City University lacks a global outlook with decision to axe creative writing programme

Keane Shum laments the short-sighted closing of a creative writing course

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2015, 1:08pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 May, 2015, 1:08pm

City University has been on the rise. In a town obsessed with rankings, it has climbed quickly up many of them, including to an impressive fifth place among the world's universities founded in the past 50 years. And, just last month, the university capped its 30th anniversary "Year of Art and Culture" by winning three prestigious honours at the Hong Kong Arts Development Awards.

So as an alumnus myself, I was perplexed, to put it kindly, when on the same day that the university issued a press release heralding the "huge night for the arts", students in its Master of Fine Arts in creative writing programme - from which I graduated last October - were told it was being shut down. The two main reasons appear to be, essentially, profitability and exclusivity: how much money does the programme make, and how many applicants does it reject.

Putting aside whether these are the values we want our universities to embody, neither reason makes sense. I understand bottom lines. I used to work as a capital markets lawyer helping start-ups raise billions of dollars. But the creative writing programme at City University was no black hole. It turned a HK$440,000 profit last year, making it profitable in just its fifth year of existence, something most of my former start-up clients could only dream of.

The university claims the programme ran a deficit in previous years, "which is absolutely not true", according to Shawn Wong, the University of Washington professor appointed by the university as the programme's external evaluator. "The programme only ran a deficit when the financial template was changed retroactively and without consultation," said Wong.

And though the programme did have a low application-to-intake ratio, this was because prospective applicants were encouraged to meet the programme director first to determine their suitability for the programme, which sounds like an admissions process to emulate, not discard.

Perhaps there is another reason. Perhaps university administrators simply feel the same way as those who say that if you want to be a writer, just write. I used to think that way. And then I had to get a job. In a city that proclaims itself "Asia's world city", this is the most frustrating irony: City University's slogan is "Professional-Creative for the World", and its creative writing programme has been the perfect, global intersection of the professional and the creative. The unique low-residency, distance-mentoring format, in which students physically attend class for only several weeks a year, allows full-time professionals like myself to take writing seriously even while making a living in another field. It also brings together students from over 20 countries, to say nothing of distinguished faculty from across Asia, Europe and the Americas.

Armed with that flexibility, I wrote essays for my degree that appeared in numerous publications and were recognised in anthologies like The Best American Essays. Classmates published multiple books and won awards.

Some people are certainly talented - and lucky - enough to become writers without getting a degree in writing. The same could be said about the great majority of our policymakers without degrees in public policy, and the many businesspeople here who never went to business school. These all happen to be postgraduate programmes at City University, but only one is being discontinued.

When I was 18, I left Hong Kong for college and law school because universities abroad offered better options than what was available here. Four years ago, a hometown university finally offered an opportunity I didn't have elsewhere, and now it is throwing that away. City University may climb more rankings, but this will be its demise.

Keane Shum is a lawyer in Hong Kong