GEORGE KENNEDY: Handling of UM Press proves learning experience for new president

Thursday, August 30, 2012 | 1:48 p.m. CDT

Tim Wolfe says, “I’ve learned a lot” in his first six months as president of our university.

For his sake, and the sake of the institution, I hope none of his other learning experiences has been as ugly as the one surrounding the University of Missouri Press.

When I wrote about the controversial "closure" that wasn’t really a closure of the press a few weeks ago, I called the new administration’s handling of the change "ham-handed." Now that the decisions announced in May have been almost completely reversed, my description seems unduly kind.

I’m sure it has been, however, a learning experience for everyone involved.

To review: On May 24, President Wolfe, then only three months in office, announced that the press would be phased out starting in the new fiscal year. The 10 staff members would be fired. In a news release, spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead noted that the Columbia campus “is exploring dramatically new models for scholarly communication. ...”

Responses from supporters of the press were quick, angry and heartfelt, on the four campuses and beyond. A national petition attracted thousands of signatures. One prominent alumnus promised a $100,000 donation toward an endowment to save the press. The MU Faculty Council mastered its usual confusion long enough to adopt a resolution calling on Wolfe to reverse his decision.

One national publication published the headline “Score so far at the University of Missouri: Books 0, Football Coach $2.7 million.”

Then, in July, came the first step back. No, the press wouldn’t be closed after all. Instead, it would be shifted to the Columbia campus and reimagined as a multi-platform purveyor of scholarly work, with faculty and graduate students from several departments involved and English professor Speer Morgan, editor of the successful literary quarterly Missouri Review, overseeing both operations.

The reaction to that ranged from skepticism to outrage. Authors demanded the rights to their books. Clair Willcox, editor-in-chief of the pre-reformation press, cleaned out his office.

I spent about an hour last Friday with President Wolfe and his chief of staff, Bob Schwartz. The president said he’d been misunderstood.

“We never intended to get out of publishing scholar works,” he said. “Part of our mission statement is the dissemination of scholarly information.”

He was persuaded, he said, that “We had to do something. We knew we could do it better by doing it differently.”

Contrary to the widely held perception that he had made an arbitrary decision, he said he had followed his preferred decision-making process, which he described as “collaborative and inclusive.”

“Conversation with bright people is the best process,” he said. The bright people with whom he conferred before making this decision included all four campus chancellors and the system vice presidents.

By the time we talked, the belated damage control effort was already well under way. Just the day before, former Chancellor Richard Wallace had told the Faculty Council of a new plan to create a broad-based advisory committee to guide creation and function of the new, improved and presumably less costly press.

Chancellor Wallace has been around almost forever, it seems, and is widely beloved. He told the council that he shares with President Wolfe, Chancellor Brady Deaton and Provost Brian Foster “an intense desire” to recreate a top-quality academic press. Council members who couldn’t agree on much else applauded him.

This week came the big news. Depending on your perspective, you could call it a thoughtful course correction or an abject surrender.

Now, we’re told, the press will continue pretty much as is. Remaining employees will keep their jobs. Books will continue to be printed. Provost Foster, who will now have responsibility for it, was quoted in Wednesday’s Missourian as saying, “The press isn’t going to be changed in any dramatic way in the foreseeable future.”

So I called him.

Yes, he agreed, “It is a 180-degree turn.” (In a phone call Thursday, Ms. Hollingshead told me the president’s office sees it instead as “more of an evolution.”)

The turn came, Provost Foster said, after “an awful lot of discussion, on campus and off.” It turns out, he added unnecessarily, that “a lot of people are passionate about the press.”

“I think it’s a good outcome,” he said. “A strong scholarly press is an extremely important part of what we do as a university.”

Still, he said, a lot of details remain to be worked out in conjunction with the advisory committee, yet to be appointed. Among those details are the financing and just what role Prof. Morgan will play. He won’t be the director of the press.

I didn’t get the impression that Clair Willcox or other departed employees are likely to get their jobs back. Top editors who will be hired at the press must now be qualified to hold faculty positions as well.

Provost Foster, who probably thought he already had a full plate, sounded a little tired.

“It’s been a pretty traumatic experience,” he said.

And the education of a university president continues.

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.

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Lois Huneycutt August 31, 2012 | 12:37 p.m.

You know, if Wolfe really was grossly misunderstood early on, there were many ways he could have offered a quick and complete explanation of what he really meant. Instead, we got meaningless platitudes such as "we're not going backward, we're going forward," and such. I personally wrote to him on 12 July describing the damage the shuttering of the Press was doing in my field (History) and requesting clarification. My request, like those of many others, has so far been met with total silence.

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