UMass MFA program ranked one of the top four in the nation

By Michelle Williams


The Masters of Fine Arts Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts has been ranked one of the best in the country, according to the most recent edition of Poets & Writers Magazine.

In the November/ December issue of the magazine, the 50 best MFA programs were ranked out of the 140 full-residency programs nationwide. The MFA program of UMass was tied with University of Texas, Austin, for 4th place, ranking below University of Iowa, Iowa City, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Such rankings placed UMass above Ivy League schools including Brown University, Cornell University and Columbia University.

Schools were compared in seven categories: poetry, fiction, nonfiction, total funding, annual funding, selectivity and postgraduate placement. The most important element of how the programs were ranked, according to the author Seth Abramson, was the information received from a poll taken of more than 500 prospective and current MFA applicants between October 2008 and April 2009. The survey was conducted from two online resources for MFA applicants, MFA Weblog and Suburban Ecstasies. a website authored by Abramson to help rank the MFA programs. Other data the survey included the number of students admitted into the programs yearly, financial aid, program lengths, teaching loads and the emphasis of the program on fiction or poetry.

In a University statement, Joseph Bartolomeo, the chair of the UMass English Department said, “The high ranking is wonderful news but not surprising.” He added, “It confirms what we already know: the extraordinary talent and dedication of our MFA faculty and students is of great pride to the department and the University.”

In 1963, Joseph Langland founded the Masters of Fine Arts Program for Poets and Writers. Currently, it is one of the smallest departments with only seven faculty members, though it is considered a part of the English Department.

In the 2009-2010 academic year, fewer than 80 students were admitted to the program. The MFA program is constructed around intensive writing workshops, private conferences, seminars, independent study and internships. With the completion of the required 60 credits, students are required to complete and present a book-length manuscript. This program is typically completed in three years.

Resident poets and writers in the program hold many awards including a Pulitzer Prize given to James Tate in 1992 for his poetry, four Guggenheim fellowships, a PEN/Faulkner Award, a National Book Award and two Pushcart Prizes for poetry.

Alumni have also received national attention. In 2007, an alumna Natasha Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2006 work “Native Guard,” first-person narrative of an unnamed former slave who joined the Union army written in 10-sonnet sequence. Currently the program boasts nearly 90 notable alumni.

Director of the MFA program Sabina Murray released the following statement regarding the current issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, “The ranking only confirms what I see in the classroom. Our MFA dedicated and innovative, critical thinkers and consistently surprising writers. A dedicated faculty helps, but responsiveness and effort on the part of our graduate writers and poets has really started to bear fruit. It gives me no small satisfaction to know that our students and graduates-despite their dedication to a difficult profession- can enjoy this recognition now.” Murray is a fiction writer who received the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2003, and The Chicago Tribune named her book, “A Carnivore’s Inquiry,” a “Best Book of the Year.”

Of the rankings, author Seth Abramson wrote, “Because there are 140 full-residency MFA programs in the United States, any school whose numerical ranking is in the top fifty in any of the ranked categories should be considered exceptional in that category.” Abramson is doctoral student in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His works have been published in dozens of literary magazines, and in 2008, he won the J. Howard and Barbara M.J Wood Prize.

Michelle Williams can be reached at [email protected]