After enduring two months of criticism over a decision to phase out the University of Missouri Press, university leaders said Monday that they will replace the press with a “re-imagined” digital publishing operation at MU.
“We knew we had to continue to publish scholarly work,” UM System president Tim Wolfe told The Kansas City Star during a meeting with news staff members.
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University officials said the new press will have expanded digital publishing and more opportunities for faculty and student research. It will operate more like a publishing laboratory, with a senior editorial staff mentoring student interns.
“We believe the publication of scholarly work is important, and we are not blinking or moving away from that,” Wolfe said.
The university system announced May 24 that it would close the press and lay off or reassign its 10 employees, in part to save a $400,000 annual subsidy. The university expected some public disapproval but not the huge outcry the decision generated, Wolfe said.
In an online petition, nearly 5,500 people from across the country signed their names in support of saving the press. Some called the system’s decision shameful and shocking.
The idea presented Monday for a new University Press failed to mollify some who said they still see it as an execution of the 54-year-old book publishing operation.
“The assertion from University Hall that it is not killing the press but creating a new, more sustainable model is mere cover for the destruction,” author and MU alum William Least Heat-Moon wrote in a letter to the Columbia Daily Tribune
Then, speaking on public radio station KBIA in Columbia, Least Heat-Moon said, “This decision has me concerned and angered.”
He said tossing out the existing press model to hire a new and smaller staff to do more digital work using student interns “implies that the current press staff is unable to execute such proposed changes.”
Wolfe said that the decision to redesign the university’s book publishing operation was brought to him by chancellors of the university system’s four campuses and that it had been discussed since 2008. Elimination of the press was considered as part of a downsizing when the university system expected the state to cut $30 million from the higher education budget. It ended up cutting $4.3 million.
Wolfe said the press has been limited in the number of books it could publish annually.
“Our university press had been used by seven MU faculty members in four years,” he said. “A lot of authors from MU were turned away.”
MU provost Brian Foster said precise details on what the new press will look like may not be available for a year. The press will move onto the Columbia campus from its location in an industrial area in southeast Columbia, he said.
Foster said the press would use MU’s Reynolds Journalism Institute to research innovative electronic ways to deliver scholarly books. He said books will continue to be published in print and digital formats using new publishing technologies, including audio, video, blogging and “maybe even interactive.”
Clair Willcox, the current editor in chief, said the press has been moving toward more digitization for several years.
“All of our books are already available on Kindle, Nook and Sony Readers. We were planning to add more digital formats the very day they announced the phasing out,” Willcox said. “And not only that, last semester we had 10 student interns here and this summer would have added seven more had it not been for the announcement.”
Under the university’s new plan, Willcox and the rest of his staff stand to lose their jobs.
The university said Speer Morgan, who now leads The Missouri Review, would direct the new press operation.
Morgan was involved in helping university leaders develop the plan for a new press. The press will begin an immediate national search for an editor in chief.
Foster said the 10 employees are encouraged to apply for the newly described positions.
“But they will be very different positions than what we have there now,” he said. “The new positions all will have a faculty component. We will hire the people who are best qualified for the position.”
Willcox said he’s not sure whether he will apply for the position.
The new model will digitize the current catalog of the press with the help of the MU Libraries. The press has published 2,000 scholarly books in half a century.
The press will honor publishing contracts that it had entered into with authors before the May announcement, Wolfe said.