When she took over as president of Berklee College of Music in 2021 — the first woman to lead the renowned music school in its 78-year history — Erica Muhl was hailed as a visionary.
The board of trustees was lavish in its praise of Muhl, a composer and conductor who had been dean of the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Art and Design. She was touted as a “multi-dimensional thinker and strategist,” an administrator with “high emotional intelligence,” and a savvy “institution builder” who helped create a cutting-edge program at USC endowed by a $70 million gift from record executive Jimmy Iovine and hip-hop legend Dr. Dre.
But just two years later, she’s gone. Berklee announced Monday that Muhl, who took an abrupt and still-unexplained leave of absence last month, will not be returning. She’ll be replaced, for now, by Berklee provost David Bogen and acting executive vice president Betsy Newman.
“For the last several weeks, the Board of Trustees has been actively engaged in ongoing discussions with President Muhl,” board chairman Martin Mannion wrote in a terse e-mail to staff and faculty. “While we are unable to share further details, President Muhl will not be returning to Berklee. The board thanks President Muhl for her time, her leadership during the pandemic, and her investment in Berklee’s educational experience.”
Attempts to contact Muhl were unsuccessful Monday. She did not attend Berklee’s commencement ceremony at Agganis Arena in May (after this story posted, her lawyer said she was at her son’s graduation from USC). In June, she put her four-bedroom, four-bathroom house in Newton on the market for $2.8 million, according to a listing on the Coldwell Banker Realty website. (The contemporary three-story home, which has an elevator, is currently under contract.)
Reaction to Muhl’s sudden departure was muted on campus. In more than a dozen interviews with The Boston Globe, Berklee staff and faculty said she was rarely seen on campus during her brief tenure. Likewise, students said they felt little connection to Muhl.
Most of the Berklee students, staff, and professors contacted for this story declined to speak on the record. But many question whether the 18-person presidential search committee that recommended Muhl did its homework. Specifically, they cite Muhl’s handling of a well-publicized 2015 episode at the Roski School of Art and Design when all seven first-year students in the school’s two-year masters of fine arts program withdrew to protest what they considered to be unethical actions taken by Muhl in failing to honor agreed-upon stipends and teaching assistant positions.
Some Roski School staff and faculty also quit, including Frances Stark, an acclaimed contemporary artist who relinquished her tenured teaching position because of what she called “a culture of conflict” perpetuated by Muhl.
“The disrespect that emanated off of her,” said Stark, reached last week in Los Angeles. “She was radically disrespectful. She was like a sci-fi villain.”
In the wake of the exodus from the MFA program, a group of Roski students created a Change.org petition requesting that Muhl be removed as dean of the school. “USC is sheltering a highly paid administrator who has operated unethically by breaking funding and curricular promises to its students,” the petition read. “In continuing to protect Dean Muhl, USC is demonstrating that it does not honor its commitments to its students, and that it considers one administrator more valuable than its obligations to its community and educational mission.”
Both Stark and the administrator of the MFA program, Dwayne Moser, who left the Roski School and is now dean of academic affairs at Otis College of Art and Design, told the Globe they were not contacted by the search committee.
Muhl, whose father, Edward Muhl, rose from bookkeeper to head of production at Universal Pictures in the 1950s, was a music professor at USC for many years before becoming dean at the Roski School in 2013. At Berklee, she succeeded Roger Brown, a gregarious Georgia native who had served as president for 17 years. Muhl was recommended to Berklee trustees by a diverse search committee composed of nine men and nine women, including seven people of color. Chaired by Mannion, a former managing director of the private equity firm Summit Partners, the committee of professors, staff, students, alumni, and members of the board of trustees, lauded Muhl.
“She’s a genuinely caring, engaging, and dedicated person,” Berklee professor and jazz pianist Laszlo Gardony, a member of the committee, said after Muhl was hired. “I’m convinced that we are very lucky to have her.”
Muhl, whose salary was set at $362,675, was officially introduced to students, staff, and faculty in November 2020, in separate video conferences. She was asked at each about the controversy at the Roski School, and Muhl challenged the assertion by the MFA students that she acted in bad faith.
“What I’ve learned in many years in senior administration is that you can seek to do the right thing, you can do the right thing, but it can be misinterpreted and it doesn’t always end up the way that you want it to,” she told students, adding that what is best for students is “the first thing I think about every day.”
Search committee member George Russell Jr., who chairs the Harmony and Jazz Composition Department at Berklee, vowed to students and faculty that the committee had investigated the issues at the Roski School.
“This was a topic we talked about and talked about. We turned over every rock; we looked high, we looked low,” Russell said in one zoom meeting. “We talked with Dr. Muhl’s bosses, her bosses’ bosses, her peers. We heard from students, we heard from faculty, and when we got to the end, we were very, very comfortable with the answers that we heard.”
Neither Russell nor Gardony responded to questions about Muhl’s departure.
Marti Epstein, a composer who’s taught at Berklee for more than 30 years, told the Globe that Muhl was on campus infrequently, which demoralized faculty and students. When Epstein did finally sit down with the president, at a lunch attended by a dozen or so faculty and staff members, she was not impressed.
“It was very clear this meeting was for her to show us who she wanted us to think she was. It was completely insubstantial and completely nothing to do with the curriculum,” Epstein said in an interview. “People would tell her what we do here, what we’re like, and she just wanted to talk about herself the whole time.”
Many at Berklee were also bewildered by two inaugural concerts held in Muhl’s honor last spring. The concerts, which several faculty members cynically referred to as a “coronation,” included a performance by Berklee musicians at MGM Music Hall and another concert at Symphony Hall featuring a piece composed by Muhl.
For the past month, there has been rampant speculation on the Berklee campus about why Muhl was on leave and whether she would return. In the absence of any information from the administration, faculty and staff became concerned and unnerved.
“The students had all these jokes about her being some sort of AI figure,” said Epstein. “People feel unsettled. The college owes its constituents an explanation.”
An earlier version of this story misreported Erica Muhl’s involvement in Career Jam at Berklee in March. Muhl was present at the event.