The unexpected departure of the top executive at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs has caused a shake-up at the organization, as well as some criticism.
David Fenza, who joined the AWP in 1988 and became executive director of the organization in 1995, was abruptly dismissed from his position on March 11. The move, which came as a shock to many members of the organization, has not only left people with questions, it’s also made them angry.
AWP board chair David Haynes, when contacted by PW, declined to comment on the move, saying simply that the AWP “ended its relationship with Mr. Fenza.” Various sources with knowledge of the organization, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, mused that the board may have been driven by financial concerns and staff turnover.
Founded in 1967 by 15 writers representing 13 MFA programs, the AWP has evolved into a group that mounts one of the country’s most-recognized professional conferences for writers. It has also become the largest gathering of literary publishers in the country. One insider said a drop in AWP’s revenue this past year, due to various unforeseen circumstances, may have prompted the board to take action. (This year’s AWP conference, which is the organization’s biggest driver of revenue, saw its attendance drop to 10,000, down from an average of over 12,000; in 2014, AWP’s conference drew a record attendance of close to 14,000.)
The organization also went through growing pains after relocating its office from George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., to the University of Maryland’s campus in College Park. The move required AWP to change its financial and record-keeping procedures (as it shifted its legal affiliation from one public university to another, and from one state to another), and also saw it shed veteran staffers. (Among those who left AWP after the relocation were its development director.) The insider also said the move affected the bottom line in other ways, with funds going to, among other things, renovations of the new office space.
While many of PW’s sources admitted they didn’t ultimately know why Fenza was let go, they were not shy in discussing the fact that they disapproved of how he was laid off.
According to four former AWP board members and a former employee, Fenza was told about the board’s decision to remove him on March 11, during a meeting at the Marriott Hotel in Tampa. The meeting was held hours after the four-day AWP18 literary conference ended.
AWP did not make an official announcement about Fenza’s departure until March 16, when it posted a brief statement about it on its website and social media. Tweets disclosing Fenza’s ouster, however, appeared on March 12 on six Twitter feeds belonging to AWP18 attendees.
One former AWP employee blasted the board for its “unceremonious dismissal” of Fenza, complaining that he and others had initially heard of it through “some random individuals online,” rather than through official channels.
Haynes, at the AWP board, did tell PW that the group’s 14 board members “called or emailed” all of the organization’s literary partners and funders on March 12 to “inform them of the news and to discuss any concerns they might have.”
After news of Fenza’s firing spread, AWP’s board members and staffers began receiving emails complaining about the way the situation was handled. Several of the letters were obtained by PW.
One letter, by the former AWP employee, said that Fenza “suffered a fate that should be reserved for strung-out, thieving clerks at donut shops, and not for long-tenured leaders of national service organizations.”
That same letter claimed Fenza has been a central figure in building the AWP for the past 29 years, helping to, among other things, grow its membership and increase attendance at its annual conference. Fenza, it says, took a small gathering with 500 (“mostly white”) writers and a dozen literary presses meeting at a Ramada Inn in Kansas City, and grew it into a four-day event held in convention centers in major cities around the country. The letter ultimately claims that “the governors of this organization, who have a fiduciary obligation to act in the best interests of AWP, have conducted themselves in a manner that has seriously damaged the organization they serve.”
One former AWP board member, who described herself as a friend of Fenza’s, said the former executive director took the organization from “analog to post-digital times.” She recalled that during AWP’s annual awards ceremony, held the evening before the conference officially kicked off this year, board v-p Robin Reagler gave “a lovely tribute” to Fenza. She then said: “I should have known something was up.”