Letter to RTVF Faculty and the Dean

To Dean O’Keefe, Dave Tolchinsky, and the faculty and staff of the Northwestern Radio/Television/Film department,

My name is Mike Cavalier, and I’m a 2006 RTVF and CWMP graduate. By now, you may have heard of the “Save RTVF” campaign, a coordinated alumni response in protest of the decision to limit and revoke “grant powers,” cage access, and the discretionary production budgets from RTVF-sponsored student organizations like Inspire, MultiCulti, Niteskool, Studio 22, and NUWFA. I’m the campaign’s director and lead organizer.

I’m writing to members of the faculty to clarify what the campaign’s about, with the hope of preventing any confusion or misunderstanding. Enclosed are a number of materials from the campaign’s website (savertvf.com), should you like to know more.

But mainly, the three questions I’m seeking to answer are: why is this happening, what happens next, and what does the best case scenario look like?

Here’s a “faculty briefing” on what the enclosures explain in-depth:

Why is this Happening?

Media Arts Grants
This is about the MAGs as they’re presently constituted, and in particular, the way the MAGs have eliminated and replaced the traditional student-group funding structure, even though most outside observers would agree the two don’t appear mutually incompatible and could probably co-exist. Most alumni support the spirit of the MAGs: to have a new, alternative, faculty-driven source of production funding that could enable a greater variety of student voices and visions to come out of the university. Framed that way, it’s a little like the faculty starting their own version of a Studio 22 or a NUWFA — which sounds awesome, honestly. But in practice, the MAGs have centralized all decision-making power for the entirety of student filmmaking at Northwestern in the hands of an unaccountable, faculty-dominated committee, and this is plainly unacceptable to most students and former students.

The Genesis of the Alumni Response
Most alumni had never heard of the MAGs until a student wrote an op-ed about her experience with them in North by Northwestern. When word got out, emotions ran high, but we knew we didn’t have the full picture. So we formed a private group on Facebook of about 300 members to hash out our feelings, share information, and debate approaches to a response. We reached out to the author of the NBN piece, to the current URSA chairs and club presidents on campus, and to recent alums who graduated in 2015 and 2016. We also reached out to Dave, and he replied on behalf of himself and Dean O’Keefe.

The Impetus: Contradictory Accounts
The situation escalated when recent alums strongly refuted Dave’s characterization of the MAGs and how they were implemented. (I’ve enclosed Dave’s email to us as well as a letter from Grace Hahn, one of the URSA chairs during the transition, on this topic.) We reached out to as many students as possible to make sure this dissatisfaction wasn’t the marginal opinion of a disgruntled minority, and the response we got was overwhelmingly, uniformly negative, which led to us to believe this was a more serious issue than we originally thought.

Student+Alumni Solidarity
While the students we talked to were unhappy with the MAG funding structure, the feelings they self-reported were varied. Some were resigned to the conclusion that nothing would change, especially since URSA and student leadership have been pushing for fundamental reform for years and only receiving modest gains from the department (like the insufficient “Plus-Up” compromise). Some wanted to push back harder, but they didn’t know how, or feared reprisal. There’s also the issue of structural inequality: students are at an obvious disadvantage in advocating for what they want when they’re addressing instructors they admire and respect who hold all the power. The idea behind Save RTVF is to demonstrate through action that a large contingent of alumni stands in solidarity with current students in their reasonable request to have this problem seriously addressed as soon as possible. We are alarmed, and have deliberately used an alarmist tone to garner attention and convey the urgency of the issue at hand. While we appreciate that the department’s policies are an evolving, perpetually ongoing project for the faculty, we believe that too much is at stake, and too many stakeholders are involved, for this issue to be deferred indefinitely or handled solely in closed-door meetings that produce conflicting he-said/she-said accounts.

What happens next?

URSA Town Halls and Public Debate
This is the stated goal of Save RTVF: “We want serious, mutually agreed-upon reforms in the department’s funding structure by the start of the next fiscal year (September 1, 2017), and we want an open process for arriving at those reforms.”

We defer to current students, who understand better than anyone the production scene on campus today, on the details of what the way forward should be. So we’ve reached out to URSA, whom we view as the legitimate representatives of the RTVF student body at large, and requested that they organize what we’ve been calling “town halls” for the RTVF community to brainstorm and debate a formal proposal to the faculty on their vision for reform. (We use “town halls” as short-hand for the student-determined open process, although we know this could involve any number of things, like emails, break-out sessions, private Facebook group discussions, etc.)

We’re hoping the final proposals, whatever form they may take, will be published and shared online so that the public and broader university will know what the students are asking for, and that the RTVF faculty who are involved with policy changes will work with the students to arrive at a mutually-agreeable solution based on those proposals.

What does the best case scenario look like?

Although tensions are high right now, the alumni have always been confident that this could turn out well for everyone involved, because ultimately, this heightened moment gives us an opportunity to get things we all want — that were not necessarily available to us before. Students get to advocate for themselves, protect and defend what’s important to them, and be proactive about the future they want to see; alumni are passionate and engaged at a level that may very well be unprecedented, galvanized by the ability to reconnect and safeguard the work they had long assumed they’d never be involved with again; the faculty have a real opportunity for reconciliation with a disaffected undergraduate population and a reset in the tone and tenor of department/student relations — we can all win with a few policy tweaks and a change in direction for how the three parties relate to one another.

In the best case scenario, the RTVF community would complete their town halls and present their specific requests. Faculty members would read the requests and offer constructive feedback and suggested improvements for an even stronger, mutually-beneficial vision for the way forward. An agreement would be reached, and the changes would go into effect at the start of the next fiscal year. The Save RTVF campaign would cease its activities and be dissolved. Its leadership would then construct an entirely new Northwestern alumni organization (which we’ve been calling “URSA Major”), which would be constituted for the specific purpose of keeping alumni connected to the university through supporting RTVF student life and the independent student production scene. We were hoping that URSA Major and the current student organization leadership could team up to spark a new annual tradition where alumni return to campus for Premiere Week as a sort of “mini-homecoming” for RTVFers, to support student film and celebrate the new/emerging collaborative partnership between students/alumni/faculty, beginning this spring.

A few parting thoughts

It makes sense that “extracurricular activities” often get pitted against “official” class projects, especially since they both draw from the same pot of money and the same limited reserve of student time, energy, attention, and emotional investment. But we all know the RTVF student groups at stake in this situation aren’t mere social clubs — they’re self-driven, student-centered project-based learning activities that immeasurably contribute to the same student learning outcomes as RTVF coursework. Club life and classwork are not separate or opposing things, but two sides to the same whole: the RTVF experience. In other words, the only thing we’re really talking about here are opportunities to learn and grow, and how many are going to be available to undergrads going forward.

At the end of the day, Northwestern RTVF students just want to make things — films, animations, web series, complex student organizations, institutions that last for decades. They have built Inspire, MultiCulti, Niteskool, Studio 22, NUWFA — and Applause for a Cause, Block Cinema, The Blackout, Flicker Film Festival (may she rest in peace), NSTV, NUCH1, URSA, WNUR — they want to continue doing their work, and the faculty, school, and Northwestern University all support that.

The solutions to this problem are straightforward. The win-win situation I’ve outlined above is within reach. Thank for your time and everything you do to support RTVF undergraduates.

Mike Cavalier
New York City

Petition and signees, as of January 1, 2017
Save RTVF: An Overview
Dave Tolchinsky’s reply to our request for information
Letter from a Former URSA Chair by Grace Hahn, RTVF 2016
MAGMA 95: A 95-Point Manifesto