A gift from James Michener enriches Texas’ student writers.
“THIS MONEY WILL HAVE a force all its own,” says Professor Jim Magnuson about the $15 million that James Michener presented to the University of Texas at Austin in July to establish a creative writing program of national prominence. The endowment is the largest individual gift ever received by the university, and it is probably the largest endowment for any writing program in the country. It vaults what was a modest, two-year-old graduate program housed in a minuscule office suite in the Perry-Castañeda Library out of obscurity and into the limelight.
So modest was the Texas Center for Writers (established in 1989 by a $3 million gift, also from Michener) that it didn’t even grant a degree—not surprising since $3 million isn’t what it used to be. The $150,000 generated yearly from the gift was barely enough to cover fellowships and expenses. The fellowships helped attract more graduate students, but the absence of a degree lowered the program’s academic credibility.
Being credible is what it’s all about in academia, where the ability to attract literary celebrities like Jay McInerney, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, and Joyce Carol Oates as instructors and guest lecturers is the measure of a writing program’s star power. (So far, the most famous writer to lecture at the center has been its benefactor; the second most famous lecturer was novelist Rita Mae Brown.) Why such a tentative debut? The program’s director, novelist Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, says, “I didn’t want the center to start off with a lot of bombast.”
At the University of Texas, the Writers Center, as it is known, served only as a supplement to the graduate programs in the departments of English, theater and dance, and radio-television-film. Center board member Tom Schatz (who is also a professor in the Department of Radio-Television-Film) says, “Creative writing students were treated like second-class citizens in comparison to the Ph.D. candidates.” The loosely organized English graduate program offered only a master’s degree with an emphasis in creative writing, not much competition for the Iowa Workshop at the University of Iowa and similar big-gun programs at the University of Houston, the University of Southern California, and New York’s Columbia University, where famous-author seminars and artists-in-residence with shimmering reputations beckon. The Iowa program, for example, featured visiting lecturer Jane Smiley, who won a 1992 Pulitzer prize for A Thousand Acres. Those programs also confer a master of fine arts degree in writing, which is considered—for writers—better than the academically oriented Ph.D., if the student plans to teach.
There was even a point after the original donation when Michener himself seemed to doubt whether the Texas Center for Writers would ever get off the ground. Board members recall an exasperated Michener storming the English Department’s stronghold in Parlin Hall, clattering down the halls, rattling doorknobs and rapping his cane, and demanding of then-chairman Bill Sutherland an explanation for the program’s lack of direction. “His impatience did get things rolling,” says Magnuson. Sutherland was replaced in 1990 by Joe Kruppa, a politically astute English professor who had worked with graduate studies dean William S. Livingston to design the original plan for the Writers Center and to draft a proposal for the MFA in writing. Livingston is now acting president of UT-Austin and is generally given credit for shepherding the $15 million Michener endowment along.
The 85-year-old Michener has also generously involved himself in the Writers Center. Says Magnuson, a former Hollywood screenwriter who teaches fiction: “He is probably the best-prepared teacher we have. He reads and comments on everything the students write.” By teaching at the center, Michener did what he could to bolster his own program, since the promised visiting writers and agents—besides Michener’s own agent from the William Morris Agency, Owen Laster—have been few and far between.
All that is about to change. When the bigger and better Texas Center for Writers begins accepting students for the fall 1993 semester, an interdisciplinary arrangement between the departments of English, theater and dance, and radio-television-film will grant MFA degrees in writing; more students (up to fifty) will get fatter fellowships; and visiting agents and writers will play a prominent role in the courses. The Michener gift specifies that $11 million be set aside for fellowships (Michener insisted that the university kick in an additional $3 million). Another $4 million will go into a director’s fund to generate income for visiting editors, writers, and agents.
But Michener was adamant that absolutely no money go to faculty or for buildings, a stringent stipulation that may be inadvertently self-defeating. Current Writers Center faculty receive only a small stipend in addition to their university salary. Unfortunately, with money for faculty so tight, enticing well-known writing teachers may be difficult.
A legacy of the original writing program is Rolando Hinojosa-Smith, a genial professor in his sixties who is well liked by his colleagues. But even with an international reputation as a Chicano writer, he isn’t considered to be part of the mainstream, and he has never been published by a major publishing house. With the advent of the munificent endowment and a passel of administrative complexities, observers speculate that a new director for the center—a ßashier writer-administrator from the outside—might be a better drawing card.
Everyone is enthusiastic about the program’s eventual success. Humble though it was, even the original boasted some accomplishments: Of the first class of sixteen students who completed the two-year program last June, one has started a poetry journal under the auspices of the center, and another has had a screenplay optioned. Now that the Writers Center can offer its interdepartmental MFA, expectations are high. “It’s always a long shot finding work as a writer,” says Magnuson. “But with an MFA, we can shorten the odds a little.” Says novelist and professor Laura Furman: “This MFA is for writers who want to make a living.”
Nonfiction writers can’t expect a handout just yet. “We don’t want to raise that specter,” says Hinojosa-Smith, referring to a ßap that developed when word got out around the university that specialties within the program—essay writing, translation, and criticism—were being considered. Other departments started lusting after a share of the money, and the center postponed indefinitely the nonfiction proposition.
Some of the aftereffects of the endowment have come as a pleasant surprise. The good will generated by Michener’s gift has stirred an excitement rare in academia. Says Tom Schatz: “The people involved in the three departments have bent over backward to get along—this is not always the way things at UT work out.”