Aspiring artists who enroll at Rutgers University do not lack for accomplished role models.
The theater department chairman is David Esbjornson, whose credits include the Broadway debut of “Driving Miss Daisy” with Vanessa Redgrave and James Earl Jones. Jayne Anne Phillips, a National Book Award-nominated novelist, leads the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. Jazz students learn from celebrated musicians like the pianist Fred Hersch and can gain access to the Institute of Jazz Studies, the most comprehensive jazz library in the country.
But it wasn’t until last fall that film students had a celebrated cinéaste at their disposal. In September, the university officially introduced an undergraduate digital filmmaking Bachelor of Fine Arts program at its New Brunswick campus, and hired as its director Nicolás Pereda, a 33-year-old filmmaker whose works have been the subject of more than 20 retrospectives worldwide.
The new offering, however, has come with some growing pains: Dena Seidel, who said she wrote and developed the digital filmmaking program at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers, said that she was dismissed from her position as director of the Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking last summer. (Mason Gross officials countered that her appointment was due to expire, and not renewed.) Ms. Seidel, 49, had collaborated closely with students on a variety of successful projects.
Many of her students circulated a petition last year to investigate her departure from the program.
It’s easy to understand why they did so: Under Ms. Seidel’s leadership, film students helped to create the 2015 documentary “Antarctic Edge: 70 Degrees South,” about a team of researchers, led by Oscar Schofield, a Rutgers professor of marine and coastal science, who explore climate change from one of the world’s most dangerous and remotest corners.
The film was financed by the National Science Foundation and the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, and is the first film produced by Rutgers to be released theatrically, Ms. Seidel said. It won the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival’s Best Ocean Science Award and is the only university-produced science documentary, made with the help of undergraduates, streaming on Netflix, she added.
Ms. Seidel said she made more than 20 films with students using an interdisciplinary model that she created. The university disputes that, saying only five films were made jointly by Ms. Seidel and students.
Last summer, George B. Stauffer, dean of Mason Gross, wrote in a statement to The New York Times that while he “cannot discuss personnel matters in any detail,” Ms. Seidel “was neither terminated nor dismissed.”
Ms. Seidel acknowledged that she was offered a new position in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program, but called it a demotion; a Mason Gross spokeswoman said Ms. Seidel “was offered the same exact rank and title that she had occupied for the previous three years.”
Mr. Pereda was not aware of the controversy surrounding Ms. Seidel’s ties to the film program when he accepted the job. But he says he hopes to keep her interdisciplinary vision alive by maintaining the work of the Rutgers Film Bureau, the collaborative production program she established.
“It’s super-interesting,” he said. “The idea is to continue it, and to continue building a lot of bridges with other departments and other faculty across the university.”
In terms of results, Mr. Pereda is interested in work that’s “not specific in its content,” he said. “Cinema should be something innovative. We should be surprised by our students’ work. Not about how perfect it is but how much risk they took.”
Some who signed the petition in support of Ms. Seidel, however, still feel that her vision is singular.
“I’ve got nothing against the new guy,” said Sean Feuer, 24, a 2014 Rutgers graduate and now a film editor. “But Dena doesn’t sleep. She empowered us as students to be architects of an innovative program that got us jobs. Current students should have the same enriching opportunities under her leadership we had.”
Mr. Pereda is continuing with his own vision. He is in the process of hiring adjunct professors. “People I know, friends of friends,” he said.
Because of Mr. Pereda’s experience, those contacts should range far and wide. He is a native of Mexico who came to Rutgers from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. His films often deal with class conflict and have been presented at major film festivals in Cannes, Berlin and Toronto. The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan has shown his work, and so have HBO and Netflix. In 2015 Mr. Pereda made Cinema Scope magazine’s list of 50 best filmmakers under 50.
In January, Mr. Pereda introduced a visiting filmmakers series, which is free and open to the public, and similar to the “Writers at Newark” reading series that has brought authors like Jonathan Franzen and Joyce Carol Oates to Rutgers.
Guests so far have included the actor and director Tom Hulce, who presented “Amadeus,” and the American filmmaker J. P. Sniadecki, who showed his documentary “The Iron Ministry,” about the construction of the world’s largest railway network in China. On April 1, the Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin will present the experimental film “The Forbidden Room,” featuring Charlotte Rampling. A question-and-answer session follows each screening; the eight-event series will end April 21.
For her part, Ms. Seidel has continued to collaborate with students, most recently on “Princess of Piombino,” a documentary about an Italian royal. The project was initiated in 2013 with a Rutgers classics professor, and is in the editing process.
Ms. Seidel was also recently named the director of the Okeanos Foundation for the Sea, United States and Pacific Regions, which has a history of producing environmental films itself, like the Discovery series “Racing Extinction.”
As both filmmakers continue to work with students and professors, there seems to be an abundance of creative energy and enthusiasm for the digital filmmaking program at Rutgers, and for its new director.
“By all accounts, he’s an exceptional filmmaker,” said T. Corey Brennan, the classics professor who has been collaborating with Ms. Seidel, of Mr. Pereda. “People are excited he’s here.”
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article omitted the given name of a classics professor who is quoted about a digital filmmaking program at Rutgers University. He is T. Corey Brennan. An earlier version of a picture caption with this article misstated part of the name of an organization. As the article correctly notes, it is the Rutgers Film Bureau, not the Rutgers Film Institute.