Writer’s Block 

UM puts its most prized program on the chopping block

Cornell, Columbia, John Hopkins, and the University of Montana. The MFA in creative writing offered by UM is one of the few degrees that carries the same prestige as one earned from one of those other prominent institutions. In the last decade alone, graduates of the creative writing program have published more than 30 books of poetry, short stories, and novels. Consistently ranked as one of the top 10 MFA programs in the nation, the University of Montana has legitimate claims as a world-class center for the practice of writing and the study of literature. Strange then, that in the latest round of proposed cuts of adjunct professors, the university administration would see fit to put the creative writing department director’s position on the chopping block.

Kate Gadbow, director of the MFA program and a university faculty member for 15 years, confirmed that as an adjunct professor, her position is scheduled to be cut. Were it not for some political hardball played by tenured members of the English faculty, she might be on her way out.

“What happened essentially is that some of the tenured faculty volunteered to take unpaid leave,” Gadbow says. “Those people, of course, have to have jobs when they come back in the fall, but in the meantime the adjuncts will have to stay in order to staff the department adequately. I think the dean is re-thinking the move to cut my position, though technically it’s still slated to disappear.”

Gadbow is the first to point out that what’s happening in the English department—which includes the creative writing program—is typical of what could be expected in every department in the College of Arts and Sciences. Most departments will be hard pressed to offer the load of classes required for full accreditation without adjuncts. Gadbow’s fear for the long term is that, without a full-time director and a couple of key adjunct positions, the draw for top-rate writers to study and teach at the University of Montana would disappear, depriving all English students of the opportunity to take classes from some of the nation’s most promising writers.

“Actually, the quickest way to gut the program would be to not fund TAs [teaching assistants],” says Gadbow. “As in other departments, without them, we’re looking at some serious problems in staffing the gen-ed classes [required lower division classes]. If there are no adjuncts, then there’s really no one to teach those gen-ed classes. Most of the 50 or so students in the MFA program are faculty while they’re here. They’re TAs who teach those lower-division comp classes.”

Most TAs accept their teaching duties as part of their course of study, although at UM, it is especially a labor of love. The wage is paltry, a fraction of the more generous stipends offered at private schools and larger state-funded institutions with whom the university competes for students.

In the meantime, Gadbow has the most sympathy for students within a year or two of completing a degree in English who may not be able to find the classes they need to graduate.

“With the tenured professors who normally teach those classes on leave, at the very least, they won’t be getting the expertise of the professors who normally teach those classes,” she says. “And of course, they may not graduate on time.”

For sure, there’s more at stake than prestige should the creative writing program lose its long-standing reputation of excellence. Laura Scholes, an MFA student from Oxford, Miss., seems like a lot of other students to be hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

“Some students have started the process of applying elsewhere,” says Scholes. “Many of us took on huge life-changes to come here. I had other choices, but I made the commitment to come here. Especially in an intense graduate program, you make certain commitments to the university, and they make commitments to you. It seems to me that this university isn’t honoring those commitments.”

Scholes wrote a letter voicing her dissatisfaction to UM Provost Lois Muir and President George Dennison; the letter prompted a phone call at 9 p.m. last Friday to Scholes from Muir, as well as a hand-written note from Dennison. While Scholes was pleased with the personal attention, her response is blunt when she’s asked if either administrator responded specifically to her concerns: “Not particularly. I made the commitment to come to a program that’s successful and well-reputed, and I feel that’s in jeopardy.” Like others in the MFA creative writing program, Scholes may soon begin the process of applying elsewhere to finish her Master’s degree.

Miles Waggoner, recipient of the creative writing program’s Hugo Scholar Award and an MFA candidate slated to earn his degree this spring, echoes Scholes’ sentiments.

“Kate Gadbow is an amazing asset to the program here; she’s absolutely crucial,” he says. “She tracked me down while I was studying on a scholarship in Spain and encouraged me to come here. She’s the one who gets someone like [poet] Joy Williams to visit here. She has the credentials and should be a tenured faculty member.”

Waggoner also supports Gadbow’s contention that ultimately it’s incoming freshmen and undergraduates who stand to lose the most. “Top students teaching those Comp 101 classes is one of the things that draws students here,” says Waggoner, who had several other choices among well-reputed doctorate and MFA programs, but chose to come here. “I’m not really sure what goals the administration has, but whatever they are, it’s not scholarship. You have the swelling administrative ranks, the increasing class sizes. This is a wonderful program, a wonderful town, and I’ve had a great experience here. But seeing what’s happening, if the choice was mine to make as a first-year grad student, I would be going elsewhere.”

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