Opposition not likely to change decision to close UM Press
Shouldn’t a university that pays its football coach $2.7 million a year be able to subsidize its university press with $400,000?
That’s the question asked by opponents of the planned shutdown of the University of Missouri Press. Tim Wolfe, president of the university system, said last week that the press did not fit into the school’s main priorities, so it would close down as part of an analysis of the school’s budget in tough financial times.
As word spread of his decision, opposition quickly arose. A Facebook page called “Save the University of MIssouri Press" had more than 800 “likes” as of Wednesday afternoon, with some scathing comments as well some decidedly unscholarly language like “bone-head decision.”
But the flurry of support for the press does not seem likely to change the decision to shut it down.
David Bradley, the newspaper publisher in St. Joseph who heads the university’s Board of Curators, said he thought the decision was “unfortunate” but one that is unavoidable, given the university’s financial situation.
State Rep. Mike Lair, R-Chillicothe, a longtime history teacher who heads the House appropriations committee for education, said while he believes in the value of university presses, the call was Wolfe’s to make.
“We have to pick good people, give them a job to do, then get out of their way,” Lair said.
And the comparison between what the Mizzou campus pays football coach Gary Pinkel and what the university system gives the press as a subsidy makes no sense, said university spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead.
“You are comparing apples and bowling balls,” she said.
Long time coming
Though last week’s announcement of the shutdown of the press took its employees and others by surprise, university officials insist that the demise was a long time coming.
Steve Graham, the university’s senior associate vice president for academic affairs, told the Beacon that far from being a spur of the moment decision, the move grew out of actions that began several years ago.
Efforts have been made to improve the press’ operations, help it raise money and streamline its staff to shore up its financial position, Graham said. Still, it continued to run a deficit.
“We clearly recognize the importance of scholarly publishing,” Graham said. “But it has been a financial concern for at least the last decade, and it probably goes back further than that.”
Hollingshead added that eliminating the press is not the only move that Wolfe has made to try to save money. She said he has eliminated the positions of an associate vice president and the director of the University of Missouri research parks.
She said, that as opposed to services like libraries, which directly sustain the university’s academic mission, the university press was “more of an auxiliary service. It sells books. There was never the expectation that the press would generate income for the university, but it should be able to come close to breaking even.”
Hollingshead was not sure how many emails or other forms of communication had been received protesting the decision to shut down the press. She said the university was in the process of formulating a response as well as explaining to key constituencies why the decision was made.
She also said that contracts were being reviewed with authors whose books were already moving through the publishing pipeline with the press.
And, she noted, that programs such as the football team on the Columbia campus support themselves, so any comparison between the subsidy for the press and the salary for the football coach – who, she emphasized, is with the campus and not the university system – is out of bounds.
Business and academia
That kind of reasoning doesn’t go over well with the people using Facebook and other means to express their displeasure at the decision to stop the press.
Bruce J. Miller, who represents many university presses in his book distribution business, said that many state universities are going through tough financial times, “but over all universities are very supportive of their presses. They want to have a university press for reasons that Tim Wolfe apparently can’t even fathom.”
He was particularly rankled – enough so that he helped set up the Facebook page over the holiday weekend – by language in last week’s news release that talked of “dramatically new models for scholarly communication, building on its strengths in journalism, library science, information technology, the libraries, and its broad emphasis on media of the future.”
“University presses have reached the digital age,” Miller said. “They are offering e-books. This is just cant. This is language they have pulled out of the air because of ignorance.”
He said that university presses put out books “that commercial publishers won’t touch because the market is too small, but they are still important books. You can’t measure the importance of books and learning based solely on how many people flock to those books. If you did that, there would be no publishing altogether.”
As far as the contracts the press currently has with authors, Miller said “I’m frankly appalled. This is the most amateurish behavior I have ever seen in publishing.”
Opponents to the plan who took to Facebook to express their anger were no less forthright.
“Of all the bone-head decisions made by my alma mater, this one takes the cake,” said attorney Thomas Strong. “Even the cowardly way you made the announcement, just before a major holiday when it would draw the least attention, reveals that you are not proud of your treachery. I know you may find this letter offensive, but it would be disingenuous of me to write a more politically correct message. I cannot adequately express how offended I am by your decision. Please remove the plaque that bears my name in a room of the law school. I will make no further financial gifts to MU.
“Have a nice day.”
Added Joanna Luloff, who recently received her Ph.D. in English from the university:
“With decisions like your recent one, it will be difficult for me to recommend the University of Missouri to prospective students in the humanities. It will be difficult for me to feel proud of my school and what it stands for. It will be difficult for me to promote the university when I go on my first book tour this autumn in support of my first story collection.
“Your choice to close the press both saddens and angers me. I hope you will reconsider your decision.”
No plans for review
Based on reaction from Bradley, the head of the Board of Curators, no reconsideration is likely. He said he and his colleagues on the board knew about the planned shutdown, and he heard no objections for any of the curators.
The problem is not with the press itself, he added, but with the university’s budget and the level of support that comes from the state – a level that has resulted in higher education becoming more costly for students.
“These kinds of cuts are going to have to be made for the University of Missouri system to become more efficient and do its critical mission, which is teaching students for degrees,” Bradley said. “That’s our main mission, and we’re going to have to focus more and more on that.
“Unfortunately, these kinds of things are going to have to happen in the future. Kids can’t afford to have tuition going up and up and up and have support going down and down and down.”
Lair, the state representative who chairs the education appropriations committee, agrees.
“I can’t in all conscience tell the man not to do what he needs to do to keep the university going,” he said, referring to Wolfe, who took over as president earlier this year.
“The University of Missouri has chosen someone from the business community to make those decisions for them, and this decision is what he believes is the right way to go. I think it would be a little disingenuous for me to jump into the middle of it and say you can do everything you want to do but this.”
And as far as the comparison goes between the salary for the football coach and the subsidy for the university press, both Bradley and Lair put it starkly.
“Economic development people tell us how much a successful football team brings to a university,” Lair said, “and it’s a lot more than $2.7 million. Whether those numbers are right, I don’t know. But at least that’s the argument they give, so I don’t think that’s a fair comparison.”
“Gary Pinkel is making a lot more money for the university than the University of Missouri Press.”