St. Joseph’s College students protest dismissal of director, direction of writing program

St. Joseph’s College students protest dismissal of director, direction of writing program
Out in force: Approximately 30 students rallied outside of St. Joseph’s College on April 27 to save their Masters of Fine Arts creative writing program.
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

The administration of St. Joseph’s College in Clinton Hill must reinstate the director of the school’s graduate creative writing program it recently fired and put a moratorium on all decisions relating to its budget until a new president takes office in July, students demanded at a protest on Thursday.

School leaders fired the program’s beloved founder and director Jackson Taylor at the beginning of the month, and then told students they can’t guarantee the replacement will stick to the same curriculum that attracted fledging writers to it in the first place — a move that could send the worth of the diploma down the tubes, according to one scholar.

“The value of our degree will go down,” said Alexa Wilding, a second-year student who organized the protest. “In the literary world, it’s who you work with, that’s your value.”

Wilding — who claims she pays $40,000 in tuition — said she and fellow students met with St. Joseph’s vice president of academic affairs Barbara Garii after they heard Taylor was fired, but the veep refused to give them a reason for the dismissal.

Taylor had put together a curriculum based on writings of poet and alum Marie Ponsot that brought wordsmiths to the program, but Garri said that finding a new director who will stick to that course is not high on it list, according to Wilding.

“She said that is not a priority, she can’t guarantee whoever they bring in will uphold that,” she said.

Honchos have carved out a few weeks to find a new head, which students claim is not enough to time to find a replacement, said Wilding.

“This is very little time to properly conduct a search. We don’t want to learn from some career academics, we want to learn from real writers,” she said.

In January, St. Joseph’s administration had threatened to cut faculty salary by 80 percent, making it nearly impossible for professors to return for the spring semester. But it hashed out a deal at the last minute and teachers were able to stay on.

Now, the administration wants to revisit those pay cuts and Garii warned students that slashing salaries is imminent, according to Wilding, who said she doesn’t understand how the veep, who doesn’t write, is the right person to make those decisions.

“How is somebody like Dr. Garii, who isn’t a writer, how is she going to be one the one leading a bunch of writers who are paying top dollar?” she said.

Wilding and her classmates suspect that the cuts will be made before the new president starts this summer while the administration still has the support to make those changes.

The college painted a different picture following the protest, claiming it is devoted to defending the program’s core and it is not planning on cutting the budget.

“St. Joseph’s College is fully committed to preserving the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program’s high standards and reputation of excellence while continuing to uphold the pedagogy and curriculum that makes it a unique, highly competitive, and a sought after program in the region,” said Jessica McAleer Decatur, vice president of marketing and communications. “There are currently no budget or full-time faculty cuts planned for the M.F.A. program.”

Decatur also gave a vague explanation of Taylor’s dismissal, saying it had “determined the need for new leadership” after a “thorough assessment process.”

Wilding retorted that Garii had told them otherwise and had not heard anything about its sudden plan to find someone who will stick to the syllabus, pointing out that the school’s actions have so far not been living up to its words.

“We’re being told ‘Everything’s great. We’re looking after you guys.’ But when we met with her she had no visions,” she said.

Reach reporter Lauren Gill at lgill@cnglocal.com or by calling (718) 260–2511. Follow her on Twitter @laurenk_gill

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