Brighde Mullins was already having a bad semester when she was called in for a meeting with the dean.
Mullins, director of the Master of Professional Writing program at the University of Southern California, had won a Guggenheim Fellowship the previous year, which allowed her to spend some time away from campus. She had holed up at Deep Springs College, an isolated refuge in the Eastern Sierras, where she hiked and swam and worked on a play about a slave poet. She also taught a course on cruelty in literature. It was, she would later write for a college brochure, "the most alive place I have ever taught."
Now her blissful sabbatical was over. She was back in L.A., confronting some real-world problems.
For one thing, she was being sued. One of the program's instructors, Gina Nahai, claimed Mullins had not promoted her because Nahai is a Persian Jew. In the view of Mullins' friends and colleagues, it was a ridiculous claim, and the university had backed her up. But the allegations were deeply personal, and they were out there for anyone to read. While they were being litigated, Nahai remained on the full-time faculty.
Then, in mid-November, Syd Field died of a blood disorder. The 77-year-old Field had been one of the most popular teachers at USC, and one of the most famous. His screenwriting manuals sold millions of copies. Students had been coming to the program for years to hear his "Syd-isms," and maybe get a word of praise from the master. His death was a major loss to the program.
The morning of his memorial service, Mullins was summoned by the dean. Steve Kay had been appointed head of the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences only the year before. Mullins was away when he arrived on campus, and though she had wanted to sit down with him to discuss her plans for the program, they had never met.
She was expecting to receive condolences on Field's passing, and maybe an opportunity to explain what she was up to. She was completely blindsided when Kay told her that he had decided to shut the program down. The decision was final — there would be no argument.
Two days later, she broke the news to her students. When they asked why the program was closing, she had to admit that she did not know.
Creative writing is among the fastest-growing disciplines in academia. The first MFA program launched in 1936, at the University of Iowa. Twenty years ago, there were still only a few dozen such programs in the country. Now there are 235. It may be harder than ever to earn a living as a writer, but the business of teaching writing to grad students is booming.
It can be lucrative. It's a "chalk and talk" operation: There are no laboratories full of expensive equipment. And every year, more and more students are willing to pay full tuition to learn the secrets of the trade from a published author.
The best programs — Iowa, Michigan, Brown, Syracuse, UC Irvine — provide full scholarships and assistantships. But those that don't, like USC, make money.
"The larger ones are not just moneymakers but, in many instances, are supporting the entire English department," says Seth Abramson, who ranks MFA programs for Poets & Writers Magazine.
The business of graduate-level creative writing is so good, in fact, that only two programs, Penn State and Chico State, have ever shut down.
USC's program should be especially prosperous. Over the last 43 years, the writing program has built up its reputation, with a roster of big-name teachers and successful graduates — yet unlike most such programs, it relies on adjunct instructors. Even some of the famous teachers are paid by the class and receive no benefits. Meanwhile, almost all of the students pay full tuition. It should not take a Wharton grad to make that business model work.
Now, however, the university is poised to make its writing program the third ever to close. The official explanation — that it was a "business decision" — doesn't sway most of the students.
"In my opinion, that is total bullshit," says Jim Gosline, a graduate of the program. "It's a total moneymaker."
Dani Byrd, USC vice dean for institutional affairs, tells the Weekly that the decision had a "fiscal component." She declines to explain further, other than to say that the closure was not a comment on the quality of the program.
In a statement, Dean Kay said that he had "complete confidence" in Mullins' leadership. Few students believe that, either.
"If that's their full confidence," says Lee Wochner, a playwright who used to teach at the program, "what does their lack of confidence look like?"
USC is the largest private employer in L.A., with 40,000 students and a $3.6 billion budget. Though its academic offerings are essentially unlimited, it is best known for its film school and its football team.