Inside Higher Ed is reporting that New England Review is now on the chopping block. The Middlebury College Budget Oversight Committee initially announced “that effective June 30, 2009, the College will end its relationship with the New England Review (NER) and wind down operations. The winding down of operations will allow for the redeployment of staff and the fulfillment of existing contracts.” That recommendation was amended to: “The New England Review will have until December 31, 2011, to eliminate its current operating deficit. If it cannot, the College will end its relationship with the Review.”
This is shocking news. Middlebury College is primarily known as a haven for language and literature. In addition to NER, it is home to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the School of English, the Environmental Journalism fellowships, and the Robert Frost Writer-in-Residence fellowship. (The college also contributes to the maintenance of the nearby cabin where Robert Frost lived during the summers when he was teaching at the Writers’ Conference and School of English.) All of these entities support the outstanding undergraduate program in creative writing and Middlebury’s English faculty—including Julia Alvarez, David Haward Bain, Robert Cohen, Kathryn Kramer, Jay Parini, Don Mitchell, and Christopher Shaw. And yet, the Writers’ Conference and School of English are also being asked to “find ways to maintain balanced budgets” and “increase revenue.”
As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is high time that universities and colleges decide how they define their core missions. Is the goal breadth of education or depth? I would argue that institutions stand a better chance of long-term survival by focusing on what makes them unique and investing deeply in those areas. A few years ago the University of Iowa considered dropping its book arts program. After all, who hand-makes book anymore, right? Except that Iowa’s book arts program was ranked #1 in the nation, and the university had other historical strengths in creative writing and international writing and emerging strengths in book history and media studies. In that light, offering students a hands-on education in the making of books to go with their book history courses or inform their understanding of the origins of new media methods and terminology, doesn’t seem like a pet project. It is an enriching element of a core strength of the university, it provides a firm foundation for emerging areas, and it helps the institution distinguish itself from competing programs.
I believe that each university would benefit from revisiting its mission, assessing its strengths, and funding accordingly. Too many institutions, in my opinion, assess their weaknesses and expend untold resources trying to plug gaps in a futile attempt to do everything—and wind up doing nothing well. So I’m not suggesting that literary journals are a critical part of the work of higher education and so each and every college and university should have one. What I’m saying is that New England Review at Middlebury College and Southern Review at LSU build on and enrich the fundamental identities of their universities. Those institutions would be diminished by their loss.
No one denies that we are in a period of crisis and hard choices, but in such times doesn’t it make sense to start by ensuring the future of what you do best?