The Importance of the University of Missouri Press

This is a guest post by Donna Potts, chair of the AAUP’s Assembly of State Conferences and a professor of English at Kansas State University.

On May 24, when the president of the University of Missouri, Tim Wolfe, announced plans to close the University of Missouri Press, my first reaction was deeply personal. I immediately thought of Clair Willcox, the editor-in-chief, who was a graduate student in English when I first entered the program at the age of 21. Clair probably didn’t know it at the time, but he was an important mentor: long before I learned to take myself seriously as a teacher and a scholar, Clair did.

As I followed the issue of the press closure, I soon learned that Tom Quirk, a professor I had admired and respected for many years had been one of several professors on the “information-gathering committee” that was not consulted about the decision to shut it down. My professional reaction began to set in, as I recalled my own two books published by the press, both of which times—the first, with Beverley Jarrett and Jane Lago, the second, with Clair Willcox and Sara Davis—I had been impressed with the high quality of the publication and the consistently professional treatment of their authors throughout the publication process.

My publications seemed beside the point, as I began to think of the press’s influence in my home state, through its publication of Missouri history and authors, as well as the international reputation it had as a publisher of, among many other works, the magnificent ten-volume set of the collected work of Langston Hughes, which I was proud to see first at a Langston Hughes conference in Lawrence, KS in 2002, on the anniversary of his birth. I didn’t get to attend the other leg of the conference, held in my hometown of Joplin, Mo., where Hughes was born, and where a tornado only a year ago demolished so much of the town. The press has contributed greatly to the university’s reputation for scholarship and research, and it has enhanced that reputation by careful peer review of a wide range of scholarly projects—Truman, Twain, Civil War and American history, folklore, music, political science—rather than merely drawing from the pool of local connections, as a vanity press would do. When universities were founded, their mission was of course to advance learning, and presses have long been an integral part of that mission.

In my role as the chair of the Assembly of State Conferences for the AAUP, I also began thinking about all of the ways the decision violated the AAUP’s recommendations, principles, and statements. Any major decision at universities should involve consultation with the faculty—especially a decision that would have such an impact on the university’s mission and reputation. The members of the “information-gathering committee” told me they were kept in the dark about the decision. As I’ve traveled around, I’ve noticed that many administrations form such “information-gathering” teams so they can claim there is shared governance, but the teams function much as the forums for Microsoft, Google, or any major corporation these days: users are perfectly free to confer among themselves about a particular problem, and perhaps they find a solution on their own, but it’s entirely unclear if the people at the top listen or care, much less if they’ll ever bother to use this information to make substantive changes that will improve operations.

I emailed Stephen Montgomery Smith, vice-president of the UMC chapter of the AAUP, and offered to visit the campus, accompanied by Joerg Tiede, a member of Committee A as well as our governance committee. The AAUP’s 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities gives the faculty primary responsibility “for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.” It maintains that “on these matters the power of review or final decision lodged in the governing board or delegated by it to the president should be exercised adversely only in exceptional circumstances, and for reasons communicated to the faculty.” It recommends that “the faculty should, following such communication, have opportunity for further consideration and further transmittal of its views to the president or board.”

The university press is arguably part of the research mission of the university; it clearly enhances a university’s research reputation. The information-gathering committee was not consulted about the decision, nor did the faculty get the opportunity to share their views following the last meeting of the Board of Curators.

The statement lists the means of communication among the faculty, administration, and governing board, and specifies that “whatever the channels of communication, they should be clearly understood and observed.” Many faculty members indicated that there were countless breakdowns in communication along the way. When the press was shut down, there wasn’t a clear plan in place about what to do next, but as a result of sustained public pressure, a hastily-conceived plan was eventually presented—which involved substituting a few graduate student interns and a couple of faculty advisors for the ten paid and experienced staff members. The plan that didn’t have input from faculty, including the English department, which presumably would be responsible for providing the interns and advisors.

And just as the press closure was announced, the plan for expanding the athletics program was unveiled, which included projects that would cost $72 million in 30-year debt financing through revenue bonds. Although MU might recover the whole investment through the sale of additional premium seats and luxury boxes, why wasn’t there the same effort to raise the relatively small $400,000 to save the press? Why wasn’t there an appeal to alumni or the community? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch pointed out that the cost of keeping the press open was considerably less than the $600,000 raise given to M.U. football coach Gary Pinkel in 2010. The misplaced priorities that led the administration to tend to athletics at the expense of academics was glaringly apparent in M.U.’s new Facebook page,which now features, “A New Era begins at Mizzou,” with no reference to academics (arguably the purpose of a university?) but rather, a prominent display of the gold and black sports logo and an announcement of M.U.’s recent Southeastern Conference affiliation. Given the way Penn State’s glorification of athletics at the expense of academics gave Coach Jerry Sandusky free reign to rape boys using university facilities and funds, M.U.’s misplaced priorities seem all the more odious.

It could be argued that the decision to abruptly end the employment of ten highly effective, professional staff members violated the AAUP’s standards for appropriate job security and due process for academic professionals. As to the recently announced plan to replace the staff members with faculty advisors and student interns, the AAUP deplores the recent trend in public education to save money by exploiting graduate students and resorting increasingly to adjunct and non-tenure track faculty—practices that are unconscionable in and of themselves, but which also place an ever heavier service burden on the few remaining tenure-track faculty (75% of recent hires are contingent). Good academic citizenship demands that we challenge the standards that led to the closure, and then to the restructuring, of the University of Missouri Press.

At the July 24 meeting, Joerg and I emphasized the need for a vote from the faculty council, and Stephen Montgomery Smith assured us that he, as a recently elected council member, would seek a vote at their next meeting in two days. William Trogden, better known internationally as William Least Heat Moon, author of Blue Highways, spoke passionately about the need to save the press, and we then had a Q&A with the staff. We were glad to have the support of the graduate students, as well as the undergraduates, who assured us they would do their best to get their governing bodies to vote as well. Later that evening, we were grateful when Lucinda Williams (who, in addition to being a stunningly talented singer and musician, is also the daughter of Miller Williams, former director of the University of Arkansas Press) devoted time during her concert to encouraging attendees to sign the petition to “Save the University of Missouri Press.”

The July 26 vote of the faculty council was unanimous, and we await the votes of the intercampus council and other campus groups. Meanwhile, we hope you will join Ned Stuckey-French’s SaveTheUniversityOfMissouriPress Facebook page, and sign the petition.

4 thoughts on “The Importance of the University of Missouri Press

  1. In terms of relevance way beyond Missouri, I found this statement extremely important: “As I’ve traveled around, I’ve noticed that many administrations form such ‘information-gathering’ teams so they can claim there is shared governance, but the teams function much as the forums for Microsoft, Google, or any major corporation these days: users are perfectly free to confer among themselves about a particular problem, and perhaps they find a solution on their own, but it’s entirely unclear if the people at the top listen or care.” Though the semblance of ‘shared governance’ is still bowed to, the actuality is quite different–just as in the corporate world, whence come more and more of the ‘leaders’ of higher-education. Faculty governance made our universities the best in the world. If they are to remain so, faculty governance needs strengthening, not circumvention.

  2. I just wanted to add my thanks to Bruce Miller, another force behind the Facebook page, as well as to John McNay, president-elect of the Ohio conference. His early concern for this issue was an inspiration, as I immediately thought about how “we are Ohio” resulted in the defeat of SB-5: shouldn’t pride in one’s state generate the same kind of faculty solidarity in Missouri? And elsewhere.

  3. Great piece by Donna Potts. And thanks to her for the great leadership in this effort. Nearly everything connected to this decision to close the press represents issues abhorrent to the AAUP – from ignoring shared governance to imposing corporate values on the university.

  4. Pingback: What We’re Reading: August 9, 2012 - American Historical Association

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