AFI Conservatory Dean Jan Schuette to Exit Post

Jan Schuette - P 2014
Stefan Falke

He will leave the school at the end of the current academic year.

Jan Schuette, dean of the AFI Conservatory, is stepping down as dean at the end of the current academic year, the American Film Institute announced Monday. Schuette will have completed three years as head of the film school when he departs. According to the AFI, he informed the Institute this week that he plans to continue his work in academia and also resume his career as a filmmaker and producer.

Schuette, 59, a native of Mannheim, Germany, who previously taught at institutions in his native country as well as Harvard University and Dartmouth College, was recruited to become dean of AFI in 2014. He 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.

Schuette succeeded the well-liked Robert Mandel, who led the school for nine years before stepping down in 2013, and Schuette's tenure has been controversial. In September, newly unionized faculty members had issued a vote of no confidence in Schuette and called for his immediate resignation, although others stepped forward to voice their support.

In announcing his decision to move on, Schuette said, “It has been a distinct honor to serve as Dean of one of the world’s great film schools. When AFI invited me to take this role, its directive was to build upon its proud past and plant the seeds of growth for the future. Like filmmaking itself, these years have been both challenging and rewarding. I’m proud to say that many of these goals have been accomplished, and it’s the right time to turn the work over to a new Dean who will take the Conservatory forward. I care deeply about the Fellows [as the school's students are known] and plan to continue my work in academia, which I love, while also resuming my career making films. Through commencement next June, my focus will remain on achieving another successful academic year and ensuring a smooth transition to the future.”

AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale issued a statement, saying, “Jan’s devotion to the high standards of AFI will ensure the Conservatory remains a foremost training ground for the artists of tomorrow. In Jan, as is the spirit in the halls at AFI, our Fellows have been led by an artist who has lived it — who has been on the set and told the stories. We deeply appreciate his contributions and respect that he feels this is the right moment to pass the mantle of leadership to a new Dean and pursue the next steps in his own academic career, as well as his passion for filmmaking. We thank him for his commitment to the Fellows as well as championing essential issues like diversity, recruitment and ensuring the Conservatory evolves and changes as film does.”

Schuette initially took a listen-and-learn approach during his first year at the school, which offers a two-year Master of Fine Arts program with emphasis on hands-on filmmaking, guided by instructors who are themselves professional filmmakers. At the end of his first year, after conducting exit interviews with the graduating students to hear their assessments of how the school operated, he began to institute changes, having decided that the school’s six disciplines — cinematography, directing, editing, producing, production design and screenwriting — operated too autonomously. But while some (particularly the cinematography department) accepted the changes, others (especially in the editing department) resisted them.

With tensions building, in the fall of 2015, 30 faculty members signed a 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.

Schuette's supporters admitted 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 Marshall Herskovitz, an AFI grad and member of its board of trustees. “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.

But 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.

In August, the nascent union held another vote, in which 35 of the 43 faculty members who participated voted no confidence in the dean and sent another letter to Gazzale, alleging 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.”

The AFI backed the dean as the current school year got underway, 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.”