The West Chester Poetry Conference Cancellation – 1 Month On

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.

11 Comments

  1. Sam Gwynn

    As I’ve said before, I’m waiting on facts, not suppositions. Three facts are known: Kim was dismissed; the Poetry Center is currently closed; and the 2015 conference has been cancelled.

    Supposition: 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.

    Fact: The passive voice is used here. Frankly, I never heard this statement from anyone. If it was given as an initial reason, why is no source cited??

    Supposition: 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.

    Fact: As sad as it may sound, art exhibitions, dance recitals, cellists, and jazz have little to do with a poetry conference dedicated to form and narrative. Free verse certainly fits into the narrative genre, just as rap/hip-hop fits into the formal mode. What does “Since we have heard tell” mean in relation to fact?

    Supposition: 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.

    Fact: If there is in fact a lawsuit pending against WCU, it’s obvious that WCU, as possible defendant, cannot reveal very much information.

    Supposition: 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.

    Fact: Post hoc ergo propter hoc is not a sound basic for argument. The call for an audit of the Poetry Center was supported unanimously by the Board of Advisors. Where the call originated remains in doubt.

    Suppositiont: 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.

    Fact: The passive voice again, and “now we are straying into theorizing” is rather disingenuous given the fact that so much theorizing has already been stated.

    Supposition: 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.

    Fact: The Poetry Conference is a four-day event conducted by WCU in the summer. Dr. Vermeulen is Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, which comprises 13 academic departments. The Poetry Center and Conference operate under the banner of one of these departments.

    • Anna_Evans

      The reason WCU gave Kim for her dismissal was to do with fundraising, and this was let slip by Pat Valdata, Kim’s Assistant for the 2014 Conference, in an early part of the first Eratosphere thread. I didn’t repeat her name because I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to make this public or not and I didn’t want to embarrass her further.

      With respect to my other sources, I may be being somewhat disingenuous, but so is Sam. In a private conversation with Sam I shared my sources and the reasons I could not reveal them publicly. It is odd that Sam is prepared to state, ” it’s obvious that WCU, as possible defendant, cannot reveal very much information,” without making similar allowances for my sources, especially since he knows who they are.

      Sam is also making an assumption, as pointed out by Quincy, when he implies that “art exhibitions, dance recitals, cellists, and jazz” are the “fringe elements” which may or may not have been mentioned. I quote now from Mike Peich in The West Chester University Poetry Conference (Kelly-Winterton Press, 2004): “Among the many activities supported by the center, music is central to our mission…Sound is central to both the poet’s and composer’s craft, so we decided to increase the audience for artsong by staging a concert of poetry and song as the final concert event.”

      I didn’t want to make my blog posting too long and convoluted, but I have other evidence for my “chain of events” stemming from Dean Lori’s dissembling emails to me. Why did she pretend she didn’t know what I was talking about when I asked for an audit using the wrong terminology, which I have since learned? Why did she then refer me to someone who told me such things were not in his remit?

      Finally, anyone who has corresponded or dealt with Dean Lori can be under no doubt that she has been much more involved in the handling of this fubar than Sam’s departmental structure might suggest. Sure, why isn’t our letter from the Head of the Creative Writing Department? Do we even know who he/she is? Indeed, why did Dean Lori regularly attend Poetry Advisory Board Meetings? It’s certainly a fact that she did.

  2. Quincy R. Lehr

    Without intervening too much in the incipient debate, the problem with phrases like “fringe elements” is that they can mean many things… political or prosodic outliers, as Anna suggests? (And if so, in what direction?) Sam’s mention of the jazzers and so on? The conference’s somewhat neither-fish-nor-fowl relation to academe? I have no idea, and I’d be curious as to a source–is this in writing?

  3. W.F. Lantry

    I really only have two questions. First, did the “fringe elements” comment come from the Dean, or other controlling authority? Even though it’s hearsay, it does fit the whispers we all heard before any of this went down, and so there’s a kind of persuasive verisimilitude to the hearsay. None of us ever thought the grumblings would lead to anything like this, but it would be dishonest to deny we heard those grumblings.

    Question 2: has anyone compared the roster of the members of the board of the colorado conference to the roster of the members of the poetry center board? Do any names appear on both?

    Given the mercenary nature of conferences, it’s natural, if unseemly, the colorado conference would jump up and down, waving its arms, shouting “Can’t go to west chester? Come see us instead!” Even if that jumping and shouting happened awfully quickly. Maybe they just saw a business marketing opportunity, and leapt on it. I wonder, though, how well the “fringe elements” will be represented there?

    • Anna_Evans

      In the hearsay that I heard said, and for which I only have an indirect source I cannot share, the “fringe elements” comment came from Dean Lori.

      I have not made such a comparison of the boards, but it seems unlikely to me that would be the source of poaching. The WCU Poetry Center Advisory Board (I nearly said “our” board, but stopped myself) members’ names are readily available on the WCU Poetry Center website: http://wcupoetrycenter.com/staff-and-board

  4. Sam Gwynn

    Let’s summarize the alleged reasons for Kim’s dismissal, all in Anna M. Evans’s words.

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. 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.

    • Anna_Evans

      I’m not sure what your point is, Sam. Yes, I said all that–I’m not denying it.

      It’s worth reminding ourselves that there are GIVEN reasons, and ACTUAL reasons why things happen. Kim was GIVEN reasons for her dismissal. It’s not a stretch to suppose that I know what those given reasons were, especially since Pat Valdata also appears to know them, and that they were to do with Kim’s fundraising capabilities.

      It’s also not a stretch to suppose that Kim has a few friends on the Poetry Advisory Board, who might tell her when they receive emails hinting at OTHER reasons. Or that I might find out THOSE reasons too, from ‘a source close to Kim.’

      And still, NONE of these reasons might be the ACTUAL reasons, which other evidence still strongly suggests concern the request for an audit.

  5. Sam Gwynn

    Just summarizing the reasons, Anna, which have a pretty wide range, from fundraising, to fringe elements, to financial malfeasance, to audits, to what appears to be an administrative vendetta. And none of these has been verified by disinterested parties. Perhaps the board meeting on Monday can shed some light.

    • Anna_Evans

      I’m not sure where you expect to find “disinterested parties,” Sam, but yes, let’s see what happens at the board meeting.

  6. […] between Kim and WCU, which means she can still say nothing about what happened. There are still well-founded rumors of financial mismanagement at the Poetry Center, which is still the most credible reason for the sudden action. Remember: you can’t audit a […]

Leave a Reply to Loyalty to Kim Bridgford Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *