Ex-UM president adds criticism to closing of Press
A man who twice was in charge of the University of Missouri system has joined the persistent chorus of those criticizing the university for plans to shut down the university’s press while approving expansions for sports facilities at Mizzou.
In a letter to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Mel George -- who served as interim president of the four-campus system twice while searches for permanent presidents were conducted -- cited recently published commentary criticizing the university for ending its $400,000 annual subsidy to the University of Missouri Press while increasing support for athletics at its Columbia campus.
George's letter, published last week, called such comments “appropriately negative” and called special attention to what he termed “powerfully expressed” issues in a Kansas City Star editorial involving “the larger questions about the relative priorities of the university (of which the press decision is only a part) and its expanded commitment to athletic programs.”
George concluded by recommending the Star editorial “to the thoughtful consideration of everyone who cares about the University of Missouri and the public messages that are conveyed by its actions.”
The editorial noted that at its June meeting, the university’s Board of Curators approved a $200 million plan “to add glitz and seats” to the athletic facilities at Mizzou, including issuance of $72 million in bonds for the first phase of $102 million. The move came after curators approved a budget that required cuts, including the elimination of the subsidy for the university press.
“Talk about sending the wrong message,” the editorial said.
Reached Monday at his home in Columbia, George -- now a president emeritus of the university, where he also served as vice president for academic affairs as well as a professor of mathematics -- said he did not want to comment beyond what he said in the letter.
But his gently expressed critique follows much harsher reaction that has become a steady drumbeat since university President Tim Wolfe announced his decision to shut down the press in a news release that came out right before the Memorial Day weekend.
The decision sparked creation of a Facebook page with more than 2,300 “likes” as well as an online petition with nearly 4,400 signatures. Both of those online efforts call on Wolfe and curators' president David Bradley of St. Joseph to rescind their decision to shut down the press and lay off its employees.
Wolfe and Bradley, who have said the decision on the press is final, have also said they are concentrating now on a new version of the operation to focus more on electronic publishing.
In a letter to the Star, they also challenged the notion that the university has placed athletics ahead of academics in its list of priorities, calling such an assertion “out of line.”
“At the recent Board of Curators meeting,” their letter said, “curators approved the university’s FY13 budget and announced plans to invest $26 million -- accumulated through cost-saving measures -- in initiatives applicable to our academic mission: recruitment and retention of faculty; increased student scholarships; and student success and degree completion, among others.
“Why? Because we know that our priority is to educate the people of Missouri and that our success, in large measure, determines our state’s success. It’s an obligation -- and frankly a responsibility -- we take seriously.”
Wolfe and Bradley also disputed the notion that the University of Missouri Press was a victim of a policy that favors sports over academics.
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” they insisted. “MU intercollegiate athletics pays for itself through revenues from ticket sales, gifts and media contracts. In fact, it provides more than $7 million in scholarships that make higher education accessible and affordable for a large number of student athletes.
“The truth is that education is at the head of the line when it comes to our priorities. None of our actions prove otherwise.”
The response by Wolfe and Bradley came after opponents of the decision to close the university press attended the June curators meeting in Columbia but did not have the chance to speak. Wolfe ignored the issue in his remarks. Bradley said afterward that he would consider instituting a period for public comment at curators’ meeting, similar to what many other school boards have.
Though the university subsidy ended on June 30, at the end of the fiscal year, the press’ operations continue. University officials would not respond to repeated specific questions about where the money was coming to continue paying the salaries for the employees who remain on the job.
Dwight Browne, interim director of the press, said he wasn’t sure either, but he did note in an email that “unlike a lot of university departments the press is constantly generating an icome and will continue generating an income long after we are all gone.”
While that work continues, so does the chorus of opposition to Wolfe’s decision to shut the press down. The lack of a forum at the curators’ meeting to express their views did not stop a steady drumbeat by critics, one that is taking hold far from Missouri.
Typical of the tack in the articles is this take from NPR, which said:
“The new president of the University of Missouri -- who came from the world of business -- decided to close the university’s press rather than make up a shortfall in its $400,000 a year budget. That has sparked a protest movement in the academic world, which is worried about the incursion of corporate values into academia.”
Those articles are matched by continuing comments on Facebook and elsewhere, by authors, academics and financial supporters to the university who say their donations will go elsewhere in the future.
One of those protesting the decision has been John Eisenhower, son of the late President Dwight Eisenhower and an historian whose book “They Fought at Anzio” was published by the UM Press in 2007.
As quoted by the Columbia Daily Tribune, Eisenhower wrote to Wolfe last month:
“I am sure that this move was taken for reasons that seemed cogent at the time, but I venture to guess that it was taken without a realization of the national standing of the institution you are destroying. When I told members of the publishing community some years ago that my book, 'They Fought at Anzio,' was being published by Missouri, they all responded positively, based on the press’s reputation ....
“Like many others, I hope you will reconsider the decision to discontinue the press. The cause of learning, as well as the reputation of your university, will benefit.”