After a long squabble, the University of Missouri has rehired Clair Willcox, whom it laid off in July as editor in chief of the University of Missouri Press.
Willcox now holds that position again, and will also be associate director of the press. He will take a lead role in trying to restore a press much damaged by the events of the last several months.
Late in May, University of Missouri system administrators said they would shut down the 54-year-old press, citing its continuing inability to close its budget deficit. They would, they said, end annual subsidies of about $400,000 a year—the kind of support that almost all 134 members of the Association of American University Presses rely on.
A large protest movement arose, organized on social-media platforms and fueled by allegations that the Missouri system had mishandled the press, in the present and past. It also appeared that the press had, in the past, been mismanaged, in part due to confused direction from the system, and that the deficit had in fact shrunk from a high of $360,000 to almost nothing.
Many of the press’s authors protested the changes, and most of those on forthcoming lists took back their books, saying they would end their associations with the press. About 40 authors whose books the press was already distributing demanded that publishing rights be returned to them, and some threatened lawsuits.
Over the summer, the system announced the press would not close after all, and on Friday, Willcox was rehired. “We’re very excited to have Clair returning to the press as we move forward with this transition,” the Columbia campus’s provost, Brian L. Foster, said in a written statement. “He will provide continuity and help maintain the foundation that the press has built throughout its strong history. This is an important step in getting the press fully up to speed in the new campus environment.”
As one part of the plan it announced in the summer, the Missouri system shifted control of the press from the four-campus system office to the flagship Columbia campus.
While administrators have finally bowed to pressure to rehire Willcox, he inherits a daunting task in trying to lure back authors and produce lists from the rubble.
He says the challenge is to get a much-depleted press up and running again. Interviewed on the day he was reappointed, he said he had already begun phoning former authors.
“I started making calls to authors today. Our first priority is to make sure that they understand the current situation and are still willing to continue working with us,” he said. “It may be that there are some who are not. So far I’ve been successful. Those I’ve been in contact with are willing.”
But the immediate prospects for future lists are not promising, he said. Unlikely is any Spring 2013 list, at all; authors of the books that had been on it before the summer turmoil are now under contract with other university presses, several of which eagerly snapped up books as authors looked about for homes.
“The next step will be our Fall 2013 list,” Willcox said. “There isn’t much time, so it’s a tough road ahead.
“But I’m optimistic,” he continued, “that the UM campus is fully behind us having a good university press, and one that we would recognize as a university press.” Nonetheless, he added, the press may attempt innovations of the kind campus administrators contemplated when they announced in mid-July that they would reopen on the Columbia campus the press they had shut in May. They said possible changes included expanding digital and multimedia publishing and revising the positions of senior press staff to include teaching and research roles.
Under that original plan, Speer Morgan, a professor of English, novelist, and editor of The Missouri Review, a respected literary journal, would lead the press. But he had no experience running a publishing house. University of Missouri officials touted the plan as a bold way forward for academic publishing.
Morgan has been overseeing the transition of the press to the Columbia campus, but could not be reached to say what his role would now be.
Willcox said that the jobs of press staff may still include teaching—of, say, a graduate certificate program in university-press publishing. “I don’t know what form a teaching role will take,” he said. “We’ve had internship programs, so I don’t know if now that will involve classroom teaching or less-formal, hands-on teaching.” Administrators have not yet finalized details, he said.
Also in the cards is more alignment of the press’s output with areas of strength in the Missouri system, and particularly with those of the Columbia campus. “We already do some of that,” he said. “For example, we have a list in journalism studies. But we will look at other programs. In that sense, this is a good move; it ties more closely to research and teaching here, as opposed to putting us under an entire university system.”
Still, he added, from other campuses the press will continue to mine such specializations as military history on the Rolla campus, enlisting the editing of a historian there.
The press, which opened in 1958, will also continue to focus on past strengths, said Willcox. It has built a large list of academic and regional titles, along with esteemed series on Mark Twain, Harry S. Truman, and the political philosopher Eric Voegelin. With a backlist of 1,000 titles, the press sells more than 100,000 books each year; the current backlist was worth $700,000 a year when the closure was announced in May.
A recently established 22-member editorial board, which includes several faculty members, will continue to advise the press, while Foster, the Columbia provost, told Willcox that he would consider increasing the staff.
“That’s great news for those of us who worked there for four and a half years and seemed to be taking on more and more tasks over time,” said Willcox. He is heartened, he said, that “the provost seems fully behind having a good press.”
Staffing remains a pressing issue, Willcox added. The press is attempting to bring back staff members who left or had been let go, to augment its now skeleton crew. At 10 members the staff was already small, even before the recent events. “A couple have new jobs, and we’re not sure if they’ll be willing to leave those and come back, but they certainly are welcome,” he said. “I’ll try to get them back.”
A high priority, he said, will be to hire a permanent director as soon as possible. Dwight Browne, who began at the press as a student employee in 1981 and has been its interim director for more than four years, said by e-mail: “I will be retiring as soon as I can make proper arrangements.”
Browne, who won wide praise for his steadying role during difficult times, added: “I was elated when the campus decided to give the press and its employees a new home. After a turbulent summer I can’t imagine a better outcome for everyone involved.”
(Image of Clair Willcox from a video clip of Intersection, a radio show on KBIA, a Missouri NPR affiliate.)