One of the stated goals of the Strategy for Distinction — the plan to strengthen the University of Montana and secure its future by cutting its operating budget — is to create “agile, lifelong learners.” For those of you who do not speak business, this phrase means “people who can change jobs every three years.” I have mastered that skill, first at a series of weird and volatile day jobs and now, for almost 10 years, as an unkempt and nervous professional writer. And I owe it all to the creative writing program at the University of Montana.
The future of that program is now in doubt. President Seth Bodnar’s strategy calls for the Department of English to cut the equivalent of six full-time positions — nearly a third of the department. Ironically, this plan was announced the same day that UM creative writing alumnus Andrew Sean Greer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Ten full-time professors used to teach fiction, nonfiction and poetry at UM. Next year, the program is looking at one full-time nonfiction professor who will direct the program, one full-time professor of poetry and one half-time fiction professor. That fiction professor is Kevin Canty, who canceled half of the sabbatical he had planned for next year so that someone would be around to teach workshops. He told me that as he and other longtime faculty near retirement, cuts by attrition threaten to kill the whole program.
“We all get to find out how Ruth Bader Ginsburg feels,” Canty said. He believes that Bodnar’s numbers-based approach has failed to recognize the value of the creative writing program. The Strategy for Distinction quantifies each program in terms of students taught per dollar spent. Creative writing drags down the numbers for the whole English department, because classes are small and taught by professors whose professional accomplishments translate to higher merit-based pay. After years of attrition, only the most senior professors remain, which further skews the metric. On paper, creative writing is one of the more expensive programs at UM.
“Anybody can run the numbers. It does not take a leader to look at a list arranged by dollars per student and draw a line. It takes a leader to see what the metric does not.”
It is also one of the most valuable. I graduated from UM in 2006 with a master’s degree in fiction. Five members of my class went on to become professional writers. Four of us live in Missoula, where our work with national publishers brings hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy. Two more of my classmates opened the Burns St. Bistro, a valuable employer of Missoula’s weirdo population. Other UM creative writing grads founded Submittable, a Missoula-based web services company with more than 10,000 customers. In addition to supporting the local economy, the program has shaped Montana’s brand identity. The phrases “big sky country” and “last best place” both emerged from UM creative writing.
I have framed the value of one of our university’s oldest and most prestigious programs in these terms because Bodnar is a businessman. If he doubts creative writing’s worth as a revenue stream, he should not ignore its value as a loss leader. Student-for-student, other programs might be cheaper. But I can think of none that has done as much to attract students to UM, raise the university’s national profile and shape the identities of Missoula and Montana. If our new university president wants distinction, he will find it in creative writing.
He will also find a vocal community of alumni who love the program and, frankly, know its value better than he does. Creative writing graduates publish. We move from UM to national platforms. We are best-selling authors who write for prominent newspapers and magazines. This community of successful alumni is an asset Bodnar can maintain for very little, just by preserving a program that has existed for nearly a century. Or he can squander it on a short-term budget crisis.
Imagine you inherited a plot of land in a place unknown to you, bequeathed by a distant relative you didn’t know you had. The property is unfamiliar, but the terms of your inheritance call on you to secure it for future generations. Near its center is a hundred-year-old tree. Is your first move to cut that tree down? Or do you consider that it has stood so long for a reason, and that the people who came before might have seen some value in it that you do not yet recognize?
Anybody can run the numbers. It does not take a leader to look at a list arranged by dollars per student and draw a line. It takes a leader to see what the metric does not. A leader has the vision to look past short-term costs and see long-term value. A leader acts to preserve an institution’s assets, rather than mortgaging them for cash flow. If President Bodnar wants to distinguish the University of Montana and himself, he should be that leader. He should re-invest in creative writing, a distinction rooted in this community for a hundred years.
Dan Brooks is on Twitter at @DangerBrooks.