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Published September 17, 2013, 07:03 PM

UND Writers Conference faces funding challenge

UND’s new College of Arts and Sciences dean has asked organizers of the UND Writers Conference to come up with a long-term funding plan or consider scaling back or even ending the annual spring event, which for more than four decades has brought students, faculty and townspeople together with literary giants.

By: Chuck Haga, Grand Forks Herald

UND’s new College of Arts and Sciences dean has asked organizers of the UND Writers Conference to come up with a long-term funding plan or consider scaling back or even ending the annual spring event, which for more than four decades has brought students, faculty and townspeople together with literary giants.

“It is an important conference, important not only to our internal UND community but also to the wider Grand Forks community,” Dean Debbie Storrs said Tuesday. “We’d love to see it continue with the same quality of authors. It’s a great way to pull people together to think and learn.

“But this is one of many competing demands for resources,” she said.

Storrs said she has asked a conference planning committee led by Crystal Alberts, a member of the English Department faculty and co-director of the conference, “how we might manage funding priorities” for the conference. It now costs between $70,000 and $100,000 a year to bring nationally and internationally known writers to campus for a weeklong series of readings and panel discussions.

“It’s been an expensive process over the years to get the quality of authors to come to campus,” Storrs said. “It takes resources. I’ve asked her to think about a viable long-term strategy to support the conference. We can scale back, we can offer it every other year, not offer it, or partner with others.”

Storrs said the conference may not be able to count on continuing major support from the university or such outside sources as the National Endowment of the Arts.

“All those places are having to ask the same kinds of questions,” she said. “How are we going to continue funding such events, which are many and frequent?”

Eric Wolfe, chairman of the English Department, said he and others in the department are “hopeful there will still be money to fund something that’s been such a resource for the campus and the community,” but he understands the shifting budget situation.

“The entire campus is going through a transition process, with a new provost and for us a new dean,” he said. “We’ve always been funded through a variety of sources — state, federal, grants, private donations — but there’s always been a large segment funded by UND itself.”

Free and open

One feature of the annual conference since its premiere in 1970 has been the absence of admission charges for readings and panel discussions.

“The English faculty want to continue to provide this open access,” Storrs said. “They really don’t want to go to a fee model. I respect that, but that means we need to find other ways to support it.”

The conference has been funded for this year, “and they have a great conference planned,” she said.

Storrs, who became dean on June 25, said she has heard from many people who celebrate the Writers Conference as one of the best things happening at UND.

“I’m hoping the college can continue to fund it at some level,” she said, but “I have to manage the college budget, and this is a significant expense. My primary need is to cover educational needs.”

She suggested that alumni and other fans of the conference step up to keep it going.

“One real option on the table is to not do it,” she said. “It’s been a gift to the community for 45 years. But if it’s not important enough to the community for people to help fund it, maybe we don’t do it every year. Maybe we offer it every other year.”

Since 1970

The Writers Conference got its start in 1970 when the late John Little, a Mississippi native who began teaching in the English Department in 1969, invited some of his Southern writer friends to campus.

The gathering was a hit, and in later years it drew such big names as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, James Dickey, Alice Walker, Louise Erdrich, Raymond Carver, Tom Wolfe and Eudora Welty. Allen Ginsberg and other “Beat Poets” enlivened UND and Grand Forks throughout the 1974 conference, and winners of Nobel and Pulitzer prizes gave readings and offered insights into the writing process.

During Little’s era especially, the conference also was known for “after” parties where aspiring young writers could mingle and discuss art and craft with literary luminaries.

Since the mid-1990s, a modest endowment created in Little’s name and managed by the UND Alumni Foundation has provided a small contribution to the conference budget.

2014 schedule

Featured writers on the 2014 Writers Conference schedule include Robert Pinsky, appointed U.S. poet laureate three times by the Library of Congress. For more on Pinsky and the other featured writers, visit online atwww.undwritersconference.org/wc-authors.html.

Recent posts on the UND Writers Conference Facebook page http://tinyurl.com/l7j3pcy did not indicate the tradition was in danger of being scaled back or ended, instead celebrating each announced addition to the 2014 conference schedule.

Susan Deer Cloud, a poet and writer of fiction who participated in the 2011 conference, posted a salute on Monday.

“I have had the honor of speaking and reading at your wonderful Writers Conference,” she wrote. “One of the best reading experiences I have ever had ... and you really honor and show respect to the writers you invite.”

That drew a thank-you from Heidi Czerwiec, co-director.

“It means so much, especially as we are a non-profit organization that has operated for 45 years based on the gracious support not only of UND and local/regional granting agencies, but also on the community of UND, Greater GF, and ND’s sense of love, sense of tradition, and devotion to enriching the culture/quality of life for the residents of Grand Forks, North Dakota, and the surrounding areas.”

Czerwiec did not respond to a call seeking comment Tuesday. Alberts, the other co-director, declined to comment, referring questions to Dean Storrs.

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