AWP on the Brink




MANY OF OUR READERS have been following the upheaval at AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) in recent months. In this essay, AWP’s former director of Conferences, Christian Teresi, who was terminated in September, defends himself and former executive director David Fenza, removed from his position in March, and makes serious charges against the AWP board and interim executive director Chloe Schwenke. We reached out to the AWP board for comment and received the following statement from current board chair Robin Reagler: 

AWP will not publicly comment on or discuss specific details or circumstances related to current or former employees. Any action taken by AWP is carefully considered and implemented to protect the organization, accomplish institutional goals, establish and maintain a culture of open communication and collaboration, provide a healthy and supportive work environment for our dedicated staff, and continually evolve in positive ways. 

We welcome articles from other stakeholders on this topic.

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A nonprofit literary arts organization is a fragile enterprise that typically has a small staff, big ambitions, and too little money. Its success relies on its board’s ability to fundraise while also providing oversight to make sure the organization performs its best possible work. It is a strange amalgam of dreams and money, idealism and pragmatism, and it’s hard to keep these components in balance. The board can meddle too much or too little in the staff’s work. It is easy for a nonprofit to wobble and fall, victim of its own idealism or of its own money-grubbing. The Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) is one of those nonprofits that now sways back and forth, unsteadily.

The day after the March 2018 AWP Conference and Book Fair in Tampa, Florida, the organization’s executive director, David Fenza, was summoned to the hotel lobby and fired with no explanation or warning by board officers David Haynes, Bonnie Culver, and Robin Reagler. There has been speculation about why he was terminated and about the fallout for the organization. Since the conference, the organization has been fraught with turmoil among board trustees, staff, and its own membership, and AWP has separated from its host institution, the University of Maryland, where it had resided for only 14 months.

I love AWP. I spent 15 years in service to its mission. The labor of my co-workers at AWP continues to be exceptional, and they deserve support, but the board has put the organization on a very dangerous path.

To understand how AWP found itself in such a precarious situation, one must know a bit about its history. For the first three decades since its 1967 inception, a mostly academic board oversaw AWP, and the association operated with a minuscule budget. By 1995, AWP had a deficit of $330,000 without any endowments or cash reserve. There was no safety net. AWP had a modest annual operating budget of $600,000, while its peer academic group, the Modern Language Association, had an operating budget of $10 million. The board asked Fenza, then the publications manager, to take over as AWP’s executive director. He reluctantly agreed. To prevent the organization from going bankrupt, AWP worked out a four-year business plan with its host institution, George Mason University. Without the university’s forbearance and acceptance of this plan, AWP would have dissolved as a corporation in 1995.

AWP was given a second life. To balance the budget, Fenza had to fire most of the staff, cut his own salary by $20,000, and leave vacancies unfilled. By 1997, the staff of seven full-time employees had been reduced to three. It took another two years for AWP to retire its deficit. Under Fenza’s leadership, AWP then began to build a cash reserve to ensure the association’s future stability. By the year 2000, AWP had $100,000 in reserve.

It’s hard to imagine now, but for decades many departments of English had thwarted the establishment of creative writing programs. AWP’s advocacy overcame that resistance, effecting a major change in the study of literature and making the ascendancy of countless new literary voices possible. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of programs, writers, and teachers served by AWP grew exponentially. AWP became one of the most prominent literary organizations in the country. By the time Fenza was fired, he directed a nonprofit with 14 full-time staffers, a $3.5 million annual operating budget, and $4 million in investments, endowments, and cash reserves. Today, the organization has 50,000 individual members, 550 institutional members, and an annual conference that hosts over 10,000 attendees. Hundreds of literary institutions and tens of thousands of writers and literary professionals have benefited from the improved services. In terms of nonprofit arts management, AWP was a remarkable success story, and David Fenza was the architect of that success.

I do not question the board’s ability to remove its top executive or the possibility that, after Fenza’s long successful tenure, it may have been time to think about transitioning to new leadership. What is egregious, however, is the way Fenza was removed, which defies norms of ethical organizational behavior. It is a case study in how not to fire a senior longtime employee. There was no reason provided, even to the staff, who were only told that the cause did not relate to sexual harassment or financial malfeasance. After 29 years of service, Fenza was given only a two-month severance. On the morning of Fenza’s termination, I asked Bonnie Culver, the current board secretary, if he was going to be given something more adequate, and she said, “There is no money.” AWP’s cash reserves — more than $2 million at the time, which only existed thanks to Fenza — could have easily covered a reasonable severance without harming AWP’s operations in the slightest.

[LARB reached out to former director David Fenza, who confirmed the substance of Teresi’s account of his tenure at AWP and the circumstances of his termination. According to Fenza, “David Haynes would only repeat, when I asked why I was terminated, that ‘the board has given you a vote of no confidence.’ Nothing was explained related to cause beyond that. The meeting was about five minutes long.” LARB also reached out to board secretary Bonnie Culver regarding Fenza’s severance, but she did not respond.]

In the weeks following Fenza’s termination, I spoke with several board trustees about what had happened. All of them expressed regret. One said the executive committee (the chair, two vice chairs, secretary, and treasurer) had asked the rest of the board to vote on the termination without disclosing the full details or rationale. Whatever the cause, it was clear to me that the action was taken without due diligence, in an unethical way, and was possibly based on lies and incompetence. I stopped asking questions for fear that I was putting my own employment in jeopardy. Indeed, I was.

There are many reasons why you would want to engineer a dignified exit for a long-tenured executive. An organization desires continuity, stability, and, in all cases, protection of its reputation. By terminating Fenza in this manner, the AWP board generated organizational confusion, chaos, and ill will from some of AWP’s most important constituencies. A letter signed by 50 former board trustees and several funders was sent to the current board asking for a reasonable severance for Fenza, who was near retirement age and who had spent nearly his whole career at AWP. A petition reiterating the call for an adequate severance and signed by over 300 people, including many notable literary writers and arts administrators, was also sent to the board. The board never responded.

Managing AWP’s rapid expansion included many challenges and internal friction. There was always too much work for too few people, coupled with pressure from the membership for better services. For a long time, the organization only had the resources to hire current MFA students or recent graduates, in the hope that their love of literature would compensate for their lack of business experience. This includes myself. AWP had a difficult time competing for experienced personnel in Washington, DC, where most nonprofits paid much higher salaries and demanded far less. It was also difficult to retain staff after they had been trained. AWP gave many people the opportunity to build their résumés prodigiously, and many former employees quickly moved on to more lucrative careers elsewhere.

No one got rich working at AWP. In 2005, my first full-time position at AWP paid $27,000 a year in a region with one of the highest costs of living in the country. In my first year as director of Conferences, I made $45,000 and had one full-time assistant. The going rates for a position like this in the DC region were double to triple that of my starting salary, and most positions for conference directors generally come with a fleet of well-compensated and experienced support staffers. The conference was AWP’s largest project, representing half its total budget. It is strange to be living paycheck to paycheck when your job requires you to manage a seven-figure budget. Still, this was a dream job. I’ve worked in a lot of different places, but I never believed in the work as much as I believed in the work of AWP. It was a privilege to produce programming with some of my literary heroes, such as Margaret Atwood, Lucille Clifton, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Donald Hall, Seamus Heaney, Annie Proulx, Luis Rodriguez, and C. D. Wright.

Most of the AWP staff was similarly dedicated and inspired by their work. At its best, the office hummed with as much literary interest as any English department, but the work was imperfect, and at times we made mistakes. Almost all of the mistakes were the result of inexperienced, underpaid, and overworked staffers trying to do their best. I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to use my mistakes to make better choices. There really is no substitute for experience, however. Some staffers were not good fits and did not live up to their job expectations. At one time or another, every department at AWP had to address poor performance or disruptive employees, and that was never pleasant.

It was not until 2013, when staff salaries increased to levels that consistently insured high-quality hires, that things improved. Most of the trustees never realized that there is a difference between the services that can be offered when you have a $3.5 million budget and the quality you can expect with the $1.8 million budget AWP had in 2008. By 2013, AWP could hire a larger, more experienced, more capable staff. And better staff meant better services for AWP’s stakeholders.

For as long as I worked at AWP, the board was largely made up of academic professionals. When the projects were smaller and less complicated, the assumption was that it was good to have trustees who came from the institutions AWP served, and there was a time when that may have been true. Today, it is not. AWP needs a board similar to other literary organizations of this size — a board representing diverse professional experiences and capable of supporting the organization financially, so the burden of raising revenue to expand its mission is not placed entirely on the backs of its membership. In 2013, AWP went through a governance reform that involved a transition to a more mature board that could provide greater business and fundraising expertise. For a year the staff urged members to vote to approve the changes, including an initiative to create a self-appointing board that elected itself.

The reform passed, but in the five years since, the trustees are still largely academics who appoint other academics to the board. As a result, AWP now has the worst of both worlds: an unaccountable board without the expertise or resources to provide meaningful progress for the organization. In my experience, too many of the trustees bring little to no relevant experience or benefit to the organization; too many of them use their service to advance their own careers rather than to meaningfully help AWP.

So, in 2018, an unqualified, unaccountable board removed an executive director after 29 years of service in a five-minute meeting in a hotel lobby the day after their biggest public event of the year. More reasonable and experienced minds would have known to work with Fenza to create a more stable transition over, say, six months, and then publicly thank him for his extraordinary work on behalf of AWP. This board chose a far more brutal and chaotic path. This choice likely made the University of Maryland nervous about its relationship with AWP. Despite AWP’s public statements to the contrary, I have been told by several individuals with intimate knowledge of the situation that it was the University of Maryland who initiated the separation and not the other way around.

The utter lack of transparency around Fenza’s termination caused speculation to swirl. In May, Publishers Weekly posted an article on the controversy in which David Fenza and I were accused of creating a hostile work environment. The article implied that this was the reason behind Fenza’s termination. Before the article appeared, the staff and board knew that a small cadre of former employees were feeding Publishers Weekly anecdotal and skewed perspectives regarding a situation that was investigated years earlier by the Human Resources Department at George Mason University, where AWP was hosted at the time. Publishers Weekly failed to mention the fact that this investigation was never specifically focused on David Fenza or myself, and that the university’s inquiry found no wrongdoing.

The Publishers Weekly article cherry-picked sources while ignoring others who refuted its inaccuracies, including former AWP trustees. Some of the sources quoted had no firsthand knowledge of the period in question. The article failed to note that grievances for disruptive behavior and poor performance were filed against multiple sources months before they ever made allegations against other AWP staff, including myself, and that at least two former staff members left AWP partly because of conflicts orchestrated by some of the sources. The article seems to have been carefully parsed as well, as though someone at the journal was uneasy about publishing declarative statements. As a result, it offers not corroborated facts but innuendo and suggestion — for example, the notion that there were “gender-based pay disparities” at the organization when in fact, for more than a decade, the majority of the highest paid and longest serving AWP employees have been women. In the article, a disgruntled former staffer is quoted calling the last 10 years of AWP’s operations “a debacle,” even though AWP’s services continued to expand to cover thousands of additional stakeholders and its annual operating budget grew by a million dollars. If that’s a debacle, all literary nonprofits should hope for such a debacle.

The board’s failure to respond to the many questions from AWP’s membership was curious, and became troubling once I read the Publishers Weekly article. Several trustees who were on the board during the period discussed in the article — and thus understood the complexities of the previous staff disagreements — were still on the board at the time of its publication. Most of the board knew Fenza sometimes needed to replace poorly performing staff so that AWP’s members could enjoy better services. Fenza made difficult staff changes in 2011, for example, setting the stage for improvements to the conference, including a significant growth in its attendance and programming. The only reasonable explanation is that the current board allowed the biased article to appear without comment because it ostensibly provided them with cover for the egregious way they fired Fenza.

[LARB reached out to the author of the Publishers Weekly article, Claire Kirch, who stated that she “spoke extensively to several sources who claimed to have knowledge of the allegations described in my story. They refuted some allegations, and minimized others. It is also true that these sources declined to go on the record when asked repeatedly if they were willing to do so. They also would not or could not provide me with documentation. Every single source cited in my story went on the record and provided me with documentation; those requesting anonymity due to fear of retribution provided me with extensive documentation corroborating that they indeed had filed formal grievances against either Fenza or Teresi or both.” Kirch denied that she had an agenda when writing the article, but she did not respond when asked whether she was aware that some of the sources to whom she granted anonymity had themselves been the subjects of formal grievances and whether she had seen documentation relating to those grievances.]

In May, the board hired Chloe Schwenke as interim executive director. Schwenke has extensive experience in public policy, human rights initiatives, and international nonprofit management, but she has no background in literature or as an arts administrator, nor has she worked for a membership association. The board’s suggestion that, because Schwenke previously worked for a nonprofit, she would be able to helm a very different nonprofit is like saying a patent lawyer should represent you in divorce court. There are several AWP staffers who have more nonprofit arts management experience than Schwenke. One can only assume that an obsequious attentiveness to the board’s desires, rather than a respect for the accumulated knowledge and expertise of the AWP staff, was a major qualification for Schwenke’s appointment. The choice is particularly confounding when one considers that the field of literature has never had as many qualified candidates to fill Fenza’s shoes as it does today. Seven months after Fenza’s termination, the board has still not made public a job description for the new executive director.

In early June, Schwenke suggested to the staff that, after just over a year at the University of Maryland and after spending $400,000 to relocate, AWP might need to leave the university. She made the separation official shortly thereafter, claiming that being housed at a university was only something “incubators” did and that AWP was too mature to have such a host. This statement ignores the fact that there are many more established nonprofits, much larger than AWP, housed at universities all over the country. Also, Schwenke made it seem that it was AWP’s idea to leave the University of Maryland, which was not accurate. Schwenke additionally suggested that Fenza did not have the authority to sign the Memo of Understanding that brought AWP to Maryland and that he did not keep the board informed about the negotiations over the 18 months it took to make that relocation happen. Both of those claims are demonstrably false.

The idea that AWP moved its headquarters after two decades without the board being heavily involved in the conversations surrounding that relocation is not the only untruth being peddled by the current governors. Of great concern to many of the staff, Schwenke and the board agreed to leave Maryland without understanding what it would cost to reallocate AWP’s finances, endowments, staff benefits, payroll, and other in-kind support that AWP received from the university. The swiftness of the decision defied sound nonprofit management, particularly since the Memo of Understanding dictates that the agreement can only be terminated with notice “of at least twelve months.” Twelve months would have been standard for this kind of separation.

We may never know the true reason why the University of Maryland wanted AWP to leave, but the fact that the separation happened at all is bizarre. The statement from AWP announcing the separation, which was issued on the same day Maryland severed the relationship, states that AWP “will be changing to an autonomous non-profit model.” This statement ignores the fact that AWP had already been operating as such for several decades. AWP has its own board of trustees and its own resources. Being hosted at a university never compromised the independence of AWP’s services to writers and teachers. The Memo of Understanding with the University of Maryland stipulated that “AWP will retain its status as an independent 501(c)(3) organization but will become affiliated with the University.” By separating from Maryland, all AWP did was forfeit the numerous benefits accruing from affiliation with an institutional patron.

[LARB reached out to Interim Director Schwenke, former Board Chair Haynes, and current Board Chair Reagler regarding the circumstances of AWP’s separation from the University of Maryland. We received the following statement from Chair Reagler: “The relationship between AWP and University of Maryland ended with an amicable separation. Moving forward as an independent nonprofit, AWP will be better able to serve its members.” She declined to answer more detailed questions.] 

On June 15, I was called into Schwenke’s office and told I was going to be reassigned. My replacement, like Schwenke, had no background in literature, which is problematic for an association of literary writers and MFA programs. After 15 years of loyal service, the only reason I was given for my reassignment was Schwenke’s concern that I was looking to leave AWP and her assumption that this transition would help me do that. I had seen many senior and junior staff leave AWP during my tenure, often with the knowledge and help of David Fenza. None of them had ever been reassigned as a result of wanting to leave. I told Schwenke that I would consider her offer but that I needed to see the new job description; I also said that I would like her to consider offering me a severance instead. She said that she would do that.

On June 19, Schwenke sent me a job description filled with responsibilities already assigned to me as the director of Conferences. The next day, over the objections of the University of Maryland, Schwenke placed me on indefinite paid administrative leave and told me I was not allowed to return to the office. She also sent an email to the entire AWP staff insisting that no one should speak with me unless the contact was cleared with her first. I still have no idea what I did to deserve such hostility, aside from asking questions about Fenza’s termination and about AWP’s rapid exit from Maryland.

A week later, another article appeared in Publishers Weekly claiming that I had left AWP “in order to pursue other interests” and had “declined a new position offered” to me. Both Schwenke and then board chair David Haynes were quoted confirming these details. But their assertions were false. At the time, I was still employed by AWP and had never categorically turned down the reassignment. That Schwenke and Haynes would knowingly disseminate false information about me was malicious and retaliatory. Publishers Weekly never reached out to me to confirm any of this reporting.

[LARB reached out to Interim Director Schwenke and former Board Chair Haynes regarding the circumstances of Teresi’s departure from AWP. Schwenke stated that her “current position as an Interim Executive Director precludes me from speaking on behalf of AWP in this context,” while Professor Haynes stated that “many articles written about these matters contain inaccuracies and misquotes, some of them substantive,” but that “the board was advised by Human Resources at the University of Maryland, as well as by independent counsel — in no uncertain terms — that we are not allowed to discuss personnel matters.” LARB also reached out to the author of the Publishers Weekly article, Claire Kirch, who stated that Schwenke and Haynes had indeed confirmed the information about Teresi’s employment situation contained in the article, which she received from another source she declined to name.]

It was clear to me after this article appeared that my position with AWP was untenable; moreover, I could no longer continue to watch the organization to which I had devoted my adult career be so grossly mismanaged. On July 31, the board extended Schwenke’s contract until the end of the year without any notice to the membership. The next day, more than a month after the Publishers Weekly article, my lawyer and the University of Maryland negotiated my exit from AWP. For the record, I was employed by the organization until September 25, 2018.

The mistake of removing over 50 years of institutional knowledge from AWP was already becoming obvious. In July, former US poet laureate Rita Dove and her colleagues at the University of Virginia sent a letter to other AWP institutional programs and writers letting them know that UVA was suspending its institutional membership “until satisfactory answers have been given by those who created this mess” and stating that “the current Board and its president should resign their positions” unless more transparency is offered. Major donors to AWP are withholding future contributions. The longest serving and most financially generous trustee in AWP’s history recently stepped down partially in objection. Other AWP staff members are also looking to leave. Meanwhile, Schwenke and the board recently created four new full-time positions without a plan to generate new revenues to offset the more than $200,000 in payroll costs. Those positions are not sustainable unless the board raises a lot more money, cuts services to members, or increases membership dues.

The board and its interim executive director have been publicly untruthful about Fenza’s departure (they initially claimed he stepped down), about my departure, and about AWP’s abrupt separation from the University of Maryland. Senior members of Maryland’s English and Human Resources departments have told me that they have never seen anything like this strange management. I’ve worked at three public institutions of higher education, at one public high school, and in the New York State Court System, and I have never seen anything like this before either.

AWP will be hard to break because of the astute leadership and legacy of David Fenza, but it is not unbreakable. The last seven months have seen a deluge of wanton dysfunction beyond what I can catalog here, but all of it was needless. In that peculiar nonprofit balancing act between idealism and pragmatism, AWP is teetering. If you are an AWP member and are as concerned about these events as I am (and you should be), the board trustees can be contacted at <board@awpwriter.org>.

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Christian Teresi’s poems and translations have appeared in or are forthcoming from American Poetry ReviewBlackbirdCrab Orchard ReviewThe Kenyon ReviewLiterary HubThe Literary ReviewNarrative, and Subtropics, among others. He lives in Washington, DC. 


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