Unexplained Ouster at Writing Group

A professional association of writers that supports hundreds of creative writing departments just fired its executive director of three decades, with no public explanation.

March 20, 2018
David Fenza

David Fenza’s 29-year tenure as executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs ended abruptly this month, leaving members -- and apparently Fenza himself -- asking why.

So far, the association has provided no answers. A short post on the AWP’s website last week says Fenza “has ended his service as executive director” and that a national search for a replacement is under way.

“AWP wishes David Fenza well in his future endeavors,” the note reads.

Days before the official -- if scant -- announcement, some with ties to the association were discussing Fenza’s departure on social media in language that did not suggest he'd been fired.

But Fenza has since said that he was let go in a meeting in a Tampa, Fla., hotel lobby, after the association’s annual conference on March 11.

“I had no warnings,” Fenza reportedly told Poets & Writers. “I had no wishes to leave AWP.”

The association referred requests for comment to David Haynes, chair of its Board of Directors and a professor of English at Southern Methodist University.

Haynes referred questions to the official statement, saying, “There’s not much else I can add to it.”

The AWP supports 550 college and university creative writing programs and 150 writers’ conferences and centers, along with some 50,000 writers. It recently moved from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., to the University of Maryland at College Park. Maryland reportedly officially terminated Fenza’s employment, as well, during what was still a probationary period following the move.

“They did not give me reasons,” Fenza told Poets & Writers. “It was a challenging year with the relocation disrupting all AWP business, as I was working with architects, contractors, furniture sales people, many vendors, new university administrators, and a new, terribly complex university administrative system … I am still stunned.”

Fenza did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

Matt Burriesci, a former longtime staff member at AWP who is now executive director at the Providence Athenaeum, has demanded an explanation from the board and suggested that it do “damage control.” He told Poets & Writers that any potential candidate for the now-open position “would certainly see a lot of glaring red flags in the sudden, unexplained departure of the previous executive. I can only speak for myself, but I know I wouldn’t apply for that job given the uncertainty and gossip surrounding this affair. It’s all highly unusual.”

Publishers Weekly reported that board members have received multiple angry letters from Fenza’s supporters, including one from an anonymous former employee saying Fenza “suffered a fate that should be reserved for strung-out, thieving clerks at donut shops and not for long-tenured leaders of national service organizations.”

The letter says Fenza transformed the association’s "mostly white" annual gathering from one of several hundred writers at a Ramada Inn in Kansas City, Mo., to a four-day event attracting thousands, held in cities around the U.S. The "governors of this organization, who have a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of AWP, have conducted themselves in a manner that has seriously damaged the organization they serve," it reads.

At the same time, AWP has previously been faulted for not paying enough attention to issues of intersectionality, diversity and inclusion. Fenza's responses to such criticism have, in turn, been criticized. To that point, some on social media are framing the Fenza departure as an opportunity for AWP to foreground those concerns.

Margaret Ferguson, professor emerita of English at the University of California, Davis, and former president of the Modern Language Association, said Monday that she didn’t know what, if any, substantive issues were at stake. Yet the way the AWP board appears to have fired Fenza -- “abruptly, gracelessly, without giving him any reasons after he'd served them for 29 years and spent the last year working tirelessly to smooth the transition to [Maryland] -- reminds me all too much of the way in which the current president fires people.”

Ferguson was not the only commenter to draw parallels to President Trump’s management style. In any case, she said, such a procedure “doesn't generate confidence in the search for a successor” and “tarnishes the reputation of the AWP.”

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Colleen Flaherty

Colleen Flaherty, Reporter, covers faculty issues for Inside Higher Ed. Prior to joining the publication in 2012, Colleen was military editor at the Killeen Daily Herald, outside Fort Hood, Texas. Before that, she covered government and land use issues for the Greenwich Time and Hersam Acorn Newspapers in her home state of Connecticut. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal in 2005 with a degree in English literature, Colleen taught English and English as a second language in public schools in the Bronx, N.Y. She earned her M.S.Ed. from City University of New York Lehman College in 2008 as part of the New York City Teaching Fellows program. 

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