GUEST COMMENTARY: New model for university press is flawed
July 17, 2012 | 6:30 p.m. CDT
Fifty-four days after UM System President Tim Wolfe announced he was closing the 54-year-old University of Missouri Press, the University of Missouri administration introduced by press statement its "new model" for the press.
In a kind of "who’s-on-first?" passing of the buck, the UM System and President Wolfe are apparently turning the press over to the Columbia campus. There is not mention in the release of the other three campuses — St. Louis, Kansas City and Rolla (though in subsequent comments to the Columbia Daily Tribune new interim director Speer Morgan says a "board of faculty, likely from all four UM campuses, will serve as the peer review for manuscripts").
Much is missing from the press release and Morgan’s comments to the Tribune:
- Transparency: Who participated in the discussions to develop this new model? Why has there been no transparency? Why were faculty from all departments not consulted? Why was the current staff of the press not consulted? Why did the university community and especially the staff of the press learn about these developments by reading them online? Why have President Wolfe, the Board of Curators and the rest of the administration not addressed the public outcry, including the more than 4,700 signatures of the online petition to save the press, in an open forum?
- Building on the past: Why must the current press be eliminated in order to set up this new model? Why must 10 trained professionals with decades of experience be put out on the street? How does this new plan amount to anything more than a gutting and re-branding of the existing press (or, as the press release puts it, "enhancing the University of Missouri Press trademark")? What is being done to make use of the current staff’s experience and expertise?
- Staffing: The MU English Department’s director of creative writing Speer Morgan will be the interim director. He told the Tribune that in time he would hire an editor-in-chief, a managing editor and a marketing director. The press currently has an editor-in-chief, a managing editor and a marketing director. Why do they need to be replaced? Why are they being removed without due process? Morgan also says, "editing will be done, in part, by graduate students, most of whom are in their 30s," and the press release says the new press will rely on "wider campus involvement among closely linked departments, graduate internships or assistantships, and faculty to publish noteworthy titles." So, it seems that the paid professional staff will be cut from 10 to four and that already understaffed academic departments and their faculty be asked to staff the press in addition to doing their teaching and pursuing their research? Will departments (especially English) and the School of Journalism be asked to provide assistantships and set up courses to do the work of the press? Will the press be staffed primarily by unpaid student interns and underpaid graduate assistants instead of paid professional editors?
- Professionalism and peer review: The press release claims that the new press will be "publishing quality work where new titles are carefully evaluated for quality and significance," but the use of passive voice here erases the subject of the sentence. Who will do this careful evaluating? Interns? MU faculty? In the past, at the University of Missouri and at virtually all university presses nationwide, professional acquisitions editors review manuscripts, decide whether they are worthy of peer review, find the best outside reviewers for selected manuscripts, evaluate the responses of the outside reviewers, decide what revisions are necessary and present the reviewed manuscripts to the press’ editorial board for final approval. Will these steps now be placed in the hands of student interns and if so, who will want to publish with such a press? Will the peer review process be of sufficient rigor to allow untenured faculty to use a University of Missouri Press book as a selling point in their tenure process? Will established scholars be willing to work with such a haphazardly staffed press? The release characterizes the "new model" as a "teaching enterprise," but what scholar will want to have his or her manuscript evaluated, copy edited and indexed by a student as part of a course exercise?
- Financial stability and permanence: The press release claims that the new press will be a part of the 2-year-old Mizzou Advantage, Media of the Future initiative. The university announced earlier that in "2010 and 2011, Mizzou Advantage awarded more than $2.3 million for 64 interdisciplinary projects." Some of those projects have panned out — others have not. How much money will go toward this project? Is the 54-year-old University of Missouri Press now merely one among 65 interdisciplinary projects? Is it receiving merely a seed grant or is there an ongoing commitment? How will this new funding model work and how will it differ from the current one? Who will distribute the titles and where will the revenue go? Who will pay for lawsuits or buyouts if authors challenge this new model in court? How many donations and bequests have already been lost on account of the bad publicity resulting from the May 24 announcement?
- Design and digitization: The press release gives only the slightest lip service to book design. The administration seems to think that a publisher is nothing more than a printing press or Xerox. No mention is made of who will design the press’ books, choose photos and illustrations, construct and copy edit graphs and tables, pick fonts for titles or subheads, secure and negotiate permissions for cover art or illustrations, and so on. Will authors want their books to be designed by students as a class project? Much noise is made in the press release about digitization, but again who will oversee the distribution of e-books? Who will use new media to market books, whether those books are print or electronic? Who will design the e-books and new multimedia projects? Again, professionals at the press have been doing all of these tasks. Now that those professionals are being laid off, will this work be left to students? Who will provide consistency, professionalism and institutional memory as student interns come and go?
- Competence, planning, authors and the backlist: Why did the administration announce the closing of the Press on May 24 and come forward only now with this vague plan for the future? Why did they leap before they looked? The press release closes with this line: "The University of Missouri Press will maintain its commitments to current and past authors and will solicit new scholarly works in the coming year." Why have authors with books under contract for the fall 2012 list and a spring 2013 list not been contacted? Why have authors of the 2,000 titles on the backlist not been contacted? Will authors of those titles want to entrust their books to such a haphazard scheme? Will they be willing to let their books be distributed, marketed and edited in new editions by student interns?
- Common decency: Why are 10 hard-working, well-trained professionals being laid off and why are they receiving the news in dribs and drabs via press releases? These people own homes in the Columbia area. Their kids go to school in Columbia. Their careers are being derailed, their families thrown into turmoil. These 10 people have served the university with devotion and skill, some for decades. They were told on the morning of May 24 without warning that the press would close on June 30, but because the administration didn't have a plan in place for how to proceed, the staff of the press has been asked to continue working in limbo. And they have done that — unselfishly, professionally, under great stress, and with no thanks, only a promise that sooner or later they will be dumped out on the street. President Wolfe and his administrators never took the time to meet any of them. He never visited the press or consulted with them about their work and the 54-year old institution they've built. This decision was made without talking to faculty, staff, authors, editors and professionals in the field. This decision was made by looking at spreadsheets, with no concern for traditions, scholarship or people.
We stand by the six points elaborated in our online petition, which has been signed by over 4,700 people nationwide. Here, again, are those six points:
We, the undersigned, call on President Wolfe to:
- Rescind his decision to shut down the press and stop the layoffs of the current staff.
- Guarantee that the citizens of Missouri and the University of Missouri continue to be served by the University of Missouri Press and that the press continue to publish a broad range of important literary, scholarly, peer-reviewed and Missouri-based books.
- Guarantee that the press continue to publish print books as it expands its already substantial list of digital editions and explores other opportunities presented by new media.
- Follow the industry standard and establish an independent advisory board of alums, scholars and editing professionals that would raise funds and oversee the direction of the press.
- Hire an experienced director for the press so that it does not have to continue, as it has for the last three years, under "temporary" leadership.
- Guarantee that the press continue to train student interns but not use them to replace trained professionals.
Ned Stuckey-French, Jane Lago, Lois Huneycutt, Nancy Taube, Donna Potts, Bruce Joshua Miller and Annette Wenda for the Coalition to Save the University of Missouri Press. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.