what “prioritization” has to do with creative writing

i was gonna do this whole big post right here.  a sort of “state of the union” type thing for mfa programs. (SOTUMFA?)  and i was gonna crowd-source the whole thing, and get mfa’ers from all over the land to talk about what’s happening in their programs.  then i got lazy.  but the original spark behind that idea still seems relevant, even if i don’t do any actual reporting.

there’s been some funny business afoot at columbia college in chicago.  a few weeks back, it was announced that long-time chair of the fiction writing department there, randy albers, was not having his contract renewed & he would essentially be demoted to just a faculty member.  not for “performance-based” reasons, according to the dean of the school of fine & performing arts—but because of money prioritization.  i didn’t really know what that word meant, but it sounded like something a sneaky consultant would come up with (which turned out to be pretty much true).

columbia college is in the midst of a prioritization process, which means they hired an outside firm to find out what they’re doing “wrong” and how to use their resources more efficiently.  there hasn’t been much press on this—anywhere, near as i can tell—but by far the best write-up i’ve seen has come via new city.  it cites fiction as among columbia’s top departments for student retention and graduation, which is no small matter since the school is 90% tuition driven according to albers.  and yet, columbia still had planned to downsize, folding their fiction department in with poetry and creative nonfiction (currently housed in the english department, which was also going to lose its chair, kenneth daley).

there was considerable backlash from albers’ students & colleagues after the announcement (with a petition website even launched in his support), and eventually columbia backpedaled.  kinda.  they decided to renew albers’ contract as chair—but only for a year.  which seems to me like just kicking the can down the road until the school can find a more PR-friendly way to do what they planned on doing in the first place.  call me cynical, but i can just imagine the administration weighing their options of what would cost them more: lost tuition income from potential students looking elsewhere because of this whole mess, or re-signing albers for a year.

but that new city piece, via interviews with several people at columbia, seemed to suggest a larger issue than columbia’s prioritization process—that a corporate mentality was taking over higher ed.  albers himself concedes that there has to be a delicate balance between the business & education aspects of running a college, but i can’t help but wonder if graduate programs across the country (especially those focused on arts education) aren’t feeling more pressure than usual. (here’s where the crowd-sourcing part of this post was supposed to come in.)

so if there are any bark readers out there currently running or enrolled in an mfa program, i’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.  in the meantime, i urge anyone with even a casual interest in arts education to read that new city piece and perhaps the reader‘s follow-up) as a cautionary tale of what may lie ahead.



  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    As you note from the article: “it was recommended for fiction to merge with poetry and creative nonfiction (currently housed in the English department).”

    That doesn’t seem odd to me. It’s more odd, I think, to have a completely separate fiction department, which is currently the case at CC.

    As far as a corporate mentality taking over higher ed: That seems pretty clear. And if a program is not a STEM program (science, technology, engineering, math) it has very little apparent value to the institution. All I hear about is STEM, STEM, STEM. Regarding public institutions, we’ve done a bad job educating people about the value of higher education. And the public — taxpayers — have decided they don’t want to pay for it — like they don’t want to pay for anything. Except prisons. But higher ed is cheaper than prisons. And people with degrees rarely go to prison. This is how we need to educate. Forget that education is crucial to a healthy democracy, that we all benefit from having an electorate that can think. Forget about any value arising from education that can’t be clearly and easily monetized. Those arguments have no weight. Only money matters. And ideology — government bad. Cheaper than prisons, then, is my argument. Cheaper than prisons.

  • Jason Sommer jason says:

    i guess i didn’t think it was odd that fiction would be merging with poetry & nonfiction. just that it seemed like it would all be housed with the english department, and nobody would have a department chair. but maybe i’m reading that all wrong.

    i can’t argue against focusing on STEM, though. near as i can tell, our nation is lacking a bit in that area (as compared to other industrialized nations). and that is where an awful lot of jobs are. but focusing on STEM to the exclusion of the arts does seem asinine. what i don’t know is how to fund it all without putting an excessive financial burden on the students themselves. or how to convince small government advocates that education actually is cheaper than prisons.

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