Southern Methodist U. to Consider Reviving Its Press in a New Form

May 19, 2010

It's not quite the news that supporters of Southern Methodist University Press were hoping for, but some see room for hope in a statement issued today by Paul W. Ludden, the university's provost and vice president for academic affairs, concerning the threatened press's future.

Mr. Ludden confirmed that the press's operations would be suspended as of May 31, as announced early this month. He added, however, that the university would appoint a task force to look into whether it should have a press and, if so, what form it should take.

The announcement, in a statement circulated to "Interested Colleagues," came after prominent scholars including Abraham Verghese and fiction writers such as Madison Smartt Bell and Richard Russo, among others, wrote to protest the decision. SMU's Faculty Senate passed resolutions condemning the suspension and asking the university to review it.

"As a result of our initial decision to suspend operations, we have received many comments and offers of assistance to recreate the press in a positive, forward-looking manner," Mr. Ludden wrote.

He laid out four criteria that any future incarnation of the press must meet.

First, he wrote, "its structure and operations must reflect the technological advances that are sweeping the publishing industry."

Second, it must be financially sustainable.

Third, "any publishing decision must reflect the consideration of the marketplace response to the publication." (He did not elaborate on what "marketplace response" meant, and he was traveling Wednesday afternoon and not reachable for further comment.)

Fourth, the press "must continue to reflect the academic principles and standards of the university."

"If the university is to have a press going forward, it needs to be a model for academic presses of the future within this digital age," the provost wrote.

The members of the task force will be named soon, he said, and the university hopes to have a report by year's end. In the meantime, it intends to honor "all of our contractual obligations with authors as we go forward," Mr. Ludden said.

Russell L. Martin III, chairman of the SMU Press's advisory board and director of the university's library, and Keith Gregory, the press's director, told The Chronicle that they were not able to comment at this juncture.

Linda Eads, an associate professor of law and president of the SMU Faculty Senate, described herself as mildly optimistic about the provost's decision: "It's allowing the press to come up with a business plan that will perhaps allow it to survive, so I think it's a step in the right direction." Mr. Ludden, she said, is "not convinced he should keep it as is, but he's willing to give everyone time to see if it can be made into a viable entity."

The task force is likely to include SMU faculty members as well as people from outside the university with scholarly publishing experience, Ms. Eads added. She hopes that at least some of the press's staff members will be able to stay on in the interim.

"I'm not jumping up and down doing a dance," she said, "but it's a good step."