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Released April 25, 2005

Ten $15,000 stipends created; teaching assistantships almost doubled

HATTIESBURG A significant new financial commitment from The University of Southern Mississippi will allow the renowned Center for Writers to remain one of the country’s premier creative writing programs, a university official said Tuesday.

Already ranked high among creative writing programs nationally, the Center for Writers received ten new $15,000 Excellence Fellowships to help attract the best writing students.

“This stipend is very competitive with the best writing programs in the country,” said Frederick Barthelme, director of the center. For comparison, Barthelme noted that the University of Missouri, considered one of the nation’s foremost creative writing programs, offers $13,500 to its fellows. “In fact, we lost two very fine students to Missouri two years ago,” Barthelme said. “Stipends were the chief reason.”

In addition, the budget for teaching assistants in English and Creative Writing at Southern Miss has been increased almost twofold.

“This financial assistance solidifies our position as one of the top graduate programs in creative writing in the United States,” said Dr. Elliott Pood, dean of the College of Arts and Letters. “It assures our ability to attract the best doctoral students nationally. We’re trying to go from the top 10 percent to the top 10—that’s our goal.”

In 1997 the Center for Writers was ranked in the top 10 percent of the nation’s creative writing programs in a widely circulated assessment published by U.S. News & World Report.

Before the current increase in the stipends for teaching assistants and teaching Excellence Fellows, graduate students in English and in the Center for Writers received allocations of $8,000 per year in return for teaching four courses. By almost doubling that amount for the Excellence Fellowships and raising the base amount of departmental stipends to $10,000, the department has made itself much more competitive with regional institutions. With the addition of the Excellence Fellowships, it has positioned itself to compete with the nation’s top programs, Barthelme said.

“We believe we can build on what is already a very successful program,” he said. “We’ve always attracted a very high caliber of student – students from schools such as Cornell, Stanford, Johns Hopkins, Harvard -- but with these new teaching fellowships, we believe we can attract more of the top tier students.”

After polling 13 of the top candidates in recent semesters who selected programs other than Southern Miss, Barthelme found the previously low stipends to be a significant factor in their decisions. He then drew up a proposal for Dean Pood and university President Shelby Thames comparing the nation’s top creative writing programs.

“The president was very responsive to our proposal and committed to giving the Center the support it needed,” Barthelme said. “Like Dr. Aubrey Lucas before him, Dr. Thames clearly felt that the center deserved support, and he gave that support in spades.”

President Thames said it was important to give this internationally prominent program the kind of support and commitment it deserves, assuring the Center for Writers can continue to compete for the brightest students in the world.

“The Center for Writers has long been one of our more successful and prestigious programs, and I believe this increased support will allow it to gain even greater prestige,” Dr. Thames said.

Part of the Department of English, the Center for Writers was founded in 1971. In 1977, Barthelme, a finalist in last year’s PEN/Faulkner award, took over the program. He has guided it since that time, producing dozens of publishing writers, among them many prize-winning fiction writers and poets, as well as many teachers of writing employed at dozens of universities across the country. As of next year, graduates of the Center for Writers will be directing the creative writing programs at Georgia State, Southwest Minnesota State, Florida State, and the University of Tennessee.

Barthelme said an added benefit of attracting the nation’s top writing students is the expertise they offer to students in undergraduate writing courses.

“One of the big advantages of bringing in graduate students from schools like USC and Princeton and the University of Virginia is that we will always have very high quality instruction in our core composition courses,” Barthelme said. “These are writers who are already greatly skilled in writing, and they pass those skills along to our students universitywide. There will be immediate and measurable benefits.”

More than two-thirds of the students who have obtained graduate degrees in the English department in the last dozen years have been in creative writing, Barthelme said. The Center for Writers currently has more than 40 graduate students, with the expectation of increasing that number to more than 50 with the creation of the Excellence Fellowships.

The department is also in the process of hiring new faculty to replace three retired professors. “We’ve already hired a terrific new poet, Julia Johnson, who took her undergraduate degree at Hollins University and her graduate degree at the University of Virginia. She has a first book already with L.S.U. Press, and a second book is in the works. She’ll join us in the fall. And we’ll look for additional replacements next year,” Barthelme said. “But Julia Johnson is the perfect template for the kind of people we’re seeking—smart, accomplished, with a dedication to teaching and publishing, and ready to make a long-term commitment to The University of Southern Mississippi. The future is a great opportunity for this university, and we want to do our part for the benefit of the school and its students.”


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May 16, 2005 4:01 PM