Controversy has dogged the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) since David Fenza, its longtime executive director, was fired on March 11. In late April, former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove, AWP’s 1986–1987 board president, wrote an open letter to the organization’s current board, in which she claimed that an “administrator of the University of Maryland’s English department [whom she declined to identify for PW] said Fenza was dismissed for creating ‘a hostile work environment.’” She then asked: “Where was the ‘hostile work environment’? Were there any formal complaints?”
To date, the AWP board has not responded to Dove’s letter. AWP chair David Haynes told PW that the board cannot respond to such questions, citing its legal obligations to protect Fenza’s privacy. However, according to a dozen women who spoke to PW, multiple complaints were lodged against Fenza over the span of a decade.
What Dove wants, she says in the letter, is transparency, since Fenza maintains he was fired without cause. And Fenza, for his part, is standing firm that he is the one who has been wronged by AWP. “At no time during the last 18 months did the board let me know about complaints from the staff,” Fenza told PW. “For the previous 28 years, my performance evaluations were always good to excellent.”
AWP, a nonprofit which provides support and resources to writers, college and university creative writing programs, and writers’ conferences, has been hosted by the University of Maryland since July 2017. Prior to that, AWP had a longstanding affiliation with George Mason University. Though it maintains its status as an independent nonprofit, AWP is now a subunit of UMD’s English department. Bonnie Thornton Dill, dean of the School of Arts Humanities at UMD, signed Fenza’s letter of termination. (Under the arrangement AWP has with UMD, its staffers are employed by UMD.)
UMD administrators declined to disclose whether any complaints have been filed against Fenza since AWP moved to the university’s College Park campus. But the sources who reached out to PW allege that Fenza created a hostile work environment for some women on staff, while protecting AWP conference director Christian Teresi, who still works for the organization. The women who spoke to PW said a number of formal grievances were filed against Teresi.
Though most of the women who spoke to PW about their experience at AWP did so on the condition of anonymity, a number provided PW with human resources documents, letters, and emails to support their allegations of gender discrimination, bullying, and retaliation.
“There’s a whole story that isn’t being told,” said one of the women. “It’s not fair to former employees like me, or to AWP members, that there is only Fenza’s version out there, amplified in different publications. We talked a lot about serving our members the three years I worked there; the best way to serve our members is for them to know the truth.”
In one discrimination complaint filed against Teresi in 2011, a woman wrote that he inappropriately interrogated her when she requested leave for her own health issues and to care for an ailing infant. He later gave her a negative performance evaluation. His behavior toward her, she noted in the complaint, “seems to be motivated by my role as a mother.”
Shortly after filing the complaint, the woman resigned, though she continued the grievance process. GMU dismissed her claims of gender discrimination due to “insufficient evidence,” but Linda Schwartzstein, GMU’s vice provost, subsequently wrote to the woman, and said that “given the possibility that [the negative] performance evaluation rating was an act of retaliation” by Fenza and Teresi, the evaluation had been removed from her personnel file.
Several women told PW that they filed complaints in 2013 concerning gender-based pay disparities, alleging that a man in a similar position to them with less experience and fewer qualifications received a higher salary. One woman said she received a raise but resigned shortly thereafter. Another woman said she completed the grievance process and then resigned. She added, “I really thought something would be done about Fenza, or at least about [Teresi], and it wasn’t. So I left.”
Amber Withycombe worked at AWP as its development director from 2011 to 2013, and she recalled her time there was “personally and professionally very difficult,” with constant friction between Fenza and staff due to what she and many other former employees have described as his autocratic and capricious management style.
Tensions, Withycombe said, were compounded by Fenza’s reluctance to mediate between Teresi and other employees. “Staff departures, particularly in the conference department, were frequent and rarely discussed,” she said. “Current and past board members made comments to me about the high turnover that suggested they were well aware of how challenging it was to work at AWP.”
In June 2013 five senior staffers, including Withycombe, compiled for Fenza (and copied to a GMU HR rep) their grievances, along with those of junior staffers, regarding Teresi’s behavior. Withycombe provided copies of these documents to PW. In her grievance, she wrote to Fenza: “It is clear to me that [Teresi] is held to a different standard and expectation than other employees. AWP staff members have repeatedly made you aware of his unprofessional behavior, but you have not addressed it in a way that has curbed its continuation. I urgently request that you find a course of action that leads to the establishment of a healthy and functional workplace for all AWP staff.”
Fenza and Teresi told PW they were aware of only one complaint filed with GMU: the 2011 one that had been dismissed. “As long as I have worked at AWP, I have strived to make it an inclusive and respectful workplace,” wrote Teresi. “None of my evaluations in my 16 years at AWP give credence to what you have suggested.” Fenza also noted that, since 2012, AWP has hired “more experienced and professional staff,” which reduced turnover.
Staff turnover at AWP has slowed since 2014, which might be a consequence of the grievances filed by those five senior staffers in 2013. According to 2013–2014 AWP board president Judith Baumel, during her tenure the board “was made aware of serious accusations of harassment and discrimination against women and people of color” at the organization. “Together with GMU’s HR office, we worked with Fenza to address these.” Baumel said that she left the board in 2014, “too soon to see any real changes.”
Current AWP employees declined to respond on the record to PW’s questions concerning the organization’s office environment, but former development director Pamela Mills, who retired last month, said that she enjoyed “a very professional, collegial, and respectful working relationship” with her colleagues. She noted, however, that there had been “issues” when she was hired in the fall of 2013 that were “being handled by HR with lots of staff training and professional development workshops to repair internal staff problems.”
Despite the effort to change AWP’s working environment around 2014, issues continued to linger. William Miller, who directed GMU’s creative writing program from 1992 until his retirement this month, said after that period “questions were raised about whether the organization had addressed those issues to HR’s satisfaction.” He added that “there were intimations HR was not satisfied.” Miller noted, though, that “GMU did not tell AWP to leave.” It was AWP’s decision to move to UMD after the agreement with GMU expired, he said, citing the organization’s need for more office space and higher salaries.
Chloe Schwenke—a transgender activist with extensive managerial experience in academia and nonprofit organizations—was named interim director of AWP in April, and the board is searching for a permanent director. Withycombe hopes new leadership will allow AWP to move forward.“I so loved working with most everybody at AWP,” she said. “AWP has so much potential. I hope they find a leader who heals the debacle of the last dozen years with honesty and transparency.”