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UNM cuts hit popular Taos writers’ conference

Copyright © 2016 Albuquerque Journal

Over nearly two decades, the Taos Summer Writers’ Conference has attracted famous, and in some cases, Pultizer Prize-winning authors to New Mexico while helping younger writers perfect their craft.

Sharon Oard Warner

Sharon Oard Warner

Conference founder Sharon Oard Warner, a University of New Mexico English professor, said the annual gathering of writers in northern New Mexico was self-funded, helped aspiring writers and boosted the university’s national presence.

But now she is shutting it down following an administrative decision to pull funding from the conference’s reserves.

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“I understand that the University has to balance its budget in these difficult times, but the choices made by administrators send a clear message to faculty, staff, and students as to what the University values – and what it doesn’t,” Warner said in a statement to the Journal .

The writers’ conference is one of many programs affected by recent budget cuts at UNM tied to financial pain inflicted by the state earlier this year. The American Literary Realism journal is leaving UNM and the literary magazine Blue Mesa Review had to rely on English department dollars to stay afloat, an unusual move for the program that is usually self-sustaining.

And dozens more may be facing similar challenges. The College of Arts and Sciences pulled about 20 percent from its roughly 70 programs’ reserve accounts to fill its portion of the budgetary hole, said Mark Peceny, the college’s dean.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers in a special session reduced the budgets of the state’s higher education institutions by 5 percent. For UNM, that was a nearly $15 million reduction in funding from $310 million to $295 million. For the main campus, that meant it had to cut $8.2 million.

The university’s response has been to freeze hiring of staff while limiting new faculty positions, and to tap reserve accounts, Warner’s included.

Peceny said his school already had budgeted its available funds to hire part-time instructors for the spring semester. So they pulled from “public service accounts,” or accounts for nonacademic projects outside the university. The College of Arts and Sciences pulled roughly $250,000 from the accounts to fill its share of the financial hole.

“A lot of great programs have been hit hard by this cut, but there are no good options for meeting this kind of difficult budget challenge,” Peceny said.

Some of these programs generate their own revenue that is used to fund most of their operations, though they’re still under the purview of the university because they use UNM resources and infrastructure, such as accounting services or office space.

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Public service accounts make up about 7 percent, or $57 million, of the main campus budget of nearly $850 million.

Provost Chaouki Abdallah said roughly $710,000 was pulled from similar accounts universitywide. Abdallah said even after the administrative draw, the writers’ conference account still had $40,000, in addition to its operating budget, which should have covered costs.

“Therefore, stating that due to the pullback they cannot continue to operate is simply inaccurate,” Abdallah told the Journal .

In total, the university pulled about $27,000 from the conference’s reserve balance of $137,000. It costs about $165,000 to cover conference costs associated with advertising, catering, lodging and instructors, and those costs were covered by conference proceeds, Warner said.

Warner said hotel costs alone run $30,000. She said she might have been able to scrape by without the usual amount of staff. And, barring robust early registration, Warner said it would be difficult to cover hotel fees in a timely manner.

Warner said she ran and funded the conference without the use of an endowment, outside benefactors or financial aid from the university. It charged between $400 to $700 to its 250 to 300 guests for the workshops.

In 1999, the English Department offered Warner $10,000 to launch the conference. But thanks to registration fees, Warner didn’t need to rely on that money.

Any money she made running the conference was funneled into a public service account, where it would sit to cover future costs.

During its 18 years, the conference attracted influential authors, such as Pultizer Prize-winners Anthony Doerr and Elizabeth Strout.

Robert Wilder, an author, teacher at the Santa Fe Preparatory School and a frequent instructor, said the annual event felt like a family reunion. It was the sort of event, he said, where attendees could bring their family, even the dog. Throw in the conference’s stellar reputation, Wilder said, and he thinks the university made a short-sighted decision.

“I don’t think they really understand what this conference has done for their reputation,” Wilder said. “This is basically cutting off free advertising.”

Warner said she will focus her efforts and remaining funds on the restoration of the university-owned D.H. Lawrence Ranch, which was the original conference site and the New Mexico home to the English novelist of the same name. She also will focus on providing online writing classes through the Rananim program, an offshoot of the conference.

Other groups with similar accounts include the Blue Mesa Review, a literary magazine started by famed New Mexican author Rudolfo Anaya, and American Literary Realism.

Realism editor Gary Scharnhost said in an email to Peceny that the journal was not meant to be a “cash cow” for the university.

Scharnhost, a professor who taught at UNM for 24 years and who retired five years ago, said he will move the publication to the University of Oregon as a result of the administrative cut.

The editors of Blue Mesa Review publication, Jason Thayer and Aaron Reeder, wrote in a statement to the Journal that they were “shocked” at news of the cutback. Though mostly self-supporting, the editors said they received some funding from the English department to keep the magazine going.

“Twenty percent may sound negligible but, with our shoestring budget, it would mean going into the red by the end of the year,” they said.


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