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An Interview with Thomas Greene, President of the Vermont College of Fine Arts

By Joyce Kahn
I recently interviewed Thomas Greene, president of the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA)—which has several acclaimed low-residency MFA programs, including one of the top low-residency writing programs in the country—about the college’s addition of a graduate-level, two-year residency program in writing. This will be VCFA’s first program where students reside nearby every semester and attend classes as in a traditional college model.
Hearing that the University of Southern California was discontinuing its 43-year-old graduate program in writing, Greene contacted USC and acquired the program at no cost. VCFA anticipates an initial enrollment of 25 students this fall to the Graduate School of Writing and Publishing.

What will be the tuition cost and where will students live?

Tuition will be $27,500. There are scholarships available. We think these students will have the option to live in the dorms if they want to. But I think many of them will end up living in town, renting apartments. In some cases they’re married. Graduate students tend to not want to live in dormitories.

How is this program different from your other writing programs?

For one, it’s a slightly different population. This tends to be a younger market—people who are one or two years out of undergraduate school who want that full-time residential experience, as opposed to the 10-day residency every six months. It’s also going to teach screenwriting and writing for new media, and there will ultimately be a strong publishing component. What that looks like we’re still working out, but there are many people who may not want to be professional writers but may want to be editors or go into running their small presses.

So you’re not shutting down any programs to make this happen.

No, we’re in a growth mode. We’ve grown by 50 percent in the past five years. We’re the fastest growing college in the state of Vermont. We’ve gone from 230 to about 380 students. Our goal is to get to 500 and assess at that point in time. I think this is a pivot for us. This program could end up with 150–200 students, which would be significant. It’s an addition toward our goal of creating a national center for education in the arts here in Montpelier. Having a residential component is a key piece in the next iteration of what Vermont College will be.

Are there any faculty of distinction coming here?

Janet Fitch, who wrote a book a lot of people read, White Oleander, will be joining the staff. The editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review is joining the faculty and coming here as well. So it’s really a distinguished group.

What is the impact of Vermont College on Montpelier?

We know that every time when we add a new program, we add at least $100,000, sometimes $200,000, of direct money being spent downtown in restaurants, shops and bars. So it’s a real game-changer for downtown. In terms of having a vibrant downtown, the college is arguably one of the big components of that.

Many think writing, reading and publishing are on the decline. What are your views?

I don’t think it’s so much on the decline as just changing. There’s actually 5–7 percent growth in people studying writing nationally. Writing programs are growing. I think we’re in the golden age of literature right now, which is interesting. There are so many rumors about the demise of writing, yet you see more reading, from what I can tell. Books are still selling; there’s more good fiction and poetry coming out than there has been in years.
At the same time, I think there are a lot of people speculating around what it means to be a writer and how that has changed, along with the idea that you will write books and that’s all you do; that’s a very small percentage of the people who become writers. It always has been, but it’s a particularly small percentage of people who can afford to do that—so [you have] the growth of writing programs and the growth of what’s been called the MFA industry by some people. These graduates end up editing literary magazines, they end up teaching and some of them end up in advertising and copy editing. There’s a range of things that people do that the skills of an MFA allow you to ultimately do.

What’s your opinion on writing? Can it be taught or is it innate?

I actually think writing can be taught, but I also think there’s great value in having a community of writers. I asked [Maine-based author] Richard Russo this question when he was here a year ago and his answer was that community is the most important part of it—being around and getting to know people who are trying to do the same crazy thing you’re trying to do. I think that has intrinsic value. I went through this MFA program here, and I was a much better writer two years later than I was before I came in. I wasn’t someone who could publish before I came into the program, and I was someone who did publish when I came out.