Having fled the city in a failed attempt to escape the heat, I returned to discover that the controversy over the closing of the university press hasn’t cooled.
Even The New York Times took notice, with a headline last week that read, "Plan to close University of Missouri Press stirs anger." So it has. Angst, too.
Both, I think, are justified. The former is earned by the ham-handed way in which the closure has been handled, with good people losing their jobs on short notice and minimal transparency about the decision-making process. The latter is likely to be longer lasting, because what we’re really experiencing is a chapter in the transformation of our university.
You might call it the corporatization of higher education. It’s a national phenomenon, perhaps inevitable and almost certainly inexorable. We may not like it, but we’d do well to understand it and prepare to live with it.
The most obvious manifestation at the national level is the rise of the for-profit "universities." More disturbing, at least to us traditionalists, is the impact on universities like ours, the ones we call "public," but which the public no longer supports. The corporate "public" university cuts costs, raises tuition, forms partnerships, coddles customers and emphasizes entrepreneurialism. For the actual instruction, it relies more heavily on non-regular faculty. Looks familiar, doesn’t it?
I can understand and sympathize with governing boards, such as our curators, who find themselves faced with rising costs, conflicting demands and declining state appropriations. What are they to do?
In our case, the curators have twice now dipped into the ranks of unemployed business executives to find presidents. Just as we teach what we know, so does a businessman lead as he has learned to do. That’s pretty much the opposite of the traditional academic model of collaboration, faculty involvement and openness.
Tim Wolfe, like Gary Forsee before him, was paid the big bucks to make decisions. President Forsee, I thought, worked hard at understanding the institution he was hired to head. He frequently professed his appreciation for scholarship and teaching. Still, during his reign, the university focused on a fourth mission – economic development – along with the traditional three of teaching, research and service.
President Wolfe hasn’t been here long enough to have established a track record, but it didn’t take long for him to see that an academic press that was a certain money loser wasn’t a core function of the university system. Not much economic development there.
So despite the anger and the angst, we shouldn’t expect a reversal of the decision to close the press.
To be fair, despite the headlines, the plan isn’t to close the press, exactly. Instead, the Columbia campus will take it over and reshape it along the lines of the Missouri Review, our long-standing and respected literary quarterly. Speer Morgan, novelist and English professor, will add oversight of the press to his editorship of the Review.
As Morgan explained the new approach to Publishers Weekly, a smaller professional staff will work with student interns to produce and market 20-25 books a year, beginning next spring. Scholarly manuscripts will be peer reviewed by faculty from all four campuses. Books will be published both on paper and electronically, as they are now.
Morgan noted, as the Times article also reported, that university presses across the country are in trouble, with several closing and others looking for ways to limit losses. In a corporate university, there isn’t much room for loss leaders.
I discussed these developments with my boss, the dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, who has been involved — though not in a leading role, he made clear — in the year or more of behind-the-scenes discussions that led to President Wolfe’s May 24 announcement.
He told me the hope is to find a viable model for academic publishing that will serve not only our university but possibly others. The old model, he said, was simply no longer sustainable.
That conclusion is why all the outrage expressed Tuesday, in a meeting convened by the campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors (and well reported by the Missourian’s Fareeha Amir), isn’t likely to change the minds that matter.
Author and alumnus Bill Trogdon, aka William Least Heat Moon, stirred the small crowd with a call to action. "We’ve got to take this battle to the streets," he said, and the Missourian reported.
If I’m right, and I’m afraid I am, the battle is already lost.
(Disclosure: The University of Missouri Press published in 2007 a little-noticed book I helped to write and edit. Copies of "What Good Is Journalism?" are still available, I’m sure, at a good price.)
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.