UM Press rehires Clair Willcox as editor-in-chief, pleases authors

Friday, October 5, 2012 | 7:21 p.m. CDT; updated 7:41 p.m. CDT, Friday, October 5, 2012

COLUMBIA — Clair Willcox was in the middle of calling authors affiliated with the University of Missouri Press on Friday afternoon when he was reached about being rehired there.

"I'm relieved and eager to get things moving again," Willcox said.

He returned to his position as the editor-in-chief of the 54-year-old press right away.

Willcox will also serve as the associate director and will be responsible for forging relationships throughout MU to "strengthen the press's position and integral component of university research and scholarships," according to a statement Friday morning from the MU News Bureau.

The decision has long been awaited by vocal supporters including authors who have published with the press and others.

Willcox was laid off after the University of Missouri System announced in May that the press would be phased out in 2013. On Aug. 28, the system shifted responsibility for the press to MU and announced it would remain open. Remaining staff members were asked to stay, but Willcox was not immediately asked back.

MU Provost Brian Foster, who now directly oversees the press, said the discussions to rehire Willcox have been going on for some time. MU Chancellor Brady Deaton, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs Deborah Noble-Triplett and Chancellor Emeritus Richard Wallace were part of the discussion, Foster said.

Foster said the decision to transfer responsibility for the press from the UM System to MU was made earlier than had been planned, and that delayed rehiring Willcox. Foster said the original plan was to transition the press over a long time, but moving oversight to MU right away was much more efficient.

Ned Stuckey-French has been a leading voice among several dozen authors, who were frustrated by how the decisions about the future of the press were made, have asked for return of their publishing rights.

On Friday, Stuckey-French called Willcox's rehiring a "total, complete and unequivocal victory."

Stuckey-French, an assistant professor of English at Florida State University, published "The American Essay in the American Century" with the press. With Willcox's rehiring, he said, he will drop his publishing rights request but can't speak for other authors.

Willcox said every author with whom he had spoken so far was happy with the news and wants to continue working with the press.

John Bird, an English professor at Winthrop University in South Carolina and former author with the press, said its future would have been doubtful had it tried to proceed without Willcox's leadership. He said Willcox has the confidence of his staff.

Bird said he will likely return to the press and hopes some of the authors who withdrew will reconsider.

"I'm really impressed the administration would reverse its decision," Bird said. "It's very uncommon for that to happen. It took courage, and I applaud them."

The move has come too late for Don Spivey. The history professor at the University of Miami said that hiring Willcox is great news but that he's no longer interested in working with the press.

Spivey said that he has not heard anything from university officials after requesting his subsidiary rights back and that he still plans to file a lawsuit on Tuesday.

"How do you put the genie back in the bottle? It's mind-boggling that (UM System President Tim) Wolfe never thought of a closing strategy," Spivey said. "The press lost many good editors, like Sara Davis. Until I see a serious plan with details of the next step and who's in charge and indicates the administration has a long-term commitment to the future of the press, I want out."

It was unclear Friday what books will be coming out in the spring. Some authors planning to publish were given the option to cancel their contracts and publish elsewhere, but some whose works are published were not given the same option.

While Willcox contacts authors he has worked with and writers with manuscripts to submit, he will compile lists for publication in fall 2013 and spring 2014.

"Mr. Willcox will be invaluable in developing those publication lists," Wallace, the emeritus chancellor, said.

The next steps for the press include the first meeting of the Press Advisory Committee in the next couple of weeks. It will search for a permanent director to replace Interim Director Dwight Browne as well as discuss the role the press will serve at MU.

Foster said the committee will explore creating a graduate certificate program for students interested in publishing that could have a relationship with the press.

Willcox said he looks forward to working with the committee as its role becomes more defined.

"We have a difficult road ahead," he said. "But I'm optimistic because the MU administration appears so strongly behind the efforts to rebuild the press and make it even better in the future."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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