Final chapter

A center for Texas literature at UNT closes

The Center for Texas Studies at the University of North Texas has been a sort of literary clearinghouse for all things Texan. If you have a story about the evolution of the cowboy boot, or a poem about life, chances are the center has a publication to fit it. For nearly a decade, the center provided writers not just an outlet for publication, but chances to meet, exchange ideas, and get inspired.

But no more.
By the end of August, the beginning of the new academic year at the university, the center will close its doors, shutting down most of its publications and all of its programs.

"There is a sense of closure," says Elizabeth Gunter, the center's director. "There's not going to be a rebellion or an overthrow of the administration or anything, but a lot of people are upset."

The center has fallen victim to that common problem plaguing universities--lack of money. With enrollment declines and cuts in state spending for UNT, department heads have had to cut back on things that aren't directly related to teaching, says Blaine Brownell, provost and vice president for student affairs.

The beginning of the end came with the arrival of a new dean for the College of Arts and Science a year ago, Brownell says. The new dean looked at the college's shrinking budget and realized that cuts had to be made.

The most-obvious candidate was the Center for Texas Studies. Its two full-time employees, Gunter and Jane Tanner, helped edit a number of the publications. While both women have their doctorates and each taught one class a semester, this wasn't enough to justify the $75,000 needed to keep them both on the college's payroll, Gunter says.

"There was a lot of talk about accountability and teaching ratios," Gunter says. The dean "saw two people who were basically working full time but only teaching one course per semester."

So, the college removed the two women's salaries from its budget and told them to raise the money on their own. The center had received many grants and donations to help pay for publications and seminars. But raising money to pay their salaries was something else.

"It is almost impossible to raise money for your own salary," Gunter says. "A lot of these foundations and semigovernmental agencies would fund specific projects but didn't like to give money for salaries."

In the end, the two got money from the provost's office to pay them for one year. Unless they could find someone willing to pay them for their work, the center would close. They couldn't find anyone.

Brownell says the university couldn't justify the expense. None of the six publications started by the center and the numerous others it published was a money-maker, he says. It was hard to defend the center's budget when other areas were needy, he says.

"It is really difficult for colleges and universities to continue to fund projects that aren't self-supporting," says Brownell.

Gunter says it is impossible to tell how successful the center's publications have been because many of them are sent out for free. But if there was a hit, it would have been Kente Cloth, a 1995 anthology of writings by African-American Texas-based writers. The first 500 copies of the book sold out, she says, and it has gone into a second printing.

Poet, public-radio commentator, and sometime Observer contributor James Mardis published five poems and three essays in Kente Cloth. He says the center was instrumental in his getting his name known in literary circles.

"I don't think it would have been possible for me had it not been for the exposure from the center," Mardis says.

The closing is a big loss for emerging writers in North Texas, says poet Tim Seibles. Seibles, who is now an assistant professor at Old Dominion University, was one of the first-prize winners of a poetry-and-fiction contest the center sponsored. He says the recognition was a boost for his morale as well as his pocketbook.

"Anytime something like the center shuts down, it means that some writer is not going to get the encouragement that I did, and that's a shame," he says. "Writers in general, but poets in particular, do not become rich very easily. Anything that offers them help in a monetary or emotional way is very necessary."

The center was started in 1986 as part of the governor's sesquicentennial celebration. Its first event was a literary festival that featured 55 Texas novelists, poets, playwrights, journalists, and essayists including Larry McMurtry, Jim Lehrer, and Leon Hale. The center was supposed to be a clearinghouse for Texana, Gunter says. If anyone had questions on some obscure bit of Texas military history, for example, the center could be called for an answer. But instead, the center seemed to concentrate much of its time on the arts.

The center sponsored eight literary festivals along with numerous writing workshops, meet-the-writer sessions, and readings. All of these will be lost with the center's closing. But a few of the publications will survive. Texas Books in Review, Kente Cloth, and Military History of the Southwest have all found new homes. Others aren't as lucky. Locust, a general-interest journal for the history department, as well as New Texas, a collection of work from emerging Texas writers, and Texas Studies Journal, another general-interest publication, will all be lost.

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