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Meredith Holt, Published November 24 2013

MSUM to close master's in creative writing program

MOORHEAD – In a departmental meeting Friday, Minnesota State University Moorhead’s English faculty voted to dissolve their creative writing Master of Fine Arts program in an effort to stave off job cuts.

Al Davis, an MSUM English professor and the senior editor of New Rivers Press, said the decision came about because the department had been “put in the red zone.”

“I think all of us are sad and we regret the necessity to make this decision, but if it can save the jobs of some of our colleagues, I think we have to give priority to that,” he said Sunday afternoon.

In light of MSUM’s projected $4.9 million budget deficit for fiscal year 2015 and at the request of department chair Michael McCord, English faculty voted to:

• Reduce all 4-credit courses to 3-credit courses.

• Increase all class sizes.

• Substantially reduce “reassigned time” (work outside the classroom).

• Dissolve the MFA program.

Davis said although the program had the support of the university in the past, in the current climate, it was likely to be cut anyway.

“We felt that we had better be proactive and do it now instead of waiting,” he said.

Anne Blackhurst, provost and senior vice president of academic affairs, said Sunday the decision will need to go through the curriculum process and, ultimately, be approved by the administration.

She said programs that are being phased out are generally kept running – even if it’s on a limited basis – for three years so students who are currently enrolled can finish their degrees.

“During that three-year period, we try to be as flexible as possible so that students do have an opportunity to finish,” she said.

Blackhurst said other departments may be considering similar cuts in an effort to have some control in the situation.

“It’s difficult to think about programs going away, especially programs with a very strong reputation and long-standing history at the university, like our MFA program,” she said.

“But, when we know that hard decisions have to be made, and something is going to have to go, it’s our preference that the departments and the faculty have those conversations and make tough decisions about where they think it makes most sense to continue to devote their time and energy and resources, and where it might not make as much sense.”

The English department’s actions may not prevent layoffs, but, Blackhurst said, it means that if cuts do need to be made, “it’s much less likely that something else would be cut.”

Davis had intended to wait to inform current and former MFA students, but because of expressed anxiety about the cuts, he addressed the four-part decision in an email sent Saturday morning.

With a regretful but grateful tone, he explained how they reached their decision.

“This action is one such measure that we’ve taken at this time to assist the university, to protect faculty in English from possible retrenchment (i.e., a pink slip), and because it became clear that the program, which has never had any faculty of its own, won’t receive the support it needs if it hopes not only to survive but to thrive,” he wrote.

Since its inception in 1996, he wrote, the MFA program has instead “borrowed as needed” from the English department.

“We’re all English professors, so we can only take so many students at a time, and it’s very labor-intensive,” he said Sunday.

Davis closed the email with reflection on the program’s impact.

“Many of our graduates hold tenured teaching jobs locally, regionally, and nationally; others work in publishing or as writers for both nonprofits and major corporations,” he wrote.

Kevin Zepper, an MSUM English professor who was one of three who graduated from the program in 1997, said his MFA studies were a defining time in his life.

“I wouldn’t be at the university in a teaching position now if it weren’t for the MFA program. I can’t imagine what my life would be like without that experience,” he said.

Zepper said class discussions about writing and poetry continued at places such as Ralph’s Corner Bar.

“We loved working with these people, and we loved what we were involved with so much, that the class spilled outside of the classroom,” he said.

And although Zepper’s sad to see the MFA program go, he’s grateful that he got to be a part of it.

“This could have been an idea that died way back in the ’90s, but people worked hard at it and put all of this effort in it,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Meredith Holt at (701) 241-5590