Academy Suffers Cutbacks, Layoffs

Mary Gannon
From the January/February 2002 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The Academy of American Poets, the 68-year-old literary nonprofit, has made headlines recently, but not for its latest party or prizewinner. In September the organization, best known for founding National Poetry Month, announced that Executive Director William Wadsworth had been asked to resign by board of directors president Henry Reath. And on November 7, the board voted to lay off eight of the Academy's seventeen employees and to subdivide its new office and rent out half of the space, which the group had renovated and moved into in August.

The cuts were the board's attempt to reduce this fiscal year's budget deficit, which was running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Along with the cuts, the board also voted to establish the Stabilization Fund, a campaign to raise $500,000 over the next two fiscal years. For now, the Academy plans to continue all of its programs, but the future of its Poetry Book Club, a program established in 2000, is under review. As for Wadsworth's replacement, the board has changed the title of the position to president and has hired the Phillips Oppenheim Group, a firm that specializes in nonprofit organizations, to perform the search for a new leader.

At first glance the Academy's story seems typical these days—reports of nonprofits cutting back or even declaring bankruptcy have peppered the country's newspapers. By all accounts the Academy's actions were due in part to the economy's downturn, compounded by the September 11 tragedy, which has left many arts organizations cautious about fund-raising expectations. In fact, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced in late November that it had established a $50 million fund to assist arts and cultural institutions suffering from the effects of the recent disaster. But the decision to fire Wadsworth was made before September 11, and the reasons for his firing remain unclear.

Before news of Wadsworth's "stepping down" was announced by the Academy, writer and translator Eliot Weinberger sent a mass e-mail to the poetry community protesting the Academy's action and encouraging others to do the same. Weinberger wrote, "No reason was publicly given [for Wadsworth's firing], but there are reports that the board—almost entirely wealthy donors with no other connection to the poetry world—has been distressed for a long time by the diversification and expansion of the Academy's activities."

During Wadsworth's 12-year tenure, the Academy launched an array of new programs: National Poetry Month; the Poetry Book Club; a Web site; and the Online Poetry Classroom, which encourages poetry education in secondary schools. Wadsworth also oversaw the addition of five awards to the Academy's distinguished series, as well as the establishment of the Atlas/Greenwall Fund, which provides support to noncommercial poetry publishers. Under Wadsworth's leadership the Academy's annual income increased from $400,000 to $3 million, and its total assets grew from $2 million to $10 million.

In 2000 the Academy received a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation that included a matching $2 million challenge to its board of directors. With the help of the grant and the then healthy economy, the Academy began expanding programming and hiring additional staff, and made plans to move into a larger office. For the past two fiscal years, however, the Academy has operated in the red, with deficits that Reath characterizes as "shockingly large."

According to Reath, Wadsworth was asked to resign because the two of them "had gotten to loggerheads" about the organization's budget for fiscal year 2002. Reath says that while the previous year's deficit was unexpected, it was not an issue. "The problem was: Were we going to do it again? And the answer was: No, we were not going to do it again."

"The notion has been bruited about that one of the reasons that [Wadsworth] got fired was that he was intractable in terms of budget," says poet Philip Levine, who sits on the Academy's board of chancellors. "It isn't true. He offered a much reduced budget; it was rejected. The one thing he did definitely want to keep was the employees, but it never came down to that because while he was working out these budgets, he just got fired—bang, it was over."

Wadsworth confirms that he offered budget revisions, but Reath says that they all included anticipated income that the board simply didn't find credible.

Wadsworth says he was told by Reath that he was being fired because of his management skills. India Amos, the Academy's former Webmaster (who chose to be laid off rather than keep her job with one fewer assistant and the responsibility of an additional program for the same salary), says the staff was told at first that Wadsworth had been fired as the result of a management audit. After the staff sent the board a memo requesting clarification about his firing, the board revised its explanation, says Amos, citing finances as the real reason.

Wadsworth was fired because he and Reath "could not agree on a viable budget for the organization," says Farrar, Straus and Giroux publisher Jonathan Galassi, who is chairman of the Academy's board of directors. Galassi denies any claims that the board had a problem with the Academy's programming: "It was a question of maintaining the level of funding that was the problem."

Some believe Wadsworth was a scapegoat for a board that didn't want to accept its share of the responsibility for the Academy's fiscal crisis. The Academy's board contributes less than 10 percent of the organization's income each year, which, according to Wadsworth at least, isn't much. It has yet to raise any of the $2 million it needs to raise by 2005 to secure the Ford matching grant. "We have board members who say, ‘I just can't ask people for money,'" says Amos. "These are the people who are supposed to be leading fund-raising for the organization."

According to Wadsworth, the board was supportive of the Academy's growth, agreeing to play a more active role in fund-raising by accepting the Ford grant and its matching challenge and by approving expansion-based budgets all along the way. "Mac Lowry, who used to run [the humanities and arts division of] the Ford Foundation in its heyday in the fifties and sixties, when he retired said that the great unsolved problem in nonprofit organizations is the role of the nonprofit board and its accountability," says Wadsworth. "Certainly I've been held accountable for the deficits—that's obvious, but to whom is the board accountable in not sticking to their fund-raising pledges and enthusiasm?"

Reath admits that he and the board were supportive of Wadsworth's expansionist plan, but adds that their support depended on a variety of factors: a substantial increase in earned income, the creation of a development office, and monetary contributions from the board. "We got hit on a couple of fronts," says Reath. The book club has not earned the money the Academy hoped it would, and it took longer than expected to get the development office up and running. When the office finally was in place, the economy began to slip, which also affected the board's contributions.

While the search for Wadsworth's successor continues, former associate director Charles Flowers is the acting executive director. He hopes the poetry community will support the Academy and its programs, especially in light of its reduced staff. "Nine people are not going to do the work of seventeen," says Flowers. "It's going to be a challenge, but it's also an opportunity to see what we can do."

Mary Gannon is deputy editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.