Disturbing news comes from Ned Stuckey-French, an old friend who directs the program in publishing and editing at Florida State University: on May 24, new University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe announced he was shutting down the University’s press and laying off its staff of ten. As Ned notes, the press, perhaps best known for publishing the collected works of Langston Hughes, cost the university $400,000 a year. The head football coach’s salary? $2.7 million. Because you can always find the money for the things you really want.
Ned’s book The American Essay in the American Century was published by the University of Missouri Press last year. Here’s his take:
Wolfe, a former software company president with no experience in academics, was named president last December. He has acknowledged that he made his decision without visiting the press, talking to its employees, consulting with faculty, or looking for any new donors to help support it. Authors with books on the spring 2013 list have been told their contracts are being cancelled, never mind that this may include the tenure books of junior faculty, thereby derailing their careers.
In one interview, Wolfe compared the situation to an independent store going bankrupt and a Walmart moving in. The same products are sold, he explained, but Walmart has a better business model.
The press, which was founded 54 years ago, has published about 2,000 titles for both scholars and the general reader, everything from a biography of St. Louis Cardinals’s Hall of Famer Stan Musial to the Collected Works of Langston Hughes. It has also published the letters and autobiography of favorite son Harry Truman, and now Missourians and others have decided to “give ’em hell.”
Authors, teachers, librarians, Missouri alums, and readers from across the state of Missouri and the country have voiced their outrage. In the short time since Wolfe’s announcement, a “Save the University of Missouri Press” Facebook page has attracted over 1700 followers and over 2500 people have signed an online petition in support of the press. Articles about the massive reaction to the closing have appeared already in Chronicle of Higher Education, Publishers Weekly, Inside Higher Ed, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star and the Columbia (MO) Daily Tribune.
Scores of supporters have shared the letters they’ve written to Wolfe and the University’s Board of Curators. The authors make it clear that when they are supporting the press they are supporting not just Missouri books and authors, but also debate, scholarship, and the preservation of a broader cultural past.
Letters of support have come in from scholars as far afield as Louisiana and Belgium praising the press’s publication of the collected work of German philosopher Eric Voegelin. Distinguished Mark Twain scholars Tom Quirk and John Bird wrote to bemoan the damage that the closing of the press’s Mark Twain and His Circle series will do to Twain scholarship. All ten of the editors of the Collected Works of Langston Hughes issued a statement explaining that such work “contributes to the larger, ongoing project among scholars of African American literature to recover texts by black American writers that have been historically marginalized from the American literary canon. This large-scale process of textual recovery and publication, begun on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement when students and scholars were advocating for representation of African American literature, history, and culture in American universities, is truly one of academe’s most important success stories. Without the work of scholars engaged in this project, African American literary studies in the academy simply would not exist.”
Many critics have questioned the priorities of a university that shuts down its press to save (according to the University’s press release) a $400,000 annual subsidy, while paying its head football coach $2.7 million each year. They point out that Missouri will now be the only university in the Southeastern Conference (its athletic conference) that does not have a university press.
President Wolfe’s spokesperson, Jennifer Hollingshead, said that comparing the press’s subsidy to the football coach’s salary makes no sense.
It’s like “comparing apples and bowling balls,” she said.
Of course, you can compare any two things—a university press and Walmart, for instance. And apples, we know, are natural, various, and the source of humanity’s knowledge, while bowling balls are uniform, unyielding and used to knock things over.