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University of Missouri Press will shut down

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 24, 2012 - The University of Missouri Press, which has published hundreds of books about the state and region for more than 50 years, will be phased out beginning next year as the university system concentrates on six priorities more closely aligned with its mission.

A statement released by the university said it is reviewing business operations of the press -- which receives an annual subsidy from the university of $400,000 but operates at a deficit -- to determine how to carry out the phase-out, which will begin in the next fiscal year. No timeline has been established for it to be completed.

“Similar to other industries,” the statement said, “scholarly publishing is dramatically changing due to emerging technology, making traditional publishing very challenging. Typically, most scholarly presses do not generate revenue for universities — with most just trying to break even.”

University President Tim Wolfe, who took office this year, has established six strategic priorities for the system to focus on: focused strategic planning; attracting and retaining the best people; innovative instruction; operational excellence; expanded research and economic development; and effective communication of our value and importance.

With reduced resources from the state, Wolfe said in the statement, anything that falls outside those areas may have to go.

“Even though the budget calls for level funding for higher education,” he said, “we at the University of Missouri System take seriously our role to be good stewards of public funds, to use those funds to achieve our strategic priorities, and to re-evaluate those activities that are not central to our core mission.”

Founded in 1958 on the Columbia campus, the University of Missouri Press has published a wide-ranging catalog of biographies, histories and studies of state and regional topics. Subjects have included Satchel Paige, Mark Twain, Stan Musial, Thomas Eagleton and others.

The author of books on Musial and Eagleton, James N. Giglio, greeted the news of the coming shutdown of the university press with disbelief and dismay.

“I don’t know of any state – there may be one or two – with a flagship university that doesn’t have a press,” said Giglio, who is an emeritus professor of history at Missouri State University in Springfield.

“Whether it be Ohio State or the University of Tennessee or the University of Nebraska or the University of Arkansas, they all have presses. I am very disturbed by this actually. A major university system has to have a venue for scholars to write regionally or about the state. If they are not doing that, there is something wrong.

“If one of their objectives is to retain good people, I think you have to have a press. Without one, that sends a message to me that the president of the university does not value scholarship.”

The 10 employees at the press learned of the coming shutdown at a meeting Thursday morning. Shortly after that, a clearly shaken Clair Willcox, editor in chief, said in a brief telephone interview that he would have no comment on the action.

“I’m just 30 minutes out of a meeting where this was announced,” he said. “Thank you for the call, but I have nothing to say right now.”

The statement from the university noted that the press has worked on a variety of ideas to improve its financial position, including a reduction in its workforce in 2009 as well as fundraising, establishing a development board, setting new publishing goals, outsourcing and pursuing high-quality, cost-effective vendors.

“The University of Missouri-Columbia is exploring 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 spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead said in the statement.

“Much editorial work would be done by students who would work under supervision of faculty to prepare for careers in scholarly communication in the new media world. Utilizing a new business model, publications could include much more than text, such as simulations, audio and other elements.”

The situation in Missouri is not a trend, according to Peter Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses.

“This is the first actual closing of a press that I’ve heard of in four or five years,” Givler said.

He recalled that when a similar situation arose with the University of Arkansas about 15 years ago, “there was a tremendous kind of public outcry.

“It was one of the few publishers in the state that had been publishing histories of Arkansas music, folklore, all kinds of things that were of great interest in that community. It was regarded as a very valuable resource. In general, university presses have as part of their mission writing about local history and doing a good job about making it available to the public.”

The University of Arkansas Press remains in operation.

That kind of mission of serving the state is particularly important to authors like Giglio, who worries that without the University of Missouri Press, topics that likely would be covered by interested authors may be abandoned.

“I think it would be a terrible mistake to have books like the one I did on Tom Eagleton not be published by the flagship university” he said. “The University of Missouri should have first crack at it.

“I could have taken my book on Stan Musial to a commercial press, and if I were interested in the money, I would have made a lot more money doing that. But I felt an obligation to the state. I received a small grant from the state historical society, and I felt I had an obligation because they saw fit to fund my research.”

Now, he said, “if you have books that are regional or more local that are associated with our own state, those books probably will not be written. Anyone teaching Missouri history, for example, at the graduate level will probably find it more difficult to get his or her students to write on Missouri topics, at least in book form, because the University of Missouri Press will no longer exist.”

Giglio noted that Truman State University in Kirksville does have its own press “that has managed to survive during some tough economic times with fewer resources than the University of Missouri system. It seems kind of odd to me that Truman State can survive but the university press funded by the University of Missouri system cannot survive. What does that tell you? Something’s wrong.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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