Will new UM Press attract scholars' work?
In the wake of planned changes to the University of Missouri Press, moving it to the Columbia campus and including student instruction in its mission, at least one author whose book was published by the press wants it moved elsewhere.
“Anything that I have that would be worthy of publication, I would submit to a major press, where it could be properly vetted and disseminated in book form,” said James N. Giglio, an emeritus professor of history at Missouri State University in Springfield.
“Maybe I’m traditional, but I don’t see where this sort of information is going to get much attention. It’s not going to get attention in professional journals, and it’s not going to get attention elsewhere either, where the work can be properly evaluated.”
After several weeks of criticism of the decision to shut down the UM Press, which had been in operation since 1958, the university announced on Monday that it was revamping the operation.
It will move from the university system to the Columbia campus, where it will be overseen by the head of “The Missouri Review.” A professional staff of editors will work with students in a variety of disciplines, from journalism to library science to English, to combine publishing with instruction and research.
Because of the shift in emphasis, new staff members will be required to be able to teach, so none of the 10 current employees of the press expect to be hired by the new operation. No timeline has been established for the changeover, so the current employees remain on their jobs but have not been told how much longer they will be employed. The $400,000 annual subsidy that the university system had been allocating to the press stopped as of June 30.
Brian Foster, provost of the Columbia campus, doesn’t think that prospective authors should consider the new version of the press to be any different from the old one, in terms of the professional way their material will be handled.
“It may not be as different as people think when it comes to the operation of the press,” Foster told the Beacon. “We are still going to have peer review and will still be oriented toward new discoveries and innovations. That is the core function of a university press.
"But it will be more engaged with the instructional and research sides of the university.”
Still, the new format will have something to prove in the academic community, according to Peter Givler, executive director of the American Association of University Presses.
“At a research university, like the University of Missouri,” he said in an email, “in most of the social sciences and all of the humanities publishing a book with a university press is a fundamental requirement for tenure -- that is, advancement from assistant to associate professor. That’s an up-or-out decision: Either you get tenure, or you move on and start over someplace else. So the personal stakes are very high, and, understandably, the assistant professors in that position want to publish with a press that has a strong reputation.
“The U of M has effectively dialed the reputation of the University of Missouri Press, or whatever they decide to call this new entity, back to zero. That’s not to say that it won’t become a reputable scholarly publisher, but the onus is now on them to prove they can do it. And until they do, yes, as a practical matter they are going to have trouble attracting new scholarly work.”
Trying to turn the Paige
Scholarly work may not be the only type of book the newly revamped press has difficulty attracting and retaining.
Donald Spivey’s biography of former Negro League baseball star Satchel Paige, “If You Were Only White,” was published by the UM Press just 10 days before the university announced it would be ending its subsidy to the press and shutting it down. It's featured on the front of the press' website.
After Monday’s announcement of the new format of the press, he sent an email to university President Tim Wolfe, saying:
“I would like to speak to someone in charge at the new University of Missouri Press about moving my recently published book to another press. I have had several offers from both university and commercial publishers. After 12 years of research to achieve the definitive biography of the legendary Satchel Paige, I think you can understand why I want the book, in all of its forms, in competent and stable hands for both the short and the long term.”
In a separate email to several members of the current press, Spivey added:
“President Wolfe has made a wrong and tragic decision!”
(Start update) Clair Willcox, editor in chief of the press, said other books that were planned for publication in upcoming months are likely to go elsewhere, including one by former U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton.
He said Skelton's manuscript had been approved for publication, along with eight others, the week before university President Tim Wolfe surprised personnel at the press by announcing it would be shutting down.
What happens from here on in is unclear, Willcox said.
"In a sense, it's kind of a shadow press right now," he said, "and nothing that they have said would tend to reassure someone seeking tenure or promotion. It's still very vague and fuzzy."
He said that the press' imprint, what it has zealously guarded and developed for 54 years, could be in danger.
"The people who established the imprint will be without work," Willcox said, "and they are bringing in people with no experience. That reflects no understanding not only of book publishing but scholarly book publishing."(End update)
Giglio, author of the Musial and Eagleton books published by the press, said in an interview that he did not see how the new operation would have the same respect or fulfill the same function as the old one.
“I don’t think it is going to be given that much consideration,” he said. "I would instead adopt the conventional approach of trying to publish either in a scholarly journal or a scholarly book. I would not go that route. I don’t see the advantages of it."
He also said that Columbia isn't the place people look for new ideas in publishing or academia.
“If something like that could substitute for a conventional press," Giglio said, "I could see where institutions like Duke or the University or North Carolina or the other universities in the SEC might adopt it. But I don’t think people are going to be looking to Missouri for something that innovative, given the track record that university now has.
"I would give it more attention if Harvard came up with that approach, or Columbia, or a public university like Wisconsin. But not for a university that discarded its press in the way it did, and now has come up with something they think is better.”
For a young academic, Giglio added, where a career often is a matter of publish or perish, going with an unproven model may be too risky.
“I doubt if there is any promotion or tenure policy in universities around the country that are attuned to this type of evaluating scholarship,” he said. “What departments and universities want to see are the book reviews and the readers’ reports on the book that was in press or is now in circulation. How are the professional journals evaluating them? Peer review is what is called for in terms of promotion and tenure.”
Foster, the provost at Mizzou, emphasized that such peer review will work pretty much as it has in the past; the only new angle in the revamped press operation will be the addition of the instructional and research components.
Asked if an analogy to a teaching hospital would be accurate, he said that in terms of personnel, a hospital is more complex because many other classifications of people are involved besides just teachers and students. But in concept -- an operation where students learn by doing -- he said the comparison could work.
“If you want people to come out of medical school or law school or nusing school or whatever and perform at very high levels,” he said, “their experiences in this environment are very important parts of their coming out as highly skilled and highly trained professionals. I would argue this is the same with scholarly publications.”
(Start update) Even though the university has announced its new version of the press, opponents of the closure of the old operation are not giving up. They have called a protest meeting on the Mizzou campus next Tuesday, to coincide with a meeting of the campus chapter of the American Association of University Presses. (End update)