Why the fight to save the UM press will fail

Earlier this summer the University of Missouri decided to close the university Press, stating that it was not sustainable, even after a financial overhaul. The university gives the press a 400,000 dollar annual subsidy, fund that it indicated would be better spent elsewhere. Despite later offers from some donors, other schools, and a variety of plans to replace that amount of money, the university did not change course. Then it came out that the university was not intending eliminate the press altogether, but to move away from traditional publishing and putting a newly proposed digital press under the auspices of The Missouri Review, run by Speer Morgan. (In the current FAQ for the plan, they state: “The purpose is to provide appropriate scholarly communication, not to make money.”) Instead of the press being closed for financial reasons, the story became that the University of Missouri wanted to be a leader in the digital humanities, while the Luddites at the press were determined to cling to bound books with ink-stained fingers.

Anyone who falls behind is expendable.

The problem is that the University of Missouri Press had not fallen behind. The press was already producing digital books and moving toward publishing in even more formats.

The gist of the newly proposed press is as follows: the press will be joined with The Missouri Review, a quarterly journal run by a professor in the English Department. The press will hire four new employees (encouraging the ten laid off employees to reapply for the new positions once they become available), and will put much of the editorial duties on five graduate students, possibly by increasing the workload of the graduate students who work with the press already. This will both save the university money since it is a widely acknowledged fact that in the academic system, graduate students are exploited laborers, and enable the press to claim to be a “teaching press” (or some other catchy moniker) without actually providing much more than it is already doing. “For the foreseeable future” the press will continue to publish books in a variety of formats. A board of faculty members will review submitted manuscripts to choose which books will be published, as well as providing an internal advisory board. The press will have an emphasis on “English, creative writing, communications, journalism, and library and information science,” according to Brady Deaton.

There are some minor additions to what the prior press offered, but conspicuous in this new format are the absences. Most immediately are the jobs stripped away in order to streamline the finances, though the reports are that the new employees will be paid at a significantly higher rate than the old ones. But more critically are the disciplines. The history department at MU, for better or for worse, has been excluded from the process, despite the press being a leader in publishing books on Missouri history, western history, some excellent books about sports, and was (once upon a time, at least) a premier location to publish books on African American history. Perhaps history, too, is obsolete.

Despite opposition, the changes have proceeded. What is more, the fact that now the university is receiving press as though it is renewing a commitment to scholarship through the “resuscitated” press, when the existence of the press in this format is cosmetic only. At least there is a press, they can say, even if no self-respecting scholarly author would publish with it (if they could even get a manuscript approved, in the case of history).

Most recently, a large number of authors have requested the rights to the books back from the press in protest of the changes, while the university has spent much of the last week trying to persuade the authors to keep the books with the UM press. As such, the Kansas City Star published an article under the title:

“MU tries to persuade university press authors not to reclaim book rights: Digital transition is planned, but scholars want university press to release publishing rights on their works.”

And therein is the reason that the opposition to the university press changes is failing. There have been many impassioned and eloquent letters written, meetings and votes held, and articles published, even nationally, but the university has still managed to dictate the message about the press. The opponents of the press closing have, for the most part, come across as hysterical and unreasonable (though, again for the most part, have been nothing of the sort), while the university appears rational, calm, and responsible. According to the news media, the debate is about the future of digital humanities, so the authors asking for the rights back appear reactionary, while the university is merely asking for them to hold off on their requests while the transition takes place. And, according to the piece, “After talking with Dr. Noble-Triplett, few authors have demanded immediate release.”

At the bottom of the article the author includes some of the objections to the changes, but the top section (and the section with more than just quotes) is dedicated to the case that the changes are about digital humanities. The university has done a great deal of damage control and has been able to portray a consistent, rational explanation for its changes, while the opponents are often reduced to apoplectic rage (I witnessed one meeting where the rebuttal to one person who wanted information was “I don’t agree with you”), and, at best, present an uncoordinated, piecemeal defense that comes and goes, while often include ill-fitting and ill-informed arguments about the football coach’s salary. There are legitimate things being said and legitimate concerns about the new press, but the message that has won out is the one that suits the university, namely that this is an issue of progress and of digitization (after the first argument that it was about money failed), when it is actually about scholarly standards, processes, and emphasis of the press. The changes in the press constitute a power play by a few individuals from within the university, but, evidently, that isn’t news. The future of digital humanities is.

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