University of Missouri Press emerges from the brink

A year after nearly calling it quits, the University of Missouri Press is back in the business of publishing scholarly books and looking forward to a future flush with promise, not uncertainty.

A public uproar ensued last summer after university administrators disclosed plans in late May 2012 to shutter the 54-year-old academic press known for its commitment to regional culture, presidential history, Mark Twain scholarship and 20th Century sports icons. Barely three months later, the University of Missouri system and new President Tim Wolfe backtracked on those plans and attempted to repair the public relations damage.

After forgoing a spring catalog, the press recently released its fall/winter catalog with 10 new books and 15 e-books. The publishing house is now part of the flagship Columbia campus rather than the university system, and a search for a new director continues. Press supporters hope the threat to its survival will allow the business to prosper even as modern technology poses continual challenges.

“The press was sort of taken for granted,” said Mel George, a former Missouri system president who now leads a 21-member faculty advisory committee formed to support the venture. “Having been placed on the campus gives it much more of a central voice of authority. There is a renewed commitment to the press.”

At the time, Wolfe said the decision to shutter the press – which some campus officials insisted on characterizing as a business reboot rather than a closure –was driven by financial constraints, and a need to disperse a $400,000 annual university subsidy toward more dire needs such as building repairs or faculty raises. He later acknowledged miscalculating the importance of the school's scholarly publishing and not vetting the idea with faculty and others affected before reaching that decision.

Jane Lago, who retired as managing editor in 2008 after more than three decades with the press, returned seven months ago as interim director until a permanent hire is made. She is confident that university leaders are committed to the venture's long-term success. The press is now overseen by Provost Brian Foster, the top academic officer on the Columbia campus.

“The university is very interested in hiring a new director with a vision to do whatever publishing (looks like) in the future,” she said. “We don't know what publishing is going to be like in five years. But there's a great deal of interest in looking at scholarly publishing and how it's evolving, and how a university should be part of that.”

The contretemps also generated much broader name recognition and awareness of the university press, Lago said – even on the MU campus.

“It gave us much greater visibility than what we had before,” she said. “There were so many people on campus who didn't know what the press was, or what we did or what we published.”

Ned Stuckey-French, an associate English professor at Florida State University, was among dozens of authors who angrily sought return of their publishing rights after Missouri's initial announcement. The new catalog now includes a paperback version of his book, “The American Essay in the American Century.”

“Closing the press was a horrible, short-sighted mistake that was not in the interests of the university or the people of the state of Missouri,” said Stuckey-French, whose father grew up on a small farm in northwest Missouri and graduated from Mizzou.

“The University of Missouri Press is back and strong and publishing good and important books,” he added. “I couldn't be happier.”