding to student concerns, canceled a screening of the film at which director Nate Parker was to have appeared. (The pic will screen at the school at an unspecified date later in the year.)

The unrest swirling around the Conservatory threatens to tarnish its standing as one of the nation's preeminent film schools. And it also could spread to affect the American Film Institute — headed by CEO and president Bob Gazzale — which oversees the school. Although all involved claim the increasingly contentious dispute did not impact the beginning of classes, no immediate resolution appears to be in sight, with the board's next regular meeting not scheduled until October.

The AFI declined to make Schuette available for comment, instead issuing a statement to The Hollywood Reporter, saying, "The AFI Conservatory's mandate is to ensure it remains the premier film training program in the world. And one of the unique strengths we offer our Fellows is to continually seek to add new voices from the artistic community to our working faculty. Like all arts institutions, disagreement can occur from that, as is often the case with passionate artists, and when it happens we commit ourselves to hearing all voices and ensuring that conflicting opinions are respected."

Founded in 1969, the Conservatory, whose first class included Terrence Malick, David Lynch and Paul Schrader, offers a two-year Master of Fine Arts program with emphasis on hands-on filmmaking, guided by instructors who are themselves professional filmmakers. Tuition is a steep $47,030 for first-year students and $58,216 for second-year. "The conservatory model is not like a college or university — it's very different," says producer Marshall Herskovitz, a member of the AFI class of '75 who now sits on its board. "All the teachers are working artists and the students learn by doing, and they also learn by being criticized, it's an incredibly rigorous program."

The AFI likes to boast of its many graduates who have gone on to success in the entertainment business as well as students who are currently distinguishing themselves. The AFI trumpeted the fact that at the Motion Picture Academy's 2015 Student Academy Awards, all three medals in the narrative category were claimed by AFI students in a first-ever sweep. And in THR's recent listing of top film schools, AFI ranked second only to USC School of Cinematic Arts.  

But now, it also finds itself at the center of unwanted controversy that threatens its image as an A-list training program.

"The dean has lost control of the conservatory," says Rob Spera, a lecturer in the directing department who serves as interim president of the newly organized chapter of the American Association of University Professors. "He does not have the capacity to lead us." A letter the union members sent to Gazzale on Aug. 23 read, "Today, the AFI Conservatory is on the brink of unravelling."

But Herskovitz, who has emerged as a vocal supporter of the dean and who visited the campus on the first day of the semester, rejects that assessment. "There was excitement, it was inspiring. It was in the best sense business-as-usual, what AFI should be," he says. "And when we visited last spring, I'll tell you one thing we heard that was indicative — one of the fellows said, 'We know a bunch of faculty hate the dean, but we don't care. We like him.'"

Schuette, 59, a native of Mannheim, Germany, previously taught at institutions in his native country as well as Harvard University and Dartmouth College and was serving as director of the German Film and Television Academy when he was recruited to become dean of AFI in 2014. He'd also directed more than a dozen films, most recently the 2007 feature Love Comes Lately, an adaptation of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story that starred Rhea Perlman and Barbara Hershey.

Gazzale, with the support of board chair Bob Daly, championed Schuette's hiring, and in announcing that Schuette was joining the school said, "We searched the world for an academic leader who has also made movies — who has lived it. We are proud to say we found that person in Jan Schuette." Says one prominent faculty member who declined to be named, "Bob [Gazzale] stuck his neck out and really wanted Jan. Jan had been on the staff at Harvard, and that appealed to them even though Harvard has a terrible film program."

Schuette succeeded the well-liked Robert Mandel, who led the school for nine years before stepping down in 2013. (After stepping down as dean, Mandel remained on staff, where he taught directing.) Suggests Stephen Lighthill, the filmmaker-in-residence who heads up the school's cinematography program, "No matter what person took over the dean's office in 2014, there was resistance to having anyone walk through the door. Whether it was based on the fact that they didn't hire from within — which they actually never have done — or the fact he came from a school none of us were familiar with, there was that built-in institutional reluctance to have a new leader." Not so, says Spera, responding, "We work in a world of change, we embrace change and would gladly embrace a new dean's vision, but there is no vision. In order to be a visionary, you have to have a vision first."

Schuette, who arrived on campus in the fall of 2014, did not immediately make waves. "The dean first came in and positioned himself as an observer to learn how the Conservatory works. He didn't come in and start changing things right away," says Tal Lazar, a lecturer in cinematography.

Then, at the end of his first year, Schuette decided to hold exit interviews with the graduating students, something that had not been done before, to learn what they thought about the education they'd received. "What we discovered was at times troubling," Herskovitz admits. "Many, not all and not even the majority, but some portion of the fellows felt that they hadn't been challenged enough or treated that well. We realized there was work to be done and we hadn't lived up to the Conservatory's mandate. The dean felt very strongly, as did the board, that we had to live up to what historically the AFI had been. So he was mandated to make changes. Some of those changes haven't been well-received by some of the faculty and some have."

The AFI program is organized around six disciplines — cinematography, directing, editing, producing, production design and screenwriting — that had operated fairly independently of each other, something that Schuette decided needed to change. "We were in a system where you sort of had a weak mayor, with the discipline heads as strong city managers," explains Lighthill. "The disciplines were getting too far apart and not well-coordinated. When Jan came in and pushed for collaboration, which I thought he did in a very restrained and gentle way, there was reluctance. I think some people saw their ox being gored and didn't want to make necessary changes." Adds Herskovitz, "The people running things are working artists. They are not corporate people, and they are not academic people. They are individuals and they are fiercely individualistic." 

Others did not see it that way. "Toward the end of the summer of last year, we became aware of how vulnerable the school was to someone coming in without an understanding of our culture," Spera says. "Without reaching out to people who could help him understand, he began making unilateral decisions. There was hiring and firing without any input. Editing was essentially cut off at the knees so that it could not function effectively. We became aware then of how vulnerable the school was."

With tensions building, last fall 30 faculty members signed an Oct. 5 letter to Gazzale in which they said, while they were open to change, "Dean Schuette's approach to change, best summed up by his oft-repeated catch phrase, 'I am the Dean. I can do whatever I want,' has generated a culture of fear, intimidation and bullying that has eroded faculty and administrative morale and mired the campus in a hostile work environment."

The letter provided a list of 15 specific grievances. They included disparaging comments, charging that Schuette dismissed the Student Academy Awards wins by saying "the awards are given by old white men to social issue films"; perceived slights like "shaming faculty members at meetings by demanding they cease mannerisms and facial expressions that he perceives as contrary to his agenda"; and more substantive charges like "imposing curriculum changes without consulting the discipline and department heads who are most affected."

Schuette's critics point to changes he made to the admissions process — for example, directing applicants were required to submit a second film sample — which the critics argued would put lower-income students at a disadvantage. Schuette also raised the possibility of requiring applicants to travel to Los Angeles for an in-person interview, though that wasn't put into effect. "We actually saw a decrease in applications for directing," Spera contends.

Other sources at AFI present a different picture, though, saying that Schuette was simply trying to raise the bar to find the best candidates, and while there may have been a drop in applications, their quality was higher and all available slots were quickly filled.

The school's Sony Digital Arts Center, which houses its postproduction facilities, became another flashpoint. Schuette dismissed two longtime staff members, but his critics contend their replacement did not effectively run the center.

Farrel Jane Levy, a member of the editing faculty who resigned in protest earlier this month, wrote Gazzale on Aug. 15, objecting to "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." She added, "I have felt that the editing fellows have been guinea pigs, while the administration experimented with 'changes.'"

Schuette's supporters admit the new dean made his share of mistakes but argue they were more a matter of style than substance. "In my mind, it was all style," says Herskovitz. "A lot of people reacted negatively to his style of leadership. He was not communicative enough in the beginning. I also feel that the administration failed in the very beginning to introduce him correctly. I think there was systemic failures and we all take responsibility for that."

To address the situation, AFI put together the Conservatory Committee, composed of board members and alumni, to hear complaints and also commissioned a study from Insigniam, a management consulting firm, which made a number of recommendations about how Schuette could be more communicative and more inclusive. Adds Herskovitz, "We, meaning members of the board and the administration, felt the dean was incredibly open to the criticism and suggestions. Since that time, he's had more than 50 one-on-one meetings with faculty members, trying to establish a relationship and has made it clear he wants to include them in the process. We feel he's made a good-faith effort to remedy the situation." In the view of another faculty member: "Now that Jan's under fire, he's going on a friendliness campaign."

Convinced that the administration wasn't responding to their concerns, faculty members began discussing joining the American Association of University Professors, and on April 28, with the participation of 61 of the AFI's 81 full- and part-time faculty, they voted 54-7 to form a chapter of the union. Their goal, they say, was to share in the school's governance and guarantee academic freedom. "We have absolutely no interest in bargaining for more money, more benefits. We are simply asking for shared governance. It's something we feel we shouldn't even have to negotiate for," Spera says. "We're all working professionals. We're simply suggesting we have a voice in how the school is run. The school is run like a corporation. It doesn't have an understanding of what higher education is, and we're treated like corporate employees who are easily replaceable.'

According to Herskovitz, the school's administration supported the unionization drive. "The administration, the dean, the board, all were completely in favor," he says.

Seven weeks later, as the 2015-16 school year was drawing to a close in June, the school dismissed five faculty members: Mandel, the former dean; Phil Linson, who headed up the editing program; associate dean Marie Cantin, director Andy Wolk and Kevin Jones, head of creative mentors.

The union charged that the five were fired for their roles in organizing the union. "All five were active and vocal proponents of the faculty's effort to unionize around widely accepted faculty rights of shared governance," it said in its Aug. 23 letter. "The firings were transparently retaliatory and a bad-faith effort to silence us at the very start of the union."

The AFI, however, while declining to discuss the individual cases, contends that the staff changes, which involved not renewing several of the employees' contracts, were part of an annual review that it routinely conducts each year. According to sources, in 2014, before Schuette's arrival, five contracts weren't renewed. And in 2013, six contracts weren't renewed.

"That's a normal number of turnover," says Herskovitz. "There's nothing strange about it. There have been changes in the curriculum, and we also wanted to bring more diversity to the AFI. In fact, the faculty members who were the most vociferous and active in terms of unionization are still here, and we are happy to have them."

But the AFI's move only fueled more anger among those opposed to Shuette. Five other faculty members resigned in protest.

The next move came from the nascent union: From Aug. 6-9, it held a new vote. "The vote was open to all eligible faculty members, 60 of them. 43 sent in ballots," says Spera. By a vote of 35 to eight, 81.4 percent of those participating, they voted no-confidence in the dean and demanded his resignation. In their letter to Gazzale, they cited Schuette's "history of poor unilateral decision-making; his routine dismissal of faculty input; his discouraging of collegial discourse and debate by canceling faculty meetings; and his recent and retaliatory firings."

In the wake of the vote, AFI defenders are now arguing that those 35 votes don't represent the feelings of a majority of the faculty, which the AFI says currently numbers 89. The union disputes that number, and says that because of the dismissals and resignations only 60 faculty members were eligible to vote (the AFI also challenged the voting status of nine more individuals, who it said represented management and were not eligible to take part). A majority of those 60 voted no-confidence. Adds Spera, "What number do you need to take action? If 35 people vote no-confidence, is that not enough to wake them up?"

Even before the vote was taken, other arguments were in play: Five members of the cinematography department sent their own letter to Spera saying, "We were very surprised that just less than an hour after you accepted the position of the union interim president you have initiated a vote of no confidence against our dean. We strongly believe that it is not needed at this time, and that we meet and discuss such a motion before we are to vote on it." It went on to say, "it now seems to us that the agenda of some in the union is to force out the dean."

Lazar, who as one of the signatories of the cinematographers' letter and who supports the union though not the no-confidence vote, explains, "The union was created for the purpose of bringing everybody together, which is a noble cause, but what's happening now is it's being hijacked. Instead, we're fighting something different than the goals that were originally proposed. Not that the things that we're trying to achieve are incorrect, but a serious conversation didn't happen before the vote of no-confidence. Not only didn't that happen, but the people who orchestrated this said, 'The vote is the discussion.'"

AFI sources are now charging that the union actually used the no-confidence vote as a bargaining chip, throwing it down before the first round of collective bargaining begins. By going public just as the semester began, they argue, it was firing a warning shot across the AFI's bow.

Spera rejects that allegation. Since the new chapter still has to organize itself, collective bargaining, which had been scheduled for late fall or early winter, may now not begin until next year. "There's no attempt to use the no-confidence vote to actually sway the bargaining," Spera says. "We've been making this plea to them for over a year, long before we started to unionize."

As for the students themselves, Schuette appears to be earning divided marks. One graduate of the class of 2015 says she welcomed the changes he instituted, particularly the exit interviews, explaining, "I felt there was a shift in the level of advocacy I had on campus. My first year at AFI I experienced a tremendous amount of sexism and misogyny and I didn't really feel there was anyone I could talk to about it. When Jan came in that changed right off the bat." But another member of the same class, who studied editing, complains, "When I asked Jan, 'What is your vision of the Conservatory and the editing discipline, he responded, 'It's like a work of art. I can't articulate it.'" A few students, the union claims, have even raised the possibility of withholding tuition.

Meanwhile, Schuette sent a welcoming message to new fellows last week, unveiling a number of new additions to both the faculty and the curriculum.

In terms of the beleaguered editing department, he noted that Matt Chesse, an Oscar nominee for Finding Neverland, has joined the AFI. And Walter Murch, Christopher Tellefsen and Chris Lebenzon will be conducting editing workshops in the spring.

As for the larger conflict, the two sides appear to have reached something of a stalemate. Spera complains that, a week later, the administration has not responded to its letter, saying, "There's been no conversation, no talk."

Schuette is believed to be in the third year of a three-year contract. (The AFI declined to comment on its terms.) Predicts one prominent faculty member, "They — Gazzale and Daly — may extend him just to say, 'We're in control.' They're going to keep backing him and pretending nothing is wrong."

But taking the long view, Herskovitz contends that the passions swirling around the new dean are to be expected at the AFI. "I was there 41 years ago, and in the intervening years, there's never been a moment where the place has been without controversy or passionate disagreement," he says. "It's part of the context at AFI."

Stephen Galloway and Mia Galuppo contributed to this report.

comments powered by Disqus