USC's "Business Decision" to Ax Its Master of Professional Writing Program Leaves Unanswered Questions
ILLUSTRATION BY JON KRAUSE
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.
The Master of Professional Writing program, or MPW, has long been an orphan within the university and an oddity in the broader world of graduate-level writing programs.
The program began in the 1970s as part of USC's College of Continuing Education, which no longer exists. Though it resides within the Dornsife College of Letters, Arts & Sciences, it does not belong to any academic department. That means its director has greater autonomy but fewer allies in academic battles.
At first, the program was set up as a Master of Fine Arts. But it was dissolved and reorganized as an MPW in the early '80s. James White, who was then director, says that, at the time, the program would have had to offer language courses in order to call it an MFA, and so the university invented the title of MPW.
For some in the program, the title was meaningless, an MFA by another name. But others took the word "professional" very seriously. To them, most MFA programs were too academic — places that trained students to become writing teachers instead of preparing them for the literary marketplace.
"The end goal was to become a professional," says Shelly Lowenkopf, a longtime instructor in the program and author of The Fiction Writer's Handbook. "We didn't want people who came to get a degree to teach."
By and large, the instructors came from an era when "literary fiction" and "commercial fiction" were not mutually exclusive categories. They saw themselves as literary, but their advice tended to be pragmatic, no-nonsense stuff. In many cases, it was informed by years of working for movie studios and TV shows.
In its early days, the program was one of the few to offer a master's degree in screenwriting. It also offered students the chance to study a range of disciplines, including fiction, nonfiction, poetry, film and drama — which also was unusual.
"It was a very important program to us back in the 1980s because of its friendliness to screenplay writing," says David Fenza, executive director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. "A novelist or a fiction writer could try their hand at screenwriting. It was a very good place to go to for that."
Since then, though, things have changed. Nowadays, MFAs in screenwriting are offered all over the country. (It's even possible to get one across campus, at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.) Meanwhile, the MPW title has become more of a hindrance. Abramson, of Poets & Writers Magazine, says writing students often are confused by the MPW designation.
Like an MFA, the MPW is a "terminal" degree: As the highest in that discipline, it can be used as a credential for teaching. But because the MPW is rare, with only a couple of schools still offering one, many students worry it won't be seen as terminal by future employers. Even the term "professional writing" has come to mean something else in recent years. Now, outside of USC, it generally refers to technical or business writing, not to fiction.
As a result, USC has fared poorly on Abramson's rankings, which are based on surveys of prospective students. In three years of his Poets & Writers list, the program ranked 124th out of 138, 100th out of 135, and 121st out of 137.
"There's some concern about how the degree will be seen on the job market," Abramson explains.
Last year, he removed USC from the rankings entirely. The rankings have generated heated controversy in the MFA world, and in USC's case, its subjective student assessments probably are not fair. The program has always maintained a lot of high-quality instructors. But the MPW title is a hurdle.
However, anyone who might attempt to change the program to an MFA would run into opposition, partly from alumni but also from instructors who would see it as the end of "professionalism" and the takeover by an academic sensibility.
Writers, as a group, are a sensitive bunch. Managing them is not easy. Getting them to teach night courses — for little pay, to students of varying talent — requires craftiness and a gift for flattery.
James Ragan did it for 25 years. A poet and a world-class name-dropper, he is fond of telling stories about his encounters with celebrities and heads of state.
He built the program, and he thought of the faculty as a family. As with any family, there were squabbles. Many of the faculty rolled their eyes at Ragan's rhetorical flourishes and considerable ego.
Lowenkopf, who taught there for 34 years, once wrote a short story that featured a Ragan-like character who gives "high-flown explanations" of the obvious.
"He had a habit of reading one poem [of his] that was touching and poignant, but he went over the top with it," Lowenkopf says. "It was about how, as a young person in the Depression, his parents had been farm people and had to slaughter the family cow to have something to live on. We then began calling him the Cow."
Faculty remember Ragan with a mix of fondness and aggravation.
"For all his craziness, Jim had integrity toward the program," says John Rechy, who taught there during Ragan's tenure. "He cared about teaching. He was also loony in many ways."
Ragan was relentless in recruiting famous writers to teach, luring such figures as Gay Talese, Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road) and Hugh Selby Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn). He then used those names to sell the program to students.
"The students always felt they were paying so much money," Ragan says. "We were having them study with top names so they could name-drop them wherever they went to work."
According to many faculty and alumni, Ragan would accept virtually anyone who applied. During his tenure, the program swelled to 200 students, which is large by MFA standards. At its height, the faculty were told the program was making $1 million a year.
Part of the reason it was so profitable was that the teachers were paid very little. Rechy, who wrote one of the seminal texts of gay literature, City of Night, says he was insulted by how little he was paid. For several years he battled Ragan and the university for a modest pension.
"He was fucking us over all the time," Rechy says, "but he was doing it in a friendly way."
From time to time, Ragan also would become embroiled in broader university politics. The Master of Professional Writing program offers courses similar to those in available other schools and departments, including English, drama and cinema. Occasionally there were turf battles, and rumors that somebody was trying to shut the program down.
"He would tell me about different conflicts he was having with different people," says David Scott Milton, another longtime faculty member. "I would see it as paranoia — like, 'This guy's trying to get me.' He was always trying to impress on me how difficult his job was and that he was fighting for the program."
Ragan would concede to certain tweaks, but he was dexterous enough to keep almost complete control of the program.
"He always made sure he had a dean or more in his corner," says Sid Stebel, another former faculty member. "When you get into campus politics, it gets ugly."
Ragan prefers not to go into specifics on that front but says he had cordial relations with the other departments — though he had to defend himself whenever he got a new boss.
"It was always the change of deans," he says. "That was always the problem."
And USC became increasingly corporate over the years, Ragan says, echoing a common complaint among the university's faculty. (For many, it was symbolic when, in 2011, USC sold naming rights to its 131-year-old core college — the College of Letters, Arts & Sciences — to steel baron David Dornsife for $200 million.)
"We were a cash cow and we knew that," Ragan says, but the money was never returned to the program. "We were always fighting for our budget. We were the bastard child."
In 2007, Ragan was abruptly forced to resign for reasons that were never made clear. "I was leaving because 25 years was enough," Ragan says, "no matter what anyone else says."
At that point, the university could have shuttered the program. Instead, the deans decided to organize a search committee to find a new director.
Rechy was one of the committee members. He says that USC advertised the position only in a couple of minor publications, and the applicants were underwhelming.
"The advertising was chintzy," Rechy says. "There were maybe two people that might have been good. We got a lot of loonies who wanted to come to Southern California and go to the beach."
The committee recommended Tom Lutz, who was teaching at the creative writing program at UC Riverside, and who now runs the L.A. Review of Books. Offered the job, Lutz had a going-away party at Riverside, and was introduced at USC faculty meetings as the new director.
But then USC got cheap again, according to several faculty members. Lutz was tenured at Riverside, and so USC had to offer him a tenured position as well. But the MPW program had no tenured positions. So USC created a tenured position in the English department for Lutz. The English department agreed to the arrangement, if Lutz would teach a class there.
Lutz was happy to do that but said he would need an assistant to help with administrative duties at MPW. That would have cost at least another $50,000, and that's where USC drew the line. Unable to come to terms, Lutz returned to Riverside. (Lutz did not return calls seeking comment.)
Then USC turned to Brighde Mullins.
Mullins grew up in the 1970s in a military family in Las Vegas, immersed from childhood in plays and poetry. After earning an undergraduate degree at UNLV, she studied at Iowa and the Yale School of Drama and taught at Harvard.
She often works with academic themes — plays about poetry and the like — but also exhibits a sense of humor about herself. One of her plays, Those Who Can, Do, is about a striving and perfectionist poetry instructor who, like Mullins, attended elite universities and works literary quotations into her conversations. The character is tormented, amusingly, by the college bureaucracy and a mentally ill student.
Despite Mullins' pedigree, some of the MPW faculty had misgivings about her. She seemed too "academic," and they worried that she would undermine the department's ethic of professionalism.
To Stebel, she represented a younger generation of writer, with an approach to literature summed up as, "Fling it against the wall and look at the abstract vision."
She seemed nice enough. But the days of the program's old guard were numbered. "It seemed like everything would be all right," Milton says. "The next thing I knew, I wasn't teaching there anymore."
Ten teachers out of 30 were let go. All were adjuncts on year-to-year contracts, which meant they could easily be dismissed. Most of them were older men — some in their 70s or 80s — and several had been there for decades.
Probably any director in similar circumstances would have cleaned house, but the way in which it was done struck many as underhanded. Instructors were told that no one had signed up for their classes — which they found hard to believe, and insulting. For several, the possibility was held out that they might be invited back if demand returned. It never did.
"It was really harrowing," Rechy says. "It was a terrible atmosphere that was created. People were moving into camps. The ones that she championed were the ones that were getting extra courses."
Mullins declined to comment for this story. But those who are sympathetic to her viewpoint say that she was charged with improving the quality of the program, and she did that. She hired Dana Goodyear, a New Yorker staff writer, and Mark Richard, winner of two Pushcart Prizes. Ragan had been running the program almost as a private club; it was unreasonable to expect that to continue.
"Brighde was perceived as someone who was friendly to the administration," says James Ferrera, an MPW graduate who was president of the alumni association. "She had a good ability to work with the administration within the confines of the bureaucracy."
Mullins also made the program more selective. Gone were the days when anyone could get in. Several faculty noted that the quality of students rose under Mullins' tenure, which made the workshops more productive.
Many of Mullins' students extolled her virtues and raved about their experience.
"The program she put together and the people she handpicked to teach us — there's a sense that they really care," says Devorah Cutler-Rubenstein, an MPW student. "I've never been in a situation where I felt in a nest, where I felt held, where I felt really accountable to my own voice."
Mullins aspired to someday convert the program to an MFA, though even mentioning that would provoke resistance.
"What she was shooting for was a program that could attract students who were thinking about schools like Iowa," says Rita Williams, a former instructor.
But as the program became more selective, it also became smaller. From a peak of 200 students under Ragan, the program shrank to about 80 in recent years.
Not all of that decline could be attributed to higher standards. In part, it likely had to do with the ongoing recession. But some also say that Mullins was not as aggressive at marketing as Ragan.
"The key difference between Jim and Brighde is that Jim was a hell of a promoter," says Chris Meeks, a former instructor. "He went to lots of conferences. He took out ads. He would always be on the lookout for name writers. He used name people to his advantage. ... Brighde is — I've talked to her, and she seems very intellectual and smart. She just may not be the promoter that Jim was."
Meanwhile, she had to deal with a rebellion on the personnel front, which threatened to spill into public view.
Gina Nahai was one of the program's success stories. She graduated in 1987, published several novels dealing with the Persian-Jewish experience, and returned to the program to teach in 1999. She began as an adjunct and is now one of a handful of full-time lecturers, earning $54,000 a year.
Her students all seem to love her. She is widely praised for encouraging young writers; she has invited many students to her home, and stays in touch with them long after they graduate.
Nahai also declined to comment for this story, citing her pending lawsuit. But in the suit, Nahai alleges that Mullins disrespected her from the start. Upon their introduction in the fall of 2008, Mullins allegedly told Nahai, "I haven't read your books, but I'm aware of the subject matter." Nahai asked if she knew about the history of Persian Jews, and Mullins said she did not, but that she had heard about Nahai. "You're all very ambitious," Mullins said, according to the suit.
It may have been intended as a compliment. However, in her suit Nahai says she took it as a prejudiced remark about Iranian Jews.
The relationship deteriorated from there. When Mullins said she intended to raise the level of the program both academically and aesthetically, Nahai took it as a slight against those who were already teaching there.
Nahai alleges that Mullins left her out of an MPW brochure and prevented her from going on an undergraduate recruiting trip. When Mullins tried to cut her to half-time, Nahai appealed to the university and got to keep her job. But slights accumulated.
Nahai accused Mullins of keeping her off panels at the L.A. Times Festival of Books for three years running, while most other program faculty were included. Nahai also claimed that Mullins made sure her accomplishments were not touted on the MPW website.
Nahai supported Rechy in his dispute with the university over his pension, which she alleges subjected her to further retaliation. Nahai wanted a promotion to assistant professor but didn't get it. The job went instead to someone who was friendlier with Mullins.
In fall 2010, Nahai accused Mullins of discriminating against her and against the older faculty members who had been dismissed. Nahai claims that Mullins began sobbing, and then told Nahai that she could have Mullins' job after she leaves the program.
On another occasion, Mullins was in her office playing with her dog when Nahai approached and asked to talk about why she had been denied a promotion. According to the suit, Mullins charged to the door and slammed it.
Nahai sued USC in September for discrimination and harassment. In its response, USC denied the allegations and said Nahai's contract requires her to take disputes to arbitration.
"Nahai is a fiction writer," the university's attorney wrote. "This complaint is, perhaps, Nahai's greatest work of fiction yet."
A hearing is scheduled for May. The lawsuit, which received extensive media coverage when it was filed, has put others in a difficult position. Most of the current faculty have expressed support for Mullins, while many of the former faculty are sympathetic to Nahai.
"I've been friends with Gina and Brighde," says writer Sandra Tsing Loh, who is on the faculty. "Without knowing what may or may not have happened, it's very hard for me personally to imagine Brighde being overtly racist in her comments."
"The business with Gina makes me very sad," Rita Williams says. "It's a no-win situation. It's just a nightmare."
Mullins never had a problem with the administration as long as Howard Gillman was dean of the Dornsife College. But then, inevitably, came a change of deans.
Steve Kay arrived in 2012 with his own mandate for excellence. A biologist, his tastes in literature are a bit old-fashioned. When someone asked him on Twitter to name his favorite novels, he cited works by Cormac McCarthy, V.S. Naipaul and Graham Greene.
Kay also brought a keen eye for quantification. When the School of Philosophy leapt from 46th to 11th in national rankings, Kay made sure to underscore that success in a speech to the faculty.
"Dornsife is on the move, and there is no sign of slowing down!" he said.
His enthusiasm did not extend, evidently, to the MPW program. In November, he informed Mullins he would be closing it down. Current students would have to graduate by spring 2016. No new students would be admitted. A faculty committee was assigned the job of winding down the program. Mullins is not on the committee.
The program's instructors remain baffled by the decision.
"They never said, 'Your program is in jeopardy. Here's your benchmark,' " Loh says. "There was no warning at all."
"It's just perplexing," says Janet Fitch, a teacher in the program and the author of White Oleander. "It seems they're getting closer and closer to what they wanted. ... My only thought is that the people who are making the decisions don't really quite know how amazing these writers are."
A group of students has launched a letter-writing drive to change Kay's mind. So far, though, he has refused even to meet with them.
"We deserve an explanation," says Doug Greco, one of the students involved in the campaign. "Because of the time, energy and money we've invested, we want to know what that 'business decision' is."
"It's like breaking up with someone and hearing that it has nothing to do with you," says Barrington Smith, another student. "We need closure."
Greco entered the program last fall, believing that he would have five years to complete his degree. Now he will have to speed up a bit. But the closure of the program also affects alumni, who will have a harder time explaining their degree.
Says Ferrera, a 2006 graduate, "I wish they would fix it, whatever they feel is wrong with it, instead of just shutting the door on it."
Kay and his vice deans have declined to give their reasons, perhaps because doing so would only invite discussion. In lieu of a debate, there has been rampant speculation.
Asked for his interpretation of the closure, Shelly Lowenkopf said, "The English department won."
The English department already offers a highly regarded Ph.D. program in creative writing. Lowenkopf and others expect that the department soon will offer an MFA in creative writing to replace the MPW program.
Others blame the School of Cinematic Arts.
"The USC film school is so powerful ... and MPW is so small," says Gosline, an MPW grad who teaches in USC's business school. "Ultimately it comes down to money. Whoever is making the money makes the decisions."
Another theory is that the deans may have been trying to streamline the bureaucracy. Last fall, Kay announced he would also phase out the much smaller Master of Liberal Studies program, which has only about 20 students. While officially the two decisions are unconnected, the MLS and the MPW were the only two Dornsife programs that were unattached to any academic department.
Low enrollment and lack of profitability appear to have been the key factors in the demise of MLS, and the same could be true for MPW. Enrollment in MPW was less than half its peak, which had to affect the bottom line. But those close to the program say it was still within its budget and making money. That assessment, however, might not factor in administrative overhead charged by the university.
"It would be easy not to make money on that if you weren't careful," says Jim White, who ran the program in the early 1980s. With salaries, administrative charges and conferences, costs can quickly add up.
White suggests that the turmoil and acrimony within the department might also have played a role. "If there's a lawsuit, administrators don't want to deal with that," he says.
Still another theory is that Mullins was given an impossible job. She was handed an outmoded, dysfunctional program and told to revamp it. In doing so, she made enemies, but she also made it conform with top-tier MFA programs around the country.
"If that's what we want to compete with," Greco says, "then Brighde did her job."
But it turns out USC does not want that — at least, not now. The top MFA programs are not commercial enterprises — they run on grants. USC wants its program to turn a profit.
The gulf between a school for professional writing and an academic MFA program may have been too great for anyone to bridge.
John Rechy, for one, is not sorry to see the MPW program go. He is wistful about the original program, but that died years ago, he says, and the newer incarnation is not worth mourning. He sees it as a symbol of what has happened to literature.
"It was a master's in professional writing," he says, "and all the professional writers are dead."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.