Southern Methodist U. Puts Its Press on the Chopping Block

May 06, 2010

Supporters of Southern Methodist University Press are scrambling to reverse the university's decision to suspend the press's operations, effective June 1. The decision, announced to the press's staff and advisory board last week, became public this week. It has set off a rapidly escalating campaign, inside and outside the university, to save the press at a time when many university presses are hard-pressed by budget cuts and disruptions to the traditional system of scholarly publishing.

In a written statement, Paul W. Ludden, the university's provost and vice president for academic affairs, said money constraints had prompted the move. "It is with regret that we make the decision to suspend operations of the SMU Press, which has enjoyed a distinguished history of publishing," Mr. Ludden said. "But in these challenging budgetary times, difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions must be made. SMU has weathered the financial crisis well, but some cuts were necessary."

He did not rule out the possibility, however uncertain, that the press might be revived at some point. "By suspending operations rather than closing the press with finality, we retain the option to resume the press in a renewed form in the future," he said.

Founded in 1937, SMU Press is Texas' oldest academic publisher, a small but well-regarded endeavor that releases eight to 10 books a year. Best known for literary fiction. it also publishes in the fields of medical humanities, sports, and the Southwest. It's run by a staff of three, including the director, Keith Gregory; a senior editor, Kathryn Lang; and a marketing and production manager, George Ann Ratchford. On April 29 they were summoned to a surprise meeting with Mr. Ludden and told of the university's plan.

"There was no hint. We knew nothing at all," Mr. Gregory said in an interview. Asked what reasons the university had given, he said, "We were just told there isn't money." The press costs somewhere between $350,000 and $400,000 a year to run, its director said, and does not make a profit.

This August would have been Mr. Gregory's 24th anniversary at the press. He, Ms. Lang, and Ms. Ratchford were given a month's notice. "Thirty days," he said. "Gosh, 30 days to close the press and figure out what we're going to do about retirement."

What happens to the press's forthcoming titles? "There will be nobody here to do anything with the books," the director said. What about the backlist of 130 or so books? "I don't think anybody has given that any thought whatever, to tell you the truth," Mr. Gregory said.

If the press does cease operations, Mr. Gregory said, it means one less outlet for literary fiction that does not interest the for-profit publishing world. "We help young authors get published, and we also publish the works of older writers, the midlist writers who used to publish in New York all the time and now they can't," he said. "It's good stuff. We work very, very hard to make the books as good as we can possibly make them. We will go through revision after revision after revision to make sure a book is just right."

Faint Hope

The press's fate is not quite sealed. The SMU Faculty Senate took up the cause at its last meeting of the semester, held on Wednesday. Linda Eads, an associate professor of law at the university, is the new president of the senate, which passed two resolutions in support of the press.

"One authorizes me to form an ad hoc committee to study how to save the SMU Press," Ms. Eads said in an interview. "The other resolution directs me to inform the president of the university and the provost of our disagreement with the decision to close the press, our request that this be halted until we can study other possible methods of saving it, and that no one be dismissed from its employ until that study has occurred."

The votes were unanimous, according to Ms. Eads. "The faculty has been really motivated to work to stop this," she said. "We're an academic institution, right? This goes to the core of what we do, which is publish academic works."

Ms. Eads acknowledged that Mr. Ludden, the provost, who attended Wednesday's meeting, had been handed a tough set of budgetary decisions to make. "He gave a pretty forthright description of the budget problems he was facing," she said.

The press's plight has reinforced her feeling that it's time for the university to reassess its budget priorities. Individual schools within the university have their own narrowly focused budgets, "but the provost's office is the head of the academic life of the university, and that office needs to have sufficient funding to take care of programs that are not school-driven," Ms. Eads explained. "This is an example of it. He didn't have the money for the press."

Russell L. Martin III is chairman of the press's advisory board and director of the university's DeGolyer Library. He said the university's decision had taken the board as well as the press's staff by surprise.

"It's a very sad day," he said. "We're stunned. The lack of thought that went into this—no consultation with anyone, no deliberation with any of us on the board. It's just ironic that we're potentially killing one of the best things SMU does. We'd hate to see it go."

Mr. Martin said that the board was determined to work with the administration to save the press. "I think we can find a solution if we put our minds to it," he said.

Outside Aid

The press's supporters off campus have begun to weigh in as well. On Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Lang, the senior editor, sent out an e-mail plea for statements of support. Within hours she had received replies "from all over the country: from Texas (of course), from New York, from Oregon, from Ohio, from Wisconsin, from Massachusetts, from California, from Tennessee, from Virginia, from EVERYWHERE, with people expressing dismay along with their support," she told The Chronicle in an e-mail message.

"We're small, so we're not used to getting any attention at all," Mr. Gregory, the press's director, said. "And suddenly there's this outpouring of support from all over the campus and the community. It's nice for us to know people care."

Grass-roots campaigns have worked for beleaguered presses elsewhere. Last year, when state budget cuts threatened its survival, Louisiana State University Press won a reprieve thanks in part to supporters who got the word out and mobilized a grass-roots campaign on its behalf.

"Things looked incredibly bleak to us," Mr. Gregory said. "Still, officially, it is bleak, but I think with the support that's being shown—and it's support from people the university pays attention to—that might give us a chance. I don't know if it's a fighting chance, but it's a chance."

One small press's disappearance does not spell the end of university-press publishing. It does speak to problems shared by many presses, according to Charles Backus, director of Texas A&M University Press. His press runs the consortium that distributes SMU Press's books.

"Anytime something like this happens, it does make other presses nervous," he said. "But we're all at this point struggling, not only with economic forces but also the change in reading habits and expectations in general."

The dwindling and reshaping of traditional markets, particularly libraries, makes support from parent institutions and from academe in general even more essential to the survival of many university presses. "So it compounds the matter when institutional support for what we do is brought into question," Mr. Backus said.

The disappearance of SMU Press would also have a direct impact on Mr. Backus's press. SMU's books fill an important niche in the consortium's portfolio, he said. "It would lessen the size of the list that we represent to the book trade and libraries, and there would be some diminished income to us as well because we earn distribution fees from the sales of their books," he said.

SMU Press's literary fiction would be especially missed, Mr. Backus said. "It's a dimension of the books we offer through the consortium that is virtually unique to what we do, so again we'd hate to see that go away."