Posted 28 August 2010 by Robert Peake.

Culture is the key to a great program

I flipped open my copy of Poets & Writers this month to discover that Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program has ranked fourth among the top low-residency MFA programs in the U.S., edging up one place from last year. Congratulations to the faculty, students, and staff who made this possible. What is remarkable is that the Pacific program has only been around for a handful of years, as compared to the three programs ranked above it (Bennington since ’94, Warren Wilson since ’76, Vermont College since ’81) and the one program it surpassed in these particular rankings this year (Antioch, started in ’97).

My theory about the secret to this program’s twenty-first-century upstart success is, once again: faculty, faculty, faculty.

What happens when you assemble talent such as the Emeritus Flannery O’Conner Professor of Letters from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the director of the Ph.D. Program in Literature and Creative Writing at USC, and the founder and poetry program director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing at SDSU (just to name a few) is that the program obviously benefits directly from the contribution of such outstanding writers and teachers. But more than this, having not only such a talented but well-connected core faculty naturally and automatically attracts other first-rate writing teachers into the program.

By rapidly attracting great faculty, the program made a name for itself with its debut in the Atlantic Monthly rankings as one of the top five low-residency programs. This led to an explosion in the quality and quantity of new student applicants, acquisition of more first-rate faculty, and overall program growth. The greatest challenge that comes with such rapid growth is maintaining the outstanding culture that precipitated the program’s early success. Culture is critical because maintaining a diverse, congenial environment where faculty can do what they do best with a minimum of politics and pretension creates an ecosystem wherein writing students are bound to thrive.

As in business, culture trickles down from the top. Kudos, three years on from the program’s Atlantic Monthly debut, to Dean Hayes, Program Director Shelley Washburn, and the core faculty–for sustaining a positive culture in the Pacific University MFA program, continuing its reputation as a great place to teach and therefore, by extension, a great program overall.