This past April, the City University of Hong Kong announced the abrupt closure of its low-residency MFA writing program, which had been running for just five years. The news came as a shock to both faculty and students, as the program had in a brief period established a rather remarkable international reputation, not least for its focus on diversity and literary daring. Word of the shutdown came in the wake of the so-called Umbrella Revolution last fall, when hundreds of thousands of protesters packed the streets of Hong Kong to demonstrate against new voting restrictions and wider threats to free expression. Several City University students and faculty saw a clear connection between the movement and the shutdown of the MFA program, and launched a fierce protest against it. Despite their efforts, though, the program will accept no new students and is projected to officially shutter after its current cohort of writers graduates at the end of next year.
The university’s acting head of the English department, Hon Chan, announced the closure in an e-mail in April (in the middle of the program’s application cycle), citing financial unsustainability—due in part to the program’s small enrollment—as the primary reason for the decision. It was an explanation that faculty and students say they found bewildering and irrelevant, given the nature of the program and its successes.
“I was not consulted about the actual closure,” says the program’s founding director, Xu Xi, who claims that the program had actually become profitable this year. “I was just presented with it as a decision made already.”
For a short-lived and ultimately ill-fated program, City University’s MFA has had a significant impact. Established in 2010, it enrolled approximately twenty students each year, drawing writers from twenty different countries—from Denmark and Australia to Singapore and the United Kingdom—a level of diversity unparalleled by most U.S. programs. “The students were bringing in a different canon, different languages, different political histories and contexts,” says Canadian-born novelist and City University faculty member Madeleine Thien. Xu also points to the program’s diversity as its core strength. “It was very interesting in workshop,” she says. “You’d have a Japanese student, a Korean, an Australian, British and American students, all speaking different English, spelling English differently, punctuating differently—it was remarkable, the dialogue that happened out of that, the cross-fertilization.” Xu worked to build an equally diverse faculty, all with some connection to Asia. “They’re like a mirror of the students,” she says. “They’re from all over.”
As for the program’s financial health, Xu reports that the MFA lost money in its first four years, but had begun to bring in a profit in its fifth year. Furthermore, according to the Quacquarelli Symonds World University Rankings, the City University English department jumped from “nowhere,” as Xu puts it, to fifth in Asia—a notable achievement for an institution traditionally focused on linguistics and communications rather than literature. And while the value of an MFA program is notoriously hard to quantify, City University’s success rate, measured by the publication credits of its alumni, is surprising even to its director. In just five years the program’s students have produced seven books, either published or in contract, and have published nearly a hundred pieces in literary journals throughout the world.
Protesters pointed to these successes as reasons to keep the program open, putting up a fight in the press and social media, and through a sustained letter-writing campaign. More than eighty writers, including Junot Díaz, Rae Armantrout, and Robert Olen Butler, signed an open letter urging the university to reinstate the program. “The protest really scared the hell out of them,” Xu says of the university administrators. “They had never seen anything like this. It was public, and it was large, and everybody in the universities in Hong Kong knew about it.”
In May, Chan and the university’s provost, Arthur Ellis, met with protest representatives to discuss the closure, but maintained that the program was financially unsustainable—a claim protesters disputed in a May letter to the university senate. In the letter, external examiner Shawn Wong, a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle’s creative writing department, asserted that the “deficit was manufactured by the Finance Office by retroactively creating new expenses for the program to pay years after the expenses were settled.” City University administration, meanwhile, has reiterated its reasons for closing the program: “The MFA program, with an annual admission quota of thirty, recruited less than eighteen students in each of the last two years,” says Christina Wu Kwok-yan of the university’s public-relations office. “The program has accumulated a large deficit over the years. In accordance with established procedure, a proposal to discontinue the program was initiated by the departmental committee, recommended by the college committee, and approved by the Senate in March 2015.”
Given the financial dispute, some wonder whether the closure may have actually been a political decision. Perhaps not directly, says Xu, “but there is a cultural shift in Hong Kong towards China.” This shift, which has seen Hong Kong’s autonomous government increasingly influenced by the Communist Party of mainland China, has begun to threaten the freedom of the English-language press, as well as the work of individual foreign journalists. City and other universities are being encouraged to collaborate with China and focus more on the sciences. “Creative writing, literary expression, is not the first thing they’re going to promote in their universities,” says Xu. Although many students had written creatively in support of the Umbrella Revolution, Xu points out that there are other, much more vocal members of the university community who still have jobs and programs to run.
Regardless of the cause of the shutdown, it seems that an MFA program at City University may ultimately have been a poor fit for the entrenched institution. Even when Xu launched the program, she understood that both the MFA in general, and the low-residency model in particular, were alien to the university’s more established systems. (Even potential students were unfamiliar with the MFA: Xu recalls being asked, “Why do I have to submit a writing sample?”) Moreover, master’s programs in Hong Kong aren’t government-subsidized; they’re expected to break even or turn a profit. Most are therefore large lecture programs with a fairly light course load and a clear professional boost at the end. The low-residency model, with its small classes, itinerant faculty, and demanding curriculum, was a baffling departure from the standard.
For her part, Xu seems to have come to terms with the university’s decision and is looking toward ways to move the program model forward. “The MFA program was good for the department and the university, but now we have to ask ourselves: Is City University good for the MFA?” Xu says. “I think the answer is no, so perhaps we should say, ‘Let’s move on.’” Several universities in Asia, the United States, and the United Kingdom have approached Xu in the hopes of re-creating the program in a different form, and carrying on its unique mission of offering a diverse, Asia-focused MFA program in English—one that has the potential to bring a valuable new global perspective to contemporary literature. “It’s not a story of immigration,” says Xu. “It’s the story of those who are in Asia and want to write about where they are—but to write it for the world.”
Joanna Scutts is a writer and critic in Queens, New York. She is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. Her website is joannascutts.com.