How to Start an MFA Program from Scratch (Part 1 of 3)

Christopher Coake | September 2015

Creating an MFA Program by Christopher Coake

This semester marks the beginning of the new Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing here at the University of Nevada, Reno. Our first class is eleven students strong; as of this writing they have gone through all their orientations, attended their first workshops and seminars, and taught their first composition classes. I’ve already had my first meeting with a student panicked about an upcoming workshop submission—a sure sign our program is finally real.

As any reader of this website can guess, however, this first week of classes was the result of a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes work. In a series of blog posts, I’m going to walk you through that work, which has taken years, even at a school where all interested parties have consistently been in favor of the program coming to life.

A little history: my department began writing the proposal for a new graduate degree program in 2007, two years after I joined the department. We formally sent that proposal up our school’s administrative chain at the beginning of the fall 2013 semester. (We would have done that much sooner, but for the Great Recession, which wreaked havoc upon my state’s budget and especially its higher education funding; as a result, UNR put a moratorium on new programs for years.) The program proposal took a full academic year to move past all the required administrative checkpoints before finally receiving approval from the Nevada System of Higher Education’s Board of Regents. At every step along the way, our department was asked to make revisions to the proposal, in order to facilitate approval at the next. When the program was formally approved, we then had to very quickly publicize it in order to attract enough students to apply by our department’s January 15 deadline. And we succeeded—we had more than enough viable applications from which to select and recruit a very fine first class.                  

I could write thousands of words about each and every sentence in the preceding paragraph, but in this first post I want to talk about the importance of consensus.     

When I was hired, the department’s aspirations to start a program “someday” were mentioned to me. I was certainly upfront with the department about my desire to be a part of such a program—and, if we were going to build one, that I wanted it to be very much like the outstanding MFA program at Ohio State, from which I had just graduated. I had been hired into a new position, one created with expansion of UNR’s creative writing offerings in mind. Though I have often had to argue for particulars of our new program in front of my department, I should stress that I have never had to fight my colleagues to create it; consensus-building has been far easier at UNR than it might have been elsewhere.

Soon after being hired, I began to ask about proposing the new program, and was given license by our then-chair and our Writing Committee to draft a proposal. As the person in charge of authoring this document, I realized quickly (in no small part because I was advised to do so by senior faculty I trusted) that I and the new program would benefit considerably if I could gain buy-in from all interested parties. Our department has a number of different emphases and degrees; all of them would be affected by the creation of an MFA. When I had a question about wording in the proposal, I learned to ask several members of the faculty and/or my chair for advice and contributions. My colleagues had excellent questions, too, which I would not have considered on my own. Our department offers an MA in writing; students pursuing that degree frequently write creative theses. What would the MA look like after an MFA came into being? How would the MFA affect the rosters of our currently-offered seminars? What was the MFA’s growth plan? How could the MFA program ascertain whether applicants could also perform adequately in elective seminars in literature, rhet/comp, and so on?

As a result of listening to my colleagues’ advice and concerns, my initial, somewhat impractical vision for the program changed. That was to the good; I came to understand that the strongest program our department could build was one that would benefit all our emphases and support all our long-range goals. More than once I told colleagues, “If we can’t all be happy with this proposal, then I won’t send it forward.” This wasn’t a threat; it was the truth. We were and are a mostly collegial department, and I wanted to propose an MFA all my colleagues could support with enthusiasm.

The final result, a year later, was a department that voted unanimously to send the MFA proposal forward. And though we were about to enter the Great Recession, that unanimous vote meant a great deal to me and the creative writing faculty, as well as the administrators who received the proposal up the chain. The potential MFA was thereafter mentioned in planning documents for both our department and our college. Hard work got our program on the radar, but consensus made it a reality.

In my next post I’ll discuss the discussions we had about the philosophy of our new program. In an academic universe flush with MFA programs, what business did we have building another one?


Christopher Coake is the author of the novel You Came Back (2012) and the story collection We’re in Trouble (2005), which won the PEN/Robert Bingham Fellowship for a first work of fiction. In 2007 he was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. His short fiction has been anthologized in Best American Mystery Stories 2004 and The Best American Noir of the Century, and published in journals such as Granta, The Southern Review, The Gettysburg Review, Five Points, and The Journal. A native of Indiana, Coake received an MA from Miami University of Ohio and an MFA from Ohio State University. He is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he directs the new MFA program in creative writing.