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A Catalyst for Change

Madelon Sprengnether's Legacy to the Department of English
May 19, 2017

Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether's career at the University of Minnesota spans 46 years. She joined the Department of English in 1971 at the age of 29 in a period of social and political ferment and dramatic cultural change. Sprengnether was a leader in playing a part in these changes. Her legacy and accomplishments span the fields of feminist activism; inauguration of the MFA Creative Writing Program; and the Pillsbury Hall Renovation Initiative.

Highlights include helping to found and develop the women's studies program and the Center for Advanced Feminist Studies with her colleagues Shirley Garner and Toni McNaron—the two academic units now combined and evolved into the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies (GWSS). They also developed a specifically feminist curriculum in the English department, publishing for ten years a brochure of feminist literature classes from English and across CLA. The Garner/McNaron/Sprengnether graduate fellowship award was created to honor the efforts of Sprengnether and her close colleagues as well as to support the dissertation work of younger scholars in these fields.

Sprengnether was awarded an Outstanding Contributions to Graduate and Professional Education Award in 2004. In 2005, she was recognized as a Distinguished Women Scholar in the Humanities and Social Sciences. In 2008, Sprengnether was appointed Regents Professor, the top honor given to faculty at the U.

Where does your passion for creative writing originate?

I have always been a reader and since my early twenties a literary scholar. I came to writing poetry later; in my mid-thirties I found poetry as a way to give expression to parts of my experience and awareness that did not fit into the genre of literary criticism. The same is true for memoir writing. Both provide ways to integrate the scattered parts of my life into meaningful design. These designs keep changing, of course, but that is the beauty of writing. I see writing as a form of discovery that facilitates personal transformation.

Pillsbury Hall
Pillsbury Hall

What was your inspiration and vision for the Pillsbury Hall Renovation Initiative?

In 1996, my colleague Professor Shirley Garner and I formed a vision of a permanent home for the English department, stalled in a College of Science and Engineering (CSE) building for over 50 years, where our space is inadequate and rapidly diminishing, as CSE claims more of it for their own needs and programs.

We identified Pillsbury Hall (the most historically significant building of the University of Minnesota) as our ideal home. After all, a great department deserves a great building. Designated "Science Hall" on its construction, Pillsbury Hall no longer serves the needs of a science department, as it cannot accommodate lab space. It is ideally suited, however, for a humanities department. We knew that its current occupant, Earth Sciences, would need a new home for itself (now designated in the renovated Tate Lab). At the same time, we could see the long-term potential for Pillsbury Hall as restored and renovated for English.

We gained the support of the administration of President Mark Yudof and that of President Robert Bruininks, along with chief officers of the University of Minnesota Foundation, members of the extended Pillsbury family, and members of the literary and historic preservation communities.

Currently, we are working with the administration of President Eric Kaler and Dean John Coleman to lobby the Minnesota Legislature for funding ($22.5 M, two-thrids of the total estimated cost) for the renovation of Pillsbury Hall. To help the University meet its obligation for this project, we will be working with the College and the University on the upcoming capital campaign to raise the necessary additional funds.

The English department is 'invisible' in Lind Hall, which is part of the CSE district. Anyone unfamiliar with the campus has difficulty finding us.

More importantly, our students are ill-served by the lack of study space (students sit on the floor outside of the main office), the lack of gathering spaces to work on communal projects, the lack of film screening and lecture and reading spaces for visiting scholars and writers, and the lack of state-of-the-art technology. For a department of our distinction, this situation is nothing short of shameful. In a renovated Pillsbury Hall, at the heart of the Humanities District, we will serve as a vital hub for student engagement, for graduate and undergraduate programs in creative writing, and for interdisciplinary work in the humanities.

What was your process of proposing and building the MFA in creative writing? And what are your hopes for the future of the MFA program?

In the mid-1990s, English faculty in the MA in writing program voted to create an MFA in creative writing. I offered to write the proposal, lobbied it through the department, the Graduate School, the Board of Regents, and the Higher Education Coordinating Board, and developed the program's administrative infrastructure. I had a goal in mind to create the premier MFA program in the country. I had no idea of how complex this task would become—in terms of gaining approval on several levels and setting up an internal administrative structure that would sustain an ambitious program of admissions, advising, student support, readings by visiting writers, publicity, contact with donors, and community outreach.

When the MFA program began, there was no national recognition. The department admitted its first creative writing MFA students in 1996 and has achieved national distinction in the years since. It is ranked among the top 10-15 programs in the country. The success of our alumni, as evidenced by careers, awards, and publications, is nothing short of phenomenal.

The MFA program is highly successful and needs to sustain the distinction it has achieved and to rise to even greater heights through College and University support. I mean this literally. We need the College to assume responsibility for supporting the position of coordinator as a part of its recurring budget. This position is key to the success of the program but is currently funded on soft money.  We also need a commitment to replace retiring faculty (myself this year and three more impending). The College and the University benefit from our national reputation without supporting us financially as they should.

In addition, a goal for our department's capital campaign is to establish a Center for Creative Writing, which will coordinate our undergraduate minor with our graduate program in a way to rival other, better funded, programs, such as the famed Iowa Writers Workshop. We often lure applicants away from Iowa on the basis of our success and the vibrancy of the Twin Cities literary arts community. We have the opportunity to become the premier MFA program in the country—with the support of enhanced internal and external funding.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.