Columbia Professor's E-mail to Students Was Pure Fiction

10/01/2010 03:23 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Seth Abramson Assistant Professor of English at University of New Hampshire; Series Co-Editor, Best American Experimental Writing

If you're an avid follower of either MFA programs or Gawker, you've probably already read novelist and Columbia professor Janette Turner Hospital's now-infamous e-mail to former students at the University of South Carolina. If Gawker's comment-fields are any indication, most of the ire over the e-mail takes one of the following forms: upset over its pomposity; bewilderment over its shoddy composition; or disgust over the sort of culture -- in the Academy generally and in New York City specifically -- that could give rise to a new stratum of tone-deafness.

Those who've traced the decline of Professor Hospital's employer in the national MFA rankings since 2006 are likely to have other concerns as well. For instance, is Columbia really the literary powerhouse Professor Hospital contends? In 2007, Columbia's MFA ranked fourteenth nationally; in 2010, twenty-second; in 2011, twenty-fifth; in polling now being done for next year's rankings, the program has yet to crack the top fifty. But rankings never tell the whole story, and they certainly don't here, either. The larger concern over Professor Hospital's missive to her former students is that most of it is not true.

Columbia is not a three-year program, as Professor Hospital asserts, but a two-year program. There are not 300 students in the program, as alleged, but slightly more than half that. Columbia does not matriculate a hundred students a year but eighty--the number reported by the University in its 2007 graduate school admissions summary. Columbia is not the largest MFA in the country (that "honor" goes to the largely-unfunded MFA at The New School) nor does it enjoy 100% yield -- rather, it suffers from one of the lowest yields of any top 50 MFA. ("Yield" is the percentage of applicants offered admission to a program who accept their offer.) Columbia's own website last reported an annual yield ranging from 60% to 80% between 2002 and 2007, and analysis of application trends since this last reporting of yield data suggests this figure has almost certainly dropped. It's more likely, now, that between one in four and one in two Columbia admittees are sufficiently unimpressed by the largely-unfunded program to decline to attend. How these data trouble Professor Hospital's claim that Columbia students are the "cream of the cream [sic]" is a subject for further debate. One starting point for any such discussion would be this: this past summer, Poets & Writers reported that Columbia isn't even ranked among the top 50 most selective MFA programs in the United States.

But the fictions spun by this Ivy League fiction professor don't stop there. Those reading Professor Hospital's e-mail might wrongly think that Columbia has more than thirty full-time professors, giving the MFA program a pleasant if not resplendent student-to-faculty ratio of 8:3. In fact, most of those professors -- like, apparently, Adjunct Associate Professor Hospital herself -- are something other than full-time, and indeed Columbia has one of the worst student-to-full-time-faculty ratios of any program nationally for which such ratios are known.

The biggest whopper in Professor Hospital's e-mail is also the most eye-popping: her claim that "about half the graduating class [at Columbia] has a book published or a publishing contract in hand by graduation." There are no conventions of etiquette or civil discourse known to this writer which require him to describe this claim as anything other than a falsehood. Professor Hospital's submission that thirty of Columbia's "sixty [sic]" annual graduates have either already published a book or signed a publishing contract by the time they graduate is so inarguably an erratum that there need be no further refutation of it except to dare Professor Hospital or any other professor at Columbia to prove the claim. Likewise, Professor Hospital's boast that Columbia students -- who pay over $100,000 for a twenty-one-month, unmarketable art-school degree -- are disallowed from choosing their own thesis committees and regularly see their theses failed by these committees is bizarre. How are these selling points for the program?

The program to which Professor Hospital was writing -- the creative writing MFA at the University of South Carolina -- is a fully-funded, three-year program whose acceptance rate in 2012 is projected to be only slightly higher than Columbia's. Its MFA student body, said to be upset by Hospital's e-mail, can take comfort in the fact that USC is headed in an entirely different direction than the New York City Ivy. Even as Columbia plummets in the national rankings, South Carolina ascends: in the nine months between the 2010 and 2011 editions of the Poets & Writers rankings, USC gained eleven spots and Columbia dropped three. Early returns from polling for the 2012 MFA rankings show USC gaining forty-three spots over its 2011 placement, with Columbia dropping from twenty-fifth to a fifty-way tie for last nationally. While those numbers will undoubtedly change over time, the only possible conclusion to be drawn from them is that Columbia University and Professor Hospital should be looking to their own house rather than sending dodgy communiqués to a smaller, much-better-funded program currently enjoying a meteoric rise in popularity and reputation.