When my son Mike called me yesterday morning about the University of Missouri-Columbia’s decision to close down the University of Missouri Press in July, he sounded betrayed. An MU graduate, a student of history and the arts, he understands what such a closing means. In many ways it sells out the fundamental principles of university and of learning itself.
The last time I remember Mike sounding this way was when MU left the Big Eight Conference. That was another kind of betrayal — of fans and students — and of a different kind of tradition. Of course, that was a money deal much larger than the press deficit. No matter the differences, it’s apparent that this new business leadership, found so often in the administrative circles of institutions of higher learning these days, has a different set of values than used to be the case. Too many of these guys will not respond to the notion of keeping the faith, to protecting educational values or to other human considerations.
It seems only money matters to them, balancing the budget in the easiest way, without regard to intellectual importance or loss. Betrayal has become almost commonplace. It’s important to examine how widespread it has become.
The closing of the University of Missouri Press betrays the notion of reason. It recommends that football matters more to the life of a university than the production of learning. It betrays the faculty of the university by denying the value of its intellectual contributions and closing down the dissemination of years of work. What follows, inevitably, is the betrayal of the future by denying those to come the learning and understanding that is the product of a university press. How, one might ask, will the university that dumps a press with a distinguished history be viewed by academics elsewhere? Will they think of it as a place to do research? Will they recommend it to their students? Will current students feel betrayed, enough to head elsewhere for graduate work?
Unfortunately, such a list of questions and betrayals can go on almost indefinitely. The decision of the moment changes our understanding of the past and the possibilities of the future.
This new university is ready to discard the great traditions that have emerged over centuries and resulted in an enduring body of knowledge and systematic support of the arts and sciences. By so doing, it relinquishes its power and stature. It does not lead but follows the new models of monetary capitalism, hardly the basis for intellectual inquiry. Such are the results of the failure to make distinctions. Living in the mindless moment leads few anywhere, certainly not to the wisdom of the past or to the understanding of the future.
I have been connected to the university for almost 51 years, as a faculty member and as an active retiree. My present feelings of sorrow and anger derive from my disappointment at the current drift of the university away from a serious devotion to creating and spreading knowledge. Is it hyperbole to react this way when, at the end of spring, we learn that the University of Missouri Press will disappear in early summer? What kind of shifty game is this? If I feel sorrow and anger, what do the members of the press feel? Shall I use the word “betrayed” again? What about those who depend on scholars — those artists and researchers who know that we are all connected in deeper ways — beyond accounting and dollar manipulation within a bureaucratic shell? The university is not meant to be a popular creator of short-term income.
This is a good time for us to re-evaulate university purposes. If not, we may soon witness threats to other profoundly important intellectual and artistic activities. We cannot say, “Copernicus, thou shall not look at the sun. It’s too expensive.” Nor can we insist that we must let the planet go and save our balances. We can be practical without poisoning the spring.
Questions? Contact news editor Laura Johnston.