It’s over a month since the unexpected and blatantly unfair dismissal of Kim Bridgford as the Director of the West Chester Poetry Center, and the consequent West Chester Poetry Conference cancellation for 2015 so it seems appropriate to take stock. What have we learned since then? What has changed? How have WCU handled the fallout?
The first thing that strikes me is how little we have genuinely learned about the reasons for Kim’s dismissal and subsequent actions by WCU, despite many individuals connected with the conference demanding answers from the administration.
We were initially told the reason Kim was given had to do with her not working with the Foundation on Fundraising, which seems ludicrous to anyone who has seen Kim in full fundraising mode. Since then we have heard tell that Dean Lori informed the Poetry Center Advisory Board that the conference had lost sight of its original mission and been taken over by “fringe elements.” As this means at best free verse poets, and at worst women and minorities, it is potentially both sexist and racist, plus would involve firing Kim for the very thing she was instructed to do and did brilliantly, namely to broaden the Conference’s appeal.
Similarly, we know little more about any financial irregularities within the Poetry Center, although I think those of us who care to have learned more than we intended about the financial structures of WCU. Basically, both WCU and the WCU Foundation can demonstrate a clean audit, but the Poetry Center, which exists as a ‘black box’ within WCU, and is funded by donations via the Foundation, has never been audited. Dean Lori said in an email to me that “Mark Mixner is working with an external consultant to conduct a financial review of the Center’s work,” and we all got the heavily spun letter that said “the University will be commissioning an independent review of the Poetry Center’s finances.” A review is NOT an audit, and please do note the future tense of “will be.”
Because here’s the thing, folks: one obvious change is that the Poetry Center doesn’t really exist any more. Poetry House at 823 High St has been closed and locked since September 15th, which is why Dean Lori struggled so badly with the cancellation of the Women’s Leadership Retreat. Earlier today I learned that the various functions of the Poetry Center are already being parceled up and handed out to various Creative Writing Faculty members at WCU.
How can you conduct an independent review of a body that no longer exists? Is that, in fact, the fundamental point and purpose of all this?
I don’t want to get into finger pointing and naming/shaming, but it does seem to me that the most obvious chain of events here is the call for the Poetry Center audit, made on August 26th, Kim’s dismissal on September 15th, and the disembowelment of the Poetry Center than has happened since. It has even been suggested that there might be something dubious in the matching of the original NEH grant, and that this is what WCU administration are so desperate to hide, although now we are straying into theorizing.
Whatever it is, there is no doubt in my mind that WCU administration in general, and Dean Lori Vermeulen in particular, have handled everything about this situation appallingly badly, from the egregious dismissal of Kim to the idea that a world-renowned conference can be put on hiatus for a year with no ill effect. (What seems likely to happen there, by the way, is that there will be several splinter conferences in 2015–one at the “Writing the Rockies” conference in Colorado, and one or more in the North East. The task of fusing these splinters will then be even harder in 2016 should WCU admin be telling the truth about their desire to bring the conference home again.)
But what can be done? Well, if you haven’t done so, please sign the petition linked to above this post. The board meeting at which it will be presented is at the beginning of next week, and the more signatures, the better for Kim. Please note: the petition says nothing controversial and does not theorize–it merely praises Kim’s achievements and expresses bafflement at her dismissal.
Finally, I believe we should begin to question Dean Lori Vermeulen’s fitness for her current role, and depending on the outcome of the board meeting we should consider calling for her resignation. I, for one, have zero confidence in her ability to lead the WCU Poetry Conference out of the minefield into which she is responsible for having placed it.