Purdue English’s Uncertain Future

How a dispute over pandemic-era funding for graduate education is putting the entire department’s future at risk.

Purdue University is forcing a graduate admissions moratorium on the English department for one year, and graduate cohort sizes face a significant reduction when admissions resume. The College of Liberal Arts says this is about making the English department stick to the graduate education budget, which it says the department exceeded during the pandemic.

Affected professors say that’s a deliberate distortion of the facts, and that what’s happening with the budget is part of a longer-term effort to strangle successful English programs into submission—maybe even servitude to the science and engineering disciplines for which Purdue is best known.

Brian Leung, professor of English and incoming director of creative writing, said, “The fact that is that we were originally given money in error by the College of Liberal Arts. And then, subsequently, they told us, ‘Oh, no, that was a loan.’ And that is how they have us over a barrel right now.”

That’s exactly where Purdue wants the English department, Leung continued, describing liberal arts dean David A. Reingold as a long-term critic of the department’s relatively large size and number of programs.

Reingold “does not believe in a robust department of English with varied areas and creative folks,” Leung said. “He thinks that an English department should generally just be English and has said many times that he’s frustrated there isn’t just an English Ph.D., instead of rhetoric and composition and literature. And he’s taking this opportunity to advance that thinking.”

Reingold’s six-year tenure as dean already overlaps with the department’s loss of about 20 tenured faculty lines by attrition, to 46 professors, and its downsizing from six graduate programs to the current three—creative writing, rhetoric and composition, and literature. Of those remaining programs, the master of fine arts in creative writing stands to lose most if graduate admissions are slashed, given the discipline’s reliance on peer feedback. That is, it’s hard to hold a writing workshop with one or two students.

Leung and others say the M.F.A. program needs at least eight new students per year to function, and ideally more. The college is seeking to limit annual graduate admissions to 10 students total across three tracks.

The smaller number of graduate students also risks the future of the well-known literary journal Sycamore Review, which is run by Purdue creative writing students. The department's faculty, among others, believe both the creative writing program and the journal will close if the college gets its way.

“Without the admission of a cohort of at least eight for the M.F.A. program, that program WILL shut down,” Dorsey Armstrong, professor and head of Purdue English, said in a written statement. “This is not ‘a choice that English is making’; this is a situation into which we are being forced.”

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The ‘Loan’

Immediately at issue is about $300,000. Reingold says the English department exceeded its financial commitments to graduate students by that much in fall 2020, so the college transferred funds to cover the gap. Reingold’s recollection is that this was a loan to be repaid within three years—and that English greatly overstepped by admitting 18 graduate students in fall 2021, “rather than accounting for the previous year’s shortfall.” Meanwhile, Reingold said in a statement, “many humanities programs at Purdue and nationally paused or greatly decreased their graduate admissions.”

Purdue English’s fall 2021 graduate cohort was the largest in the college, which averaged 5.5 new students, Reingold also said. And because English graduate students are fully funded for three years in creative writing and five years in the two doctoral programs, the department “has left itself no choice but to pause its graduate recruitment for Fall 2022.”

The department remembers things differently. Armstrong, the department head, said that English only exceeded its graduate budget in 2020 because Reingold’s office announced cuts to that budget after a cohort had already been admitted.

“We made admits based on numbers we had been given,” Armstrong said, “and then suddenly the numbers changed.”

Reingold’s office eventually agreed to give English just enough money—about $300,000—to cover all currently enrolled graduate students, Armstrong continued. This meant the department would “break even” and would not be able to admit a graduate cohort in 2021.

That’s until Purdue’s Writing Lab, which draws its graduate assistants from English, “graciously offered” funds from its own budget to cover 15 new students in 2021, Armstrong said. The Modern Fiction Studies journal, edited at Purdue, separately offered to support two more graduate students, making for a cohort of 17 students—not 18, as the college says, she added.

Problem solved? No. After scraping together the money to fund the 2021 cohort without touching department funds, English was “suddenly” told that the $300,000 the college transferred to cover the 2020 cohort was a “loan" and ordered to repay it, Armstrong said.

Elaine Francis, associate professor of English and linguistics at Purdue and associate department head, summarized things this way: “In July 2020, when we found out that CLA had gotten a significant budget cut due to the pandemic, and that that was going to affect different departments in different ways—and the way it affected our department was that we got a 40 percent reduction in our graduate assistantship budget.”

She continued, “As you can imagine, 40 percent was pretty devastating. Not only could we not cover the new students that we had just promised admission to, we couldn’t even cover all of our returning students. So we were really panicked about how we were going to cover those contracts.”

Around December of last year, Francis said, “the college finally agreed to cover our deficit so that those incoming students and the returning students on contracts could be paid. So that was a big relief. We were thinking, ‘OK, they put us in debt with the budget cuts, but they’re going to forgive the debt.’” Then, she said, “We found out just about two months ago that the money that they gave us to cover those students had been a loan, instead of just, ‘We’ll cover this, this one time, but then you don’t get to admit new students next year.’”

Armstrong said, “The fiscal irresponsibility there lies squarely on CLA. And the sudden conversion of the balance adjustment into a loan is clearly a response to the fact that we were able to secure non-English funds to admit a cohort of 17 and is retribution for finding a solution to our problem.”

The first part of Armstrong’s comment is clearly a reference to Reingold’s assertion that “Purdue expects all departments to exercise fiscal responsibility and stewardship of university resources." The department alone "can determine the future of the publication of Sycamore Review or the M.F.A. in creative writing,” he also said.

The department has since formed a plan to reimburse the college over three years, and says it could even cover the $300,000 immediately through various spendable accounts. Problem solved? Still no. This is because English has again been given a budget that will cover only currently admitted students, not new ones, and has been denied permission to transfer funds from other English department accounts to the graduate budget, it says.

‘Horror Stories’

The writer Roxane Gay, who was an associate professor of English at Purdue for five years before leaving in 2018 over being (in Gay’s words) “significantly underpaid,” wrote on Twitter last week, “The institution doesn’t care. It won’t ever care. And I sure did leave for a good reason. It’s still a shame to see this happening when the M.F.A. has evolved into a truly diverse and rigorous program.”

A petition written by some in the creative writing program makes similar points: “Destructive to graduate and undergraduate education in all English department programs, this policy decision threatens the survival of Purdue’s master of fine arts program in creative writing, one of the top fully-funded programs in the U.S. as well as our internationally-recognized literary journal, Sycamore Review.”

The petition continues, “It’s not lost on us that as our program has grown more diverse, more queer, and more international, so has our funding decreased. We understand the administration’s proposed de facto abolition of the most diverse graduate program in the college only as a deliberate and fatal attack on that diversity.”

Some in the department also link the challenges facing English to Purdue’s 2020 plan to consolidate 16 programs within the diverse School of Interdisciplinary Studies into six directorships. That plan was abandoned after critics said that cutting budgets for programs dedicated to race and gender undercut the stated values of a new diversity task force. But the aftertaste of that attempt lingers.

Avi Kak, a professor of computer and electrical engineering at Purdue, recently wrote an op-ed in The Exponent student newspaper that while he’s pleased his own corner of the university is growing by “leaps and bounds,” he’s concerned about the “horror stories” coming out of the English department.

“While it is wonderful to see my department get larger, one cannot help but wonder if such breakneck growth was causing harm to the rest of the university,” Kak said. “You see, I believe strongly that a university that is only good at STEM education is nothing more than a trade school. I came to Purdue to work in a university, and not in a trade school.”

Reingold, the liberal arts dean, is a sociologist. He’s been publicly critical of liberal arts programs nationwide, saying that “we have adopted the tendency of monopolists, failing to evolve and enhance our product, content in the knowledge that students will enroll in our classes as part of their graduation requirements whether they want to or not. We have lost sight of the fact that our courses may be stale, overly dogmatic and uninteresting to students, accepting our role as an often unwanted requirement on the path to a diploma.”

One of Reingold’s signature accomplishments at Purdue is introducing the Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program, a 15-credit-hour undergraduate certificate taught by liberal arts faculty fellows, followed by three courses thematically designed to complement academic majors across Purdue.

Novelist Joshua Bernstein, director of graduate studies in English at the University of Southern Mississippi, said he's watching what happens at Purdue "because this kind of thing, I fear, is coming for humanities programs all over the country." 

Sycamore Review has "long been one of the premier American literary journals, and the M.F.A. program at Purdue one of the most distinguished," he said. "If a university can slash them, seemingly overnight, and in the face of student and faculty opposition, this bodes terribly for English and liberal arts programs around the country. It should be a wake-up call to every faculty member, student and graduate about the need to prioritize learning at all levels."

In addition to faculty members, students and alumni of Purdue English wonder how these changes will affect their futures.

Anthony Sutton, a recent creative writing alum and former editor of the Sycamore Review, said, “If the program that administered my degree doesn’t exist anymore, I don’t know what signals that might send” to prospective academic employers or anyone else. 

“This does make me feel more professionally uncertain," he said. 

Blake Chernin, current student and editor of Sycamore Review, said that if the college's decision stands, "we would have to stop publishing—we simply wouldn’t have enough people to make the magazine," which has a staff of about 15. 

"The Sycamore Review believes that bringing art into the world is a worthy and important and I personally think it’s pretty devastating that the College of Liberal Arts does not seem to agree." 

By Colleen Flaherty December 13, 2021