Budget cuts threaten to end the University of Wyoming’s graduate study in creative writing, a program with a proud history and a deep network of alumni in and outside the state.
To save $2.5 million, the University of Wyoming identified degree programs across seven different colleges as candidates for either reductions, reorganizations or eliminations. Among the programs proposed for elimination is UW’s Master of Fine Arts in creative writing.
The proposal has stunned the program’s faculty, students and alumni — a group that includes award-winning novelists, working journalists, podcasters, policy workers, university professors, scientists and science writers.
To the program’s defenders and participants, the elimination is immensely short-sighted. They decried the devaluation of a renowned writing program that draws attention to the university and state and boosts its arts and cultural scenes — an engine, they say, for the economic development Wyoming craves.
“This art scene that we have in Wyoming is really vibrant and is really necessary here,” said Carly Fraysier, a program alumna who manages communications for the prestigious Ucross art residency in northeast Wyoming. The MFA program, which fosters Wyoming’s cultural economy by bringing talented writers to the state for training, she said, pays dividends when those writers publish their works.
“It matters what’s taken back out into the world,” Fraysier said.
Program supporters hope the university will abandon the idea over the course of a coming review. The UW board of trustees gave the proposed cuts an initial approval on Nov. 12. UW rules require a 120-day review period before the trustees consider a finalized proposal.
New president Ed Seidel and UW’s interim provost Anne Alexander will decide which proposals will advance to the trustees after a deliberation that includes input from department heads and faculty, Alexander said.
The MFA program was proposed for elimination because it graduates a small number of students each year — 43 in the last five years — Alexander said.
The scale of the budget cuts means the university is in “existential crisis mode,” Alexander said, and requires the university to reassess what it can achieve for the state. UW must find at least $42.3 million in savings for now, and it’s likely it will see more budget cuts in the future.
“We just don’t have the money anymore to do the things we did in the past,” she said. “We have to look hard at everything, and these folks have not been singled out.”
Talented writers influenced by Wyoming
Those trying to save it believe the MFA program is a low-investment, high-value vehicle for UW to achieve the vision new leader Seidel has laid out for it. Seidel has outlined four pillars for UW’s evolution — more digital, more interdisciplinary, more entrepreneurial and more inclusive.
Though small, the creative writing masters program’s student population is among campus’s most diverse and interdisciplinary studies have been a focus for more than a decade, current and former students said.
Attracted by full funding, a legacy of accomplished graduates and teachers and wide-open spaces that inspire many writers, a new small group convenes in Laramie each year for the MFA program.
Students and alumni describe a tight-knit community of dedicated writers who work hard during their two-year study. Regardless of where people come from or what and where they’re writing about, the state leaves its mark, they said.
“We start out writing about whatever our main focus is, and then we sort of can’t help ourselves,” MFA student Nell Smith said. “Wyoming sneaks in the cracks.”
The state is “fertile ground for doing the kind of thinking and writing that a lot of us are doing,” she said.
Smith was attracted to the program by the faculty, writers associated with it — such as Joy Williams, who teaches a course each semester, and Brad Watson, an accomplished fiction writer and beloved professor who died this fall — and the ability to maintain interdisciplinary studies in natural science. Smith’s current writing is steeped in ecology and focused on human interaction with the natural world, she said. One focus has become an archaeological site near Casper.
Fraysier, who along with her work at Ucross helps lead horse-packed writer retreats into the backcountry of the Bighorn mountains, said the program helps nourish rich Wyoming traditions.
“It’s a state where craft matters and storytelling matters so at its core sometimes I don’t understand why there wouldn’t be this support for this incredible program that teaches that,” she said.
MFA student Rodrigo Duran came from Washington D.C., where he worked as a television journalist, to spend two years shaping novels and short stories in Laramie. Drawn by the program’s reputation, he has discovered another benefit in his first semester.
“The landscape is so open that you can feel yourself kind of slowing down and thinking about the things you really are trying to say,” Duran said. “I don’t think I could have worked on the projects I’m working on now anywhere other than Wyoming.”
Alumni — some leave, others stay
Graduates and professors have earned a string of literary awards and prestigious fellowships, those trying to save the program note.
Kali Fajardo-Anstine, a 2013 program graduate, won a number of awards, including a prestigious American Book Award, for her novel Sabrina & Corina. Fajardo-Anstine’s book began as a thesis at UW, according to an online petition to save the program. A 2019 graduate, Jenny Tinghui Zhang, has a publisher ready to translate a novel born of her thesis project into a dozen languages, according to the petition.
A review of other graduates — the ones who stay in Wyoming — shows the program is also more than a springboard to publishing elsewhere.
Today, MFA graduates work as lobbyists in the state capitol. They buoy the state’s art institutions, strengthen its journalism landscape and play indispensable roles in communicating modern stories of Wyoming science and wildlife.
Ammon Medina at the advocacy organization Wyoming Equality and Erin Jones, Wyoming Public Radio’s cultural affairs producer and the host of award-winning podcast HumaNature, are two of many examples of graduates working in the state.
Another is Emiline Ostlind, the founding editor of Western Confluence magazine. Along with another MFA graduate, Bethann Merkle, Ostlind has worked with the Wyoming Migration Initiative — communicating wildlife science to the public through writing, mapping and video.
The migration initiative brings focus to Wyoming science and drives discussion on wildlife issues, said Kristen Gunther, a program alum and conservation advocate with the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “Wyoming is producing cutting-edge, front-of-the-pack science on these large scale migrations,” she said. “We need storytellers and people who are able to talk about that.”
Last year, Gunther served as co-chair of a Wyoming Game and Fish working group on chronic wasting disease, a disease with the potential to devastate wildlife problems that has presented a knotty natural resource policy issue. It was her research while in the writing program that first led her to the subject, Gunther said.
Small but in high demand
Since 2015, the MFA program has admitted four to nine students each year. In 2015, 235 people applied to the program, according to admission data creative writing professor Alyson Hagy provided WyoFile. UW admitted nine. That year was a recent high-water mark. In 2016, the department lost significant funding to broader budget cuts and the faltering of an investment fund that supported a range of UW programs.
The department closed the poetry side of its MFA and at the same time lost prominent faculty, including the only faculty member of color and also a prominent LGBTQ advocate, Hagy said. The loss of the poetry program also resulted in about 50 fewer applicants a year, Hagy said. It remained competitive, however. In 2018, 180 people completed applications and UW again admitted nine.
This year, UW accepted nine out of a field of 113. The number of applicants in 2020 was “not where we want to be,” Hagy said. Prospective students took note of “all white and straight” faculty, Hagy said, which is beginning to change.
“Our queries for  were very high until the news of the program review,” Hagy said, “which will probably affect our admissions process negatively, no matter what happens.”
Interim provost Alexander is well aware of the program’s credentials, she told WyoFile. So far, the writing program, along with the popular master’s degree in American Studies program, are the ones proposed for elimination she’s gotten the most pushback on, she said.
“The fact is every program that we offer, unless it hasn’t had someone in a long time, has a constituency,” she said. “We’ll hear feedback on all of them I can almost guarantee.”
UW officials will consider more than just graduation numbers over the course of the review, according to Alexander. “Final decisions should never be made on data alone,” she said. “They should be made on data as well as qualitative and indirect impacts that a program has.”
Seidel wants UW to be a driver of economic development for a state struggling to diversify. Alexander, who is an economist by training, said both she and the president recognize the role arts play in the state.
“The amenities a place has include not only its natural beauty but also its creative economy,” Alexander said. “There is no case to be made for economic development in a place where that is not there.”
Gunther would add another role program writers will play in Wyoming going forward. Wyoming is at a crossroads, she said, and the state will pick the right path forward based on who it’s been and who it wants to become.
“That’s storytelling,” Gunther said, “that’s figuring out who we are.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated to correct the number of graduates from the MFA program — UW’s interim provost Anne Alexander told WyoFile the program had graduated 26 students in the last five years. That was not the correct number, UW officials said after publication, and the program in fact graduated 43 students. —Ed.