At a time when university presses are arguably faring relatively well, the decision of the University of Missouri System to shut down its press has angered many faculty members, authors, and supporters.
It has also drawn charges that administrators have abused the principles of academic shared governance.
On May 24, system administrators told the 10 employees of the University of Missouri Press that the publisher would be phased out, beginning immediately. It was the first that the staff members, including interim director Dwight Browne, had heard of even the prospect.
In a statement regarding budgetary restraints, Timothy M. Wolfe, who took office as president of the system in February, said he had opted to close the press completely, rather than attempt to revive it, or to continue a $400,000 annual grant. The grant will lapse on June 30, the end of the system’s fiscal year.
The press has published about 30 titles each year, many dealing with the state, its history, military history, and other standby academic-press subjects. In part because it has been paying off the cost of the building that has housed it, the press has operated at a deficit, even after staffing cuts in recent years; but insiders say it has been drawing within $30,000 of balancing its budget.
In announcing the closure, Wolfe said he had conferred with the chancellors and provosts of the system’s four institutions, among other administrators, but not with any faculty members. That has incensed many faculty members and supporters of the press. About 1,500 people have signed a Facebook protest page, and more than 1,000 have signed a petition urging that the press continue to operate.
For insiders, the announcement that the press would close was startling, given that the university system had within the last year provided the press with money to revamp its Web site and update its data base. In the absence of a detailed schedule for the shutdown, staff members are fielding many calls from distributors and booksellers asking whether they will receive their orders. Already announced fall titles will appear, but little else is clear.
Also galling, for protesters, was the way the announcement was made. Jennifer Hollingshead, the system’s director of marketing and public relations, said in an interview that Wolfe had not included press employees in discussions “out of respect and sensitivity for them,” as their jobs were slated for elimination.
“That was inexcusable,” said John M. Budd, a professor of information science and learning technologies at the Columbia campus, in an interview. “It has to be said that it was unethical. That is not the proper way to treat personnel. If there is a problem, then whoever is in charge has a responsibility to discuss it with the personnel who will be affected.”
Protesters also have objected to a consolation that Wolfe, formerly a president of the infrastructure software provider Novell Americas, offered. He said the press might revive as a model of new modes of academic communication, with print and digital publications in multimedia formats. In its operations, he added, a new press might well resemble The Missouri Review, a well-regarded literary journal whose faculty editor works with graduate students and interns.
Hollingshead said she could not offer any specifics, other than to say that the system’s campuses might be called on to lend their particular capabilities–those of, say, journalism and library-technology programs in which faculty members have been contemplating the shape of communications media to come.
Defenders of the press are skeptical. They say any discussion of depending on students and interns is an affront to the skills of professional editorial staff, particularly when the press’s current editors have received no signal that they will be reassigned within the system.
In any case, faculty protesters say, a digitized, multimedia press seems at best a pipe dream at the moment. They have heard nothing to indicate that any concrete plans have been made. “If there is a plan, it’s being held very closely within administrative circles, and not shared with the faculty,” said Budd.
Aside from that, he said, his expertise in organizational management tells him that the plan is misconceived. “In organizational terms, it is much simpler to revise an existing operation than to cease operating and then try to get it going again in some different form.”
Shortcomings in the plan are everywhere, according to Budd and others. For starters, where would the university find enough students training specifically for careers in scholarly communication to put out 30 volumes a year?
As for shared governance, “I don’t see any, in this regard,” said Budd. The press closure is one of several areas of administrative decision making “with no faculty determination, whatsoever,” he said. “I see a deterioration of putative shared governance in this institution.”
In the case of the press, consultation would have been particularly appropriate, he suggested: “It is primarily not simply an administrative organization, it is a faculty service, for the greater good of scholarly communication and the intellectual life of the academy. I can only gather that this move on the part of President Wolfe demonstrated a strong anti-intellectual bent on his part.” Protesters have loudly noted Wolfe’s non-academic background.
The timing of the announcement–right before a long weekend, after the end of spring sessions, during months when campus faculty councils do not meet–was suspect, too, Budd said. “But we’ve come to expect that from the administration,” he said. Because most faculty members had left campus, “it has been very difficult to mount any formal protests or response.”
The Columbia campus’s faculty, at least, “is a very weak faculty when it comes to the politics of governance,” he said. “It’s been beaten down. Morale is low, and turnover high.”
Budd sat on an ad hoc committee formed by Stephen Graham, the system’s senior associate vice president for academic affairs, to consider technological approaches the press might take not only to “bring it into the 20th century,” as Budd put it, but also to “end a stasis the press had been in.”
There, closing the press was never mentioned, he said. Brian Foster, the provost of the Columbia campus, “was at every meeting I attended, and was an enthusiastic supporter of the continuation of the press, albeit in a reinvigorated form, to fit with what scholarly communication can be in the future, not just in the past.
“I agreed with him on that point. We had a responsibility to look forward, to anticipate what the needs will be.”
Also “very odd,” Budd suggested, was Wolfe’s focusing on a $400,000 item in a system budget of roughly $2-billion. “To put the university press in jeopardy for such a small investment.”
Another faculty member, Larry Dale Gragg, the chair of the history and political science department at Missouri University of Science and Technology, said part of the reason for an ineffectual faculty response is that the press is not associated with any one campus, and is housed off the Columbia campus.
Gragg, a historian of colonial and revolutionary America who has published books with the Missouri press, Oxford University Press, and others–“none better than Missouri,” in his estimation–said he has been slightly buoyed by the response of administrators. Both Wolfe and Graham “listened to my concerns” when he spoke to them by phone after their announcement, he said. “I have no sense of what the impact of what I said will be. But they listened, at great length.”
Bruce Joshua Miller is a principal in Miller Trade Book Marketing, which has long represented the Missouri press, and organized the Facebook protest page along with Ned Stuckey-French, a Florida State University literary scholar who published a book with the Missouri press last year. Miller scoffs at the notion that stresses in scholarly publishing can be remedied with multimedia technology.
“This has really got me fired up,” he said. The argument for such a fix is “seductive” because “people always like to think that problems can be solved with technology. One day you’ll just press a button. But that doesn’t work. People are going to find out with respect to scholarly publishing that you have to have a scholarly process that costs money.”
He said: “When Wolfe talks about new media, vaguely, adding other elements to books, that just sounds like it came out of an Apple advertisement.”
Rationalizing the closing of the press on financial grounds is a stretch, given that the state legislature did not go ahead with a threatened 12-percent cut to the system, this year, he said. “This isn’t really about that, it’s about how they’re allocating the money.”
Among protesters’ other objections is that digital publishing has proven not to save much, if any, money, and that multimedia publishing would presumably cost a lot more, with returns no more assured than for current Missouri titles–unless a far more commercial publishing model is contemplated.
Multimedia publication would abruptly require academic authors to radically revise their preparation and presentation of research–not something many professors over the age of about 27 could do efficiently or effectively, if at all.
Peter Givler, the executive director of the Association of American University Presses, raises other complications. Missouri administrators will, for example, have to deal with existing contracts with authors, distributors, and others. The press has an extensive backlist, books in storage, and future orders that will have to be filled. Said Givler: “People who don’t know very much about publishing think a university press is like any business–if it doesn’t work out then too bad; at the end of the day, you turn out the lights, lock the doors, and walk away. But it’s not that easy.”
Of Missouri administrators’ decision, he said: “I don’t think they had any sense it was going to be this big a deal. I don’t think President Wolfe had a good sense of what the faculty response was going to be.”
Is it not surprising that university administrators would be unaware of such complications? “Exactly,” said Givler. “But if President Wolfe is a smart guy, and I assume he is, he’s going to slow down and think some more about it. I hope I get an opportunity to go out there and talk to those folks.”
He said that saying the press must be closed for budgetary reasons does not ring true, even in admittedly difficult financial times. “We’re doing OK in terms of how university presses are faring,” he said. Some observers have suggested that academic presses are “dropping like flies, but that’s simply not true. In 1997 we had 116 members in AAUP; we have 134 today. There have been some closings of presses but new presses are starting up, too, coming into the business. The association is actually stronger than ever.”