Creative writing is about to get a shot of adrenaline at Rutgers-Camden.
Last week, the university announced it will provide $1 million to the master of fine arts in creative writing program over the next five years, beginning next fall, allowing Rutgers-Camden to fully fund the graduate degree.
Through a combination of teaching assistantships, fellowships, scholarships, and stipends, all students will receive about $26,000 for each of the two years they are in the program. And 10 to 12 students will be accepted each year.
“We’re committed to taking a very selective class and working with the best writers we can. That’s what a fully funded program is able to do,” said Lisa Zeidner, chair of the school’s English department.
The financial boost from the university president’s office comes as Rutgers-Camden has sought to expand its campus’ presence in the region and elevate certain programs.
Creative writing has become one of those campus hallmarks, with a string of high-profile successes in recent years.
Last year, the university opened a $4.2 million Writers House in a renovated rowhouse in downtown Camden, a building that serves as the home of the M.F.A. program and hosts public events such as writing workshops and author readings.
Gregory Pardlo, a 1999 graduate of Rutgers-Camden, won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for poetry; this fall, he returned to his alma mater as a professor.
In August, English and creative writing professor Paul Lisicky was named a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow.
“You want to build on your strengths,” said Kriste Lindenmeyer, the arts and sciences dean at Rutgers-Camden.
As Rutgers-Camden increases its enrollment and brings in more students as freshmen, Lindenmeyer said, general education such as writing training becomes increasingly important.
“You don’t just fund it, art for art’s sake. The M.F.A. program contributes to students’ ability to write no matter what their majors are,” she said.
“Having a good curriculum, having strong writing programs in Camden for the Writers House makes them very visible, but it’s also a commitment that we’re not just having a nice house,” Lindenmeyer said. “We also want good writing to be an outcome for all the students at Rutgers-Camden.”
Most creative writing M.F.A. programs across the country are not fully funded. Until now, Rutgers-Camden has been able to fund only a handful of students.
“The majority are not, and so that leads to an inequity that is not good for community building. It’s just not that fair,” said Lauren Grodstein, who heads the Rutgers-Camden program.
The money will also help solve a persistent problem: Not all M.F.A. students can afford to stay in the program full time over two years.
“If we have all these students who are on campus full time, making use of the Writers House, all teaching, all engaged in serious work,” Grodstein said, “we really hope that will strengthen our community as well.”
Given the solitary nature of much of the work, Grodstein said, the other students in a cohort often become lifelong support systems: “One of the reasons to get an M.F.A. is that cohort. You find your tribe, you find the people who will hold your hand as you embark on the really challenging and unpredictable world of publishing.”
In boosting the writing program’s reputation, the university hopes to lift Rutgers-Camden’s, as well.
In September, a university task force on the humanities released a 39-page report with a range of recommendations for supporting and promoting the humanities across campuses and responses from the president’s office.
Commitment number two: Fund the creative writing programs in Camden and Newark.
“The humanities are the foundation of any great university,” Barbara Lee, Rutgers’ head of academic affairs and chair of the committee, wrote in a statement.
“The M.F.A. programs at Rutgers University-Camden and Rutgers University-Newark are high-quality programs,” she wrote, “with talented students who can look forward to promising careers in various fields including teaching, law, business, health care and publishing.”
Rutgers-Newark’s M.F.A. program, which is slightly larger than Camden’s, will receive $1.5 million over the next five years. Rutgers-New Brunswick does not offer a creative writing M.F.A.
With its $1 million, Rutgers-Camden will fund six students as teaching assistants who will receive a stipend and health benefits in return for teaching undergraduate courses, usually in composition.
Up to five more students will receive funding as interdisciplinary fellows, receiving scholarships and stipends in return for working in academic centers and departments on campus and being paid as adjunct faculty for teaching courses.
“This is a lot of bang for the buck,” Lindenmeyer said. “You’re getting a big payoff here to touch every single student on campus.”
Now it’s up to Rutgers-Camden. “We’re seeing what that jolt of energy can do for the program,” Zeidner said.