‘A death in the family’: Pending suspension of Folk Studies graduate program devastates former program director, alumni


WKU folk studies graduate student Kaitlyn Berle from Ohio finds a record and shows it to fellow graduate student Josh Chrysler during record store day at Mellow Matt’s on Saturday. (Brian Powers/HERALD)

Debra Murray, Co-Editor-in-Chief

WKU’s Master of Arts program in Folk Studies is staring down a potential suspension, prompting outcry from alumni and those who have been touched by the program – one that is celebrating its 50th year.

“This decision was not made lightly and neither the faculty nor I wished the program to move to this conclusion,” Potter College of Arts and Letters Dean Terrance Brown said in an email sent to faculty on Oct. 24.

The suspension of the program is not official until approved by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges, WKU’s accrediting body. The “teach-out plans” must also be approved by SACSCOC.

“As such, until our plan is approved by SACSCOC, I cannot provide any additional details at this time,” Brown wrote.

After the news broke, Jessica Turner and Marilyn White of the American Folklore Society shared that the faculty felt they had no choice other than to suspend the program.

“While the folk studies faculty have made the difficult decision to suspend their program, they feel they have no choice but to do so given the reductions in faculty members and support over the past several years,” Turner and White said via email. “In other words, our colleagues are choosing to pause a program they feel they cannot serve well because of lost positions.”

Michael Ann Williams, former department head and program director of Folk Studies, wrote to WKU President Timothy Caboni and Potter College of Arts and Letters Dean Terrance Brown after hearing of the suspension.

Williams’ email provides a glimpse into the history of the program and how it became so entwined in the university’s pedigree.

“Western Kentucky’s proud history of teaching and research in the discipline stretches over a century thanks to the foundation laid by Gordon Wilson,” Williams wrote. “Wilson studied with the internationally preeminent folk tale scholar Stith Thompson (also a Kentuckian) and in his several decades as the head of Western Kentucky’s English Department assured that folklore was included in the curriculum.”

Wilson, honored today as the namesake of Gordon Wilson Hall, was head of the English department for 31 years and was known for his work in folklore. Wilson wrote a newspaper column titled “Tid Bits of Kentucky Folklore” which appeared in about 100 newspapers throughout the Commonwealth.

Wilson would later found the Kentucky Ornithological Society, become president of the Kentucky Folklore Society and join both the Society of Natural History and the Kentucky Academy of Sciences.

“It saddens me greatly that the university is not giving the program a chance to regroup and rebuild and continue its role as a jewel in the crown of our university,” Williams wrote. 

Williams worked at WKU for 32 years, retiring in 2017. During her time on the Hill, she was awarded the title of University Distinguished Professor of Folk Studies and served as president of the American Folklore Society from 2014-15.

“[…] Pretty much my whole professional career was at Western,” Williams said. “I worked with a lot of the students that are now devastated by what’s going on. And I felt like, when I left it I was not overly concerned when I retired that things were going to take the turn that they did.”

She said the Folk Studies program was unique and brought students from all over the world.

In her email to Brown, she wrote that WKU undergraduates have held prominent positions in the Kentucky Arts Council, the Kentucky Heritage Council, the Kentucky Oral History Commission, Shakertown at South Union, the City of Bardstown and the Downing Museum. 

“I wrote the letter that I wrote primarily to sort of emphasize, because there has been such a complete change of administration at WKU,” Williams said. “In the past couple of years, I think a lot of the institutional history has been lost. And I wanted to emphasize the importance of the program and – I played such a vital role, not only in Kentucky, but in the discipline of folklore.”

Williams received a response from Brown shortly after her email where he provided the same explanation of the Folk Studies suspension that he gave to faculty and staff earlier this week. 

“I was pleased that he responded immediately, which surprised me because I have not heard from any of the other administrators,” Williams said.

Erika Brady, a former Folk Studies professor at WKU, called out to folklorists on Facebook to share their opinions about the suspension, how the program shaped them and how it has impacted their careers. 

“The stellar Folklore MA graduate program is entering its 50th year, but the study of folklore and involvement [of] undergraduate students goes back at least a century,” Brady shared on Facebook. “No other institution in the Commonwealth has contributed more to local, national, and global understanding of community culture in Kentucky and elsewhere – and our reach has extended well beyond the campus.”

Brian Gregory, a WKU Folk Studies alumni, went on to study folklore at the University of Pennsylviana after graduating from WKU. He shared a statement in response to Brady’s post. 

“I am so sad to hear this news from The Hill. It grieves me in all sorts of ways. I’ve been keeping up with WKU folk studies for all these years since I was enrolled there and I was so happy to know that everything was going so well there,” Gregory wrote. “I looked back with pride knowing that I used to be a part of all that and it has helped my subsequent life in so many ways. I was particularly proud that some of my classmates are there and have been doing such great things. Having attempted to complete my doctorate post WKU at an Ivy League institution that was in the death throes of phasing out its program I know that is not a good situation for anyone involved.”

Williams hopes that there is a solution other than suspending the program. 

“I hope somewhere that a door is going to open,” she said. “I think we all feel like it’s a death in the family, and I think we’re all hoping that somewhere in the administration a door is going to open. We can basically find creative ways to go forward, to find ways for this not to happen.”

Co-Editor-in-Chief Debra Murray can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @debramurrayy.