University of Montana: “Canary in the Coalmine” for Creative Writing Program Funding

May 14, 2018

State funding of public colleges and universities has never recovered since the Great Recession, and current funding levels are significantly lower than they were in 2008. In response, public higher education administrators have looked to various measures—increases in tuition, cuts in course offerings, increased use of part-time and adjunct faculty, and reductions in full time faculty appointments. Across the nation, parameters are being established to rank how these cuts ought to be best distributed, with a clear preference being assigned to STEM education and consequent sweeping reductions in the humanities.

No surprise then that adequate funding for creative writing programs is progressively under more serious threat, exemplified by the recent cuts affecting the highly respected creative writing program at the University of Montana.

Given the cost-benefit norms of current public policy discourse, defending the value of an education in creative writing to those who are the primary decision-makers in the allocation of public funding is an exercise first and foremost in claiming the “values space” in literary expression—explicitly and forcefully—as being of vital importance to our social identity, cohesion, development, and flourishing. Did Seth Bodnar, the president of the University of Montana, give appropriate weight to these values when he proposed to cut six full-time positions in the Department of English (constituting a third of that department)? Was he even asked to justify such cuts from the perspective of clearly articulated values—or were the “values” only those that can be quantified on the bottom line?

This is not a minor issue for UM. Among those who remain at UM’s English Department, finding appropriately skilled and experienced faculty to teach in the creative writing program will be a challenge. Should we see the cuts at UM as a harbinger of a national decline in popular support for the literary arts? This is difficult to determine, but the creative writing program at UM is among the most distinguished in the country. Established over fifty years ago, it has included among its faculty such remarkable professors as James Crumley, Patricia Goedicke, Richard Hugo, William Kittredge, and James Welch (who was also an alumnus). Among notable alumni of recent years are Sandra Alcossar, Kim Barnes, Judy Blunt, William Finnegan (New Yorker writer and winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Autobiography), David Gilbert, Andrew Sean Greer (winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction), J. Robert Lennon, Janisse Ray, Amanda Eyre Ward, and Robert Wrigley.

There’s no need only to look back; the quality of writers teaching in UM’s program remains noteworthy, with award-winning poets Joanna Klink and Karen Volkman on the faculty as well as novelists Kevin Canty and Debra Magpie Earling (the latter is the Director of the program, and the first Native American to serve in that capacity). Over the years through their hard work and ample accomplishments, UM’s faculty and graduates have provided and continue to provide robust evidence of the importance of writing for the state of Montana, and offer a positive literary influence in the wider world. 

This is not only about the University of Montana. Cuts to creative writing programs threaten our collective efforts to cultivate an articulate, expressive, enlightened, and engaging national culture—a culture of decency, creativity, delight, and dignity—in which creativity and expression across all of the arts is an integral part of who we are and what we value. The place of quality in creative writing in North America calls out for a robust defense, and AWP looks to our membership to make our voices heard.

Chloe Schwenke, PhD
Interim Executive Director

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