New version of UM Press will involve students, research
The University of Missouri announced Monday that its Press, whose planned closure has sparked persistent criticism and protest, will be replaced by a new program on the Columbia campus that will combine scholarly publishing with training students to work in the changing world of communications.
In a statement announcing the change, Mizzou Chancellor Brady Deaton said the new program will involve several disciplines at the university “to build on scholarly programs in English, creative writing, communications, journalism, and library and information science. We need new models for a new era, and this is such a moment for the university.”
Brian Foster, provost at Mizzou, added that the new model would include students as well as faculty from the various departments.
“In the past,” he said in a university news release, “key players have been university presses, scholarly journals and monographs that educate, disseminate and archive knowledge. We are entering an era of new and changing information technologies, such as downloading and reading books on mobile devices and inclusion of content beyond visual, such as audio and interactive content.
“These changes dramatically affect a broad range of media, including presses and other forms of scholarly publishing, while simultaneously presenting new opportunities for students, faculty and the public. For years, university presses across the country have been struggling to adapt to technological innovations -- not unlike seismic shifts seen in the newspaper industry and education.”
In an interview, Foster emphasized that the new entity would be an operation of the Mizzou campus, not the university system.
“This is a campus enterprise,” he said. “It’s not only a press. It will have all the functions the press had, but it will be embedded in this broader enterprise, for research and instruction, which is what the campus is all about.”
He said that discussions for such a program had been going on for some time about how to adapt changing technology to publishing, and the decision by university President Tim Wolfe to shut down the press accelerated that effort.
“We wouldn’t be where we are today if we had not had those discussions,” Foster said.
He said the campus will offer some some subsidy for the operation, just as old version of the press had a $400,000 annual subsidy from the system. “But that subsidy is for a broader enterprise now," he said.
“These will be people with different roles than the current press. They will be supervising students, professional press people who also will have credentials for teaching. Most of their time will be spent on the press, but they will also teach a class now and then.”
Asked if the current 10 employees of the press would be joining the new operation, Foster said:
“It depends on how they fit. We intend to hire the best people for the job.”
He could not give a specific number on how much the new program would cost the campus.
The university said all commitments to current and past authors will be honored.
Foster also said the new version of the press would maintain the same publishing schedule as the old one, about 25 books a year. Foster also said that the new editorial staff would have to be hired fairly quickly to begin work on the acquisition process for the fall 2013 catalog.
Pointed radio debate
Several hours after the announcement was made, Foster appeared on a discussion on KBIA , the radio station on the Columbia campus, with author William Least Heat-Moon, who had previously been scheduled to discuss his book “Blue Highways” and a follow-up, “Blue Highways Revisited,” by Edgar Ailor, recently published by the UM Press.
On Sunday, the Columbia Daily Tribune published a commentary piece by Least Heat-Moon blasting the university’s decision to close the press.
In a sometimes pointed exchange, Least Heat-Moon said on the broadcast that the move to shut down the press was an effort by the university to take advantage of what he called “a large golden egg” -- the books on the press’ list that will still be available for sale.
“What we have here is a small coterie on campus that covets that money and they have found a way to get it,” Least Heat-Moon said.
He said there was no reason to create a new entity to move publishing into the electronic era, since the UM Press already publishes on more than just paper, and he called the effort “a really shameful piece of Machiavellian politics going on at the university campus.”
He also disparaged “20-somethings” as not being able to bring the same level of expertise to the publishing enterprise as the current staff. “Why clean out the professionals and turn it over to students?” Least Heat-Moon asked.
Foster denied any notion that a plot was involved to enrich the university at the expense of the old version of the press, and he defended the use of students learning the publishing trade as akin to students working and learning in a science lab or a hospital.
Further, he said that rather than talk about a better business model, he wants to make sure the press operation has a business model that will adapt to changing technology.
“I would argue there is more risk if you don’t change,” Foster said. “The world is changing under our feet.”
Since Wolfe announced in late May that the UM Press would no longer receive its annual subsidy from the university system and it would be shut down, the move has received long, loud criticism regionally and nationally.
In his commentary, Least Heat-Moon wrote:
“I believe the proposed closing of UM Press -- or its transformation from a real press to a bogus one -- is a peremptory decision more political than economic, one made with no real regard for the consequences and with no opportunity for public comment,” he wrote, adding:
“What must be done today is not to vaporize the UM Press overnight and create a faux press but to assist continuance of the genuine institution and allow the promising, if draconian, measures imposed on it three years ago to fulfill the intended result.”
Least Heat-Moon pledged “a five-figure initial donation for the establishment of an endowment to continue the press in its present form if the proposal for closure is rescinded.”
Monday’s announcement from Mizzou apparently means such a reversal is not about to happen. But Foster moved to counter one of Least Heat-Moon’s arguments, that operating the press under the “Missouri Review,” an existing journal, would not work because it is staffed largely by students and a professional press needs a professional staff.
He said “student involvement in experiential learning ... is not a new idea. This is something we do in virtually every part of the university.”
He said Speer Morgan, who now heads the MIssouri Review, will be director of the new press and would hire an editor to direct its professional staff.
Morgan said expects that in the future, books will come out in both print and digital formats, adding:
“The guiding principle of the press will continue to be the quality of the works we publish.”
Asked whether any other university is operating a press in this way, Foster said:
“For a university press, we may be starting from scratch. But the Missouri Review is a model. The Missourian is a model. KOMU is a model. This isn’t a brand new idea in that sense, but I don’t know of another example of someone who is doing this."