Proposed creative writing BA proves ‘point of contention’

One of Oakland University’s colleges could soon have a new major — with or without the approval of its dean.

In 2007, Ronald Sudol, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, told the English department he supported the “further development of creative writing,” according to a Feb. 16 letter addressed to the University Senate.

The English department crafted a proposal for a BA in creative writing, which has since been approved — unanimously — by the Committee on Instruction, the College of Arts and Sciences College Assembly and, on Feb. 17, the University Senate.

In the Feb. 16 letter, however, Sudol wrote that he did not support the current proposal, creating “a point of contention between me and the English department.”

Michelle Piskulich, associate provost, said the program still has two more steps to go through: the Board of Trustees and the President’s Council, which looks at programs across the state. It’s unclear, however, what would happen if the proposal passes those two stages despite not being favored by the dean.

“The process has to be completed before we would even begin to think about what to do next,” Piskulich said.

The next Board of Trustees meeting is March 15, but an agenda is yet to be released.

The dean’s objections

In his letter, Sudol wrote a BA in creative writing “is an oddball degree and extremely rare across the country” and the proposed budget is “totally unsupportable” — though Susan Hawkins, chair and associate professor of English, said there are initial costs, but the program is a “money maker for sure.”

A BA in English with a creative writing track, Sudol wrote, “would be a much more effective credential.”

“I have offered financial assistance to launch  and promote such a track. The department has declined the offer. The offer has been withdrawn,” Sudol wrote.

Outside of his letter, Sudol declined to make any additional comments regarding the creative writing proposal.

A spirited Senate meeting

Many faculty members spoke in support of the proposed creative writing program at the Feb. 17 Senate meeting.

Some said Sudol’s letter, dated one day before the Senate meeting, was written too late.

“It is unthinkable, when work has been done, there hasn’t been any contest over the principles and the content of the proposal, and yet we get this kind of backlash at the end of the day,” Kellie Hay, associate professor of communication, said. “I urge us to support this, and there’s good reason why deans have term limits.”

Kevin Grimm, associate professor of English, said Sudol — who was not present — showed “contempt for the process” of governance.

“I put it to you that someone who is the chief administrative officer of a legislative body (and) issues a public document that says he cannot support a program approved unanimously by that body, in which he has a vote, is failing to do his job (and) should resign,” Grimm said.

After the present voting body voted unanimously in support of the creative writing proposal, Provost Virinder Moudgil said “the process has worked” and that he would take the verdict to the next level.

In an interview with The Oakland Post the following day, President Gary Russi said that when the proposal comes to him,  “I will support it and I will take it to the board to pass it.”

Liberal arts programs are a focal point of Russi’s, as he stated at the university update.

“From a better logical point of view, reading and writing are the most important things as a foundation for anybody who’s educated,” Russi said. “When I talk to a lot of CEOs and those graduated from college, they really, really value those people who can read and write.”

What the program would be

OU would be the third school in Michigan to offer such a program, Eastern Michigan University and Saginaw Valley State University being the other two. There are 159 undergraduate programs in creative writing across the U.S., up from 10 in 1994.

The proposed major would require 44 credits and a creative thesis, such as a collection of poetry. Possible jobs for creative writing majors include freelance writer, publications manager and technical editor.

The English department had 444 students at the start of the Fall 2010 semester, up 7 percent from 2009. But all programs within the English major are down, with the exception of Cinema Studies, which started in 2009 and currently has 61 majors. Still, there’s been a demand for creative writing.

“We’re responding to what’s become the most popular request in our English student surveys … which is more courses in creative writing,” English professor Ed Howarth Hoeppner said.

Jason Storms, a junior studying English and psychology, said a creative writing BA would be a “great opportunity” for OU. He said the program could set him up for a M.F.A. or Ph.D. in creative writing and provide him with “artistic skills I could enjoy throughout my life,” regardless of whether he used them professionally.

“I think it is no secret that Oakland University has some phenomenal artistry being crafted across the disciplines, and I think it is time that we bring our literary artistry into the light more, which I think a creative writing major would do,” Storms said.

Hoeppner said the program would be ready to launch in the fall with existing faculty, though it wouldn’t be able to roll out the second phase — screenwriting and TV writing — for a few years.

OU currently has one faculty member hired as a creative writer, but whether the university will have a creative writing major remains unknown.

“We’re into an area nobody really understands,” Hawkins said. “Stuff may just sit … we just don’t know.”