Does This Seem Right? The Closing of a Graduate Program.

When Steve Kay, Dean of the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, took leadership of the school in October of 2012, he said, “As a biologist, I have often focused on “nature versus nurture” to help me understand how we form ourselves and become who we are,” but, he said, he had come to realize that “only focusing on nature and nurture denies something critical: narrative. For it is through narrative that we learn to express our experiences, and place them in the context of what really makes us human.” This phrase, strictly parsed, strikes me as not quite accurate—but suffice to say, he voiced his admiration of narrative.

One year later, he called a meeting with the chair of the Master of Professional Writing Program—the 43-year old program dedicated to the study of narrative—and without any warning informed her he was closing the program down, with enrollment to cease immediately, and all students required to complete their studies by spring of 2016.

The shuttering of an institution is always a shock to those invested in it. But in this case, as the shock has subsided, what remains–with me, and with others I’ve talked to–is a sense of betrayal about the way the closure has been conducted. First, Dean Kay declined to give any reasons for the action beyond stating that it was “a business decision,” despite  a solid enrollment (just under 90 students), and no budget issues. Second, Kay seemed to discourage any official communication about the decision. There was no formal announcement of the closure by the Dornsife administration. Most faculty and staff of other departments learned of the move through the media, well after the fact. It’s difficult to imagine that this choice to  close the doors with no announcements could be anything but a strategy to reduce the risk of any protest—by the time a critical mass of people figured it out it had happened, it would be too late.

The one group they could not avoid telling were the current students. The administration now needed them—including many who had chosen the program because they could complete it part time while remaining in the work force—to take enough credits each term to matriculate by 2016. A student-instigated letter writing campaign elicited boiler plate responses from the dean’s office re-iterating the vague  “business decision” . When the same letter writing campaign garnered media attention from a major newspaper, a token meeting was granted with Vice Dean Steve Lamy, who elaborated on the business decision by citing fiscal difficulties that couldn’t be shown on paper, but that were partly related to declining enrollment—a confusing statement to those who had heard the program had been asked to be more selective in its admissions process and been given no sign that feelings on this had changed.

A common narrative device–we learn about these things in the Master of Professional Writing Program at USC– is called subtext. On TV, when the hot girl tells the disguised-but-still-hot super-hero, “You’re a jerk, I never want to see you again,” what she really means is, “I love you.” That’s the subtext.

In real life, when the dean of a big college says “business decision,” the subtext is “I don’t have to give you real reasons, and I’m not going to.” Which is smart, since real reasons might elicit real discussion, and real discussion might make the decision an issue in people’s minds. Instead of closing the program, he seemed to prefer to disappear it.

As taxpayers and American citizens we have the right to demand a certain degree of transparency from our government officials. As customers, we are entitled to ask for accountability from the heads of other institutions–like the banks where we invest our money. Transparency and accountability don’t always happen in these arenas, but there is at least the pretense that they should, and when someone gets called out for circumventing these requirements, other people who get riled up and form investigatory committees.

What weirds me out in this case is how no one has even bothering to pretend. And, publicly at least, how few folks seem riled up. Most MPW alumni have invested both time and in excess of $40,000 for degree that is being declared defunct. They are lifelong members of the “Trojan Family,” who will receive fundraising calls until they die, and probably for a few months afterward. Do they have a right to an explanation? Do they have the right to be satisfied that the leadership of their alma mater has acted in their best interests—if not as individuals, than at least in the interests of university that asked them to feel like one of its own? Do they have the right to informed at all? To date, program alumni have received no university notification that the degree they earned at USC is has been discontinued.

Programs close, companies get downsized, people get fired—and business decisions get made.   I’m not writing this to change the turning of the world. I am writing it to make a record, because I believe that just because we have to accept people’s decisions, doesn’t mean we should obediently accept their version of the narrative.

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