How Many MFAs in Video and Film?

In 2009, the Pope Center produced a report on the UNC School of the Arts. The report’s author, Max Borders, showed that on a per-student basis, UNCSA is North Carolina’s most expensive publicly funded university. He concluded that, because of the expense and the school’s uncertain economic benefits to the state, it should be fully or partially private. In an unrelated article written last November, I criticized UNC-Greensboro (located just 30 minutes from the School of the Arts) for its decision to move forward with a lavish $91 million recreation center that will be funded by increased student fees.

At present, however, UNCSA and UNCG are not under the Pope Center’s microscope, but rather that of the UNC system’s Board of Governors.

UNCSA and UNCG want to create two new master of fine arts (MFA) programs which—especially to those outside academia—appear to be duplicative. UNCSA wants to confer MFAs in filmmaking, and UNCG wants to confer MFAs in media production. Last spring, the schools separately sought approval from UNC’s general administration to begin planning their respective programs. The general administration urged the two schools to consider a “highly collaborative strategy, such as joint program delivery,” on the grounds that the programs were too similar and the schools are so close to each other geographically.

And so the schools immediately began collaborating…to explain why they can’t collaborate on a joint program.

David Nelson, UNCSA’s provost, and David Perrin, UNCG’s provost, wrote a joint memo to the general administration in June, claiming that, while a “consortium arrangement” (in which students can take courses at both campuses) makes sense, combining the programs into one unified degree does not. UNCG had earlier stated that a joint degree program would not work because “UNCSA’s interest lies specifically with narrative, fictional screenplays [and] UNCG’s largely with non-fiction, documentary story telling.”

In December, Suzanne Ortega, the UNC system’s senior vice president for academic affairs, wrote a letter to the board’s Educational Planning, Policies and Programs Committee. She explained that the general administration had communicated to both schools that the “likelihood of approval” would be “extremely low” in the absence of strong collaboration. But UNCSA made it clear that it wanted to move forward independently. Ortega then asked the committee to take up the case, as the university administration was “unprepared” to make a decision.

Last week, the educational planning committee convened. UNCSA’s interim chancellor, James Moeser, and UNCG’s chancellor, Linda Brady, presented their case.

Moeser gave an impassioned 3-minute speech, telling the committee members that his school’s proposed MFA in filmmaking “has tremendous potential to feed one of the most important industries in North Carolina.”

Chancellor Brady tried to allay concerns about program duplication. She told the members that joint degree programs are “very different from collaborations” and are “extremely challenging to design and implement.” She said that if allowed to proceed with the planning process, the schools would develop in-depth collaboration ideas, and could profit from each other because of proximity and regional economic partnerships.

Reaction was mixed. “I have a lot of problems with these programs,” said Champion Mitchell, a first-term board  member. “Going through the proposals themselves, I found that student demand data was not convincing and that the societal demand data was not compelling. At this point, based on what is in front of us, I am not excited about either one of these programs.”

North Carolina law requires the Board of Governors to consider “student demand” and “societal demand” when a UNC system school proposes a new degree program. Other factors—discussed extensively at the committee meeting—include whether the program will create unnecessary duplication, whether it will provide employment opportunities for program graduates, and whether joint degree programs are feasible.

In its formal program proposal, UNCG addressed the student demand issue by pointing out that its MFA in drama (with a concentration in film and video production) had received a total of 199 applications since the fall of 2005. From 2005-06 through 2012-13, a total of 57 degrees were awarded. UNCG says that its proposed MFA in media production is simply a restructured version of its existing film/video production concentration. According to UNCG, this revamped degree will help the school increase its enrollment and “make more efficient use of existing departmental resources.”

UNCSA’s proposal simply stated, “We feel confident that we will be able to attract sufficient student demand” and noted that UNCSA receives “ten to fifteen inquiries per year from individuals who would like to pursue an MFA in filmmaking…”

As for societal demand, both universities echo the same sentiments: North Carolina has a billion-dollar arts and film industry, new technological developments require new technical expertise, and employers value MFAs. In their joint letter to the general administration, provosts Nelson (UNCSA) and Perrin (UNCG) wrote that ultimately the schools want “to form a kind of ‘RTP’ (Research Triangle Park) of filmmaking and video education for the Triad…”

UNC-Wilmington’s chancellor, Gary Miller, also at the meeting, was given a brief opportunity to advocate on behalf of his school, which also hopes to move forward with an MFA in the near future. “I think that [these programs] are distinct and still evolving, particularly in the digital age, with regard to areas like (video) gaming,” he said. According to Miller, having the three different programs would provide “flexibility” and be a “huge advantage” for a state “where we aspire to have a vigorous film industry.”

The committee ultimately ruled that UNCSA, UNCG, and UNCW may begin the planning process. In the coming months, the Board of Governors will review the updated proposals and the various program plans, and decide whether to allow the programs to advance. But the schools appear to face an uphill battle. The committee chairman, Craig Souza, said, “It is our job to look for duplication, to enhance collaboration, and to make sure demand for whatever program is there. Quite frankly, I’m not convinced.”