University of Missouri System
University of Missouri System (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In May 2012, the University of Missouri Press lost its $400,000 subsidy from its parent organization, which effectively meant the press would be closing in 2013.

The news of its planned closing, coming from new University of Missouri President Timothy M. Wolfe, the second businessman to run the university (he’s a former computer salesman — his predecessor had been CEO of Sprint), ignited ire within the faculty.

More recently, a press release claiming the university was “launching a reimagined University of Missouri Press that will use innovative techniques for scholarly communication” only increased the ill will percolating among faculty. The fact that the current press is still slated to close in 2013, with staff allowed to apply for jobs with the new press if they agree to also teach at the university, fueled more outrage.

In the words of a New York Times story on the matter, the press release’s “critics said the new plan was vague and full of corporate jargon.” Worse, the press release showed how out of touch the administration may be, again quoting from the New York Times story:

The administration seemed unaware that the press already was doing the supposedly new things described in the plan, Clair Willcox, the current editor of the press, said. The press, for instance, already publishes e-books, he said.

Later reports that Wolfe never spoke to or consulted employees of the current press only fanned the flames.

I first came across this story via Twitter, when someone shared a link to the press release. The press release piqued my interest immediately — there’s a sick beauty to a press release so full of jargon and empty of ideas, like the glistening beauty of a roadkill frog, puffed and distended by the heat. Here’s one of my favorite sections. Remember, this is supposed to be an actual human being being quoted:

This new 21st century press will enable the University of Missouri to be an innovator and nationwide leader in university publishing at a time when traditional academic publishing is being challenged to maintain its position as the main venue for scholarly book publishing. By launching a press that is creative, cost-effective and in line with the university mission of educating students and advancing knowledge, MU can develop a model for a new kind of university press that effectively integrates a significant publishing enterprise with high-quality, hands-on education and training of students in new publishing technology and practices.

Who talks like that?

What seems to lurk in the rhetorical weeds is that they need to cut costs and put students to work in the press.

The New York Times story also carries an interesting aside about another press that attempted a similar reinvention:

After closing its press in the mid-1990s, Rice University reopened a digital-only operation in 2006, but it shut that down after four years. Rice’s example revealed a difficult truth about digital scholarly publishing: it is still expensive.

There are many threads encapsulated in this story — the incursion of non-academic business leaders into academia, and how they seem to bring in their wake silly jargon and discord; the invocation of “innovation” as a mantra without meaning; the realization that digital isn’t cheap; the ongoing diminution of academic outputs for the sake of small savings and unclear alternative priorities; the issue of unpaid interns, a trend that picked up steam before schools broke for summer; and the lack of vision or ambition being exhibited in some quarters, as leaders outside their realm retreat into ROI and business school survival mode.

The new leader of the press, Speer Morgan, is trying to put the best face possible on the proceedings, but succeeding only moderately well. In a story in Publisher’s Weekly, Morgan claims the moves by university officials were part of a much broader strategy to “reinvigorate” the press, and make it part of the “learning function of the university.” Many are saying this is a duplicitous term for making students do the work of the professionals at the press. But it seems to me the university is taking it further — trying to make the editors into teachers, saving teaching positions, and the students into editors, saving editorial salaries. How this nets out in their books isn’t clear, so it’s not surprising that some sources admit the university doesn’t know what the new model for the press will cost.

Morgan is an interesting choice to lead the press, as this snippet from the Publisher’s Weekly piece points out:

While Morgan admits that he does not have experience in book publishing, he contends that this is not an obstacle, as he is both a published author and has been the editor of the Missouri Review, which publishes quarterly, for the past 35 years.

“I have experience with authors, estates. I’ve done a considerable amount of primary research, I have experience with research libraries,” he says, “We have good connections with New York City publishers, agent and editorial contacts. We’re not just some literary magazine that publishes only contemporary poetry or whatever.”

It’s no secret that the content business isn’t what it used to be, but comparisons with the newspaper industry are very misguided. (I know, we look at it here from time to time, but mostly from a print distribution standpoint.) For instance, while writing this blog post, I ran into the New York Times paywall, my allowance of free views having been exhausted. No problem, I found an equivalent story in USA Today. News is a commodity. University presses are trading in evergreen content, scholarship that can be highly valued and valuable. Many of the best non-fiction books each year come out of university presses, and have long shelf lives, sometimes decades long.

Ultimately, it seems the University of Missouri is reducing its bet on its content business and increasing its bet on its student business. That may be a harsh but necessary thing, all the criticism of their bad writing and clumsy handling of the matters aside. In a post not directly related to university presses, but one that’s of interest nonetheless, Jeff Jarvis has the following to say, which darkly foreshadows what many may be asking over the coming years as more and more changes erode content businesses:

Oh, yes, there’s still a business in content. But it’s an increasingly difficult business to survive in. It’s a limiting business. It’s an expensive business. It’s a business with more and more competitors and more and more price pressure. It’s a business that still requires blockbusters but they are harder to come by. It’s a business in which the bar to success is constantly rising.

As you *sure* you want to be in the content business?

Enhanced by Zemanta
Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


14 Thoughts on "Lessons from University Presses — Economics, Spin, Misfits, and Mission"

The Missouri’s misery story certainly does seem to pull a number of threads together. Peering hard through the jargon, one might detect the model that Portland State University pursues with its Ooligan Press. Dennis Stovall, who set up Ooligan and a number of other small presses before that, has retired. Dr. Per Henningsgaard has joined PSU from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where he taught English and ran a similarly modeled Cornerstone Press.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Henningsgaard conducted by one of the grad students in the PSU Publishing Program. “Some of you may have gotten the change [sic] to meet Per when he was on campus in June, but I, unfortunately, did not! So, I was very excited to have the chance to ask him a few questions via email.” Fortunately the interviewer seems not to be on the Ooligan Press staff. One could fear for their supply of commas, exclamation points and breathless style.

The interview reports Henningsgaard as saying, “The publishing industry is transitioning from an apprenticeship model to one that increasingly relies on new hires arriving with all the requisite skills they need to hit the ground running. Clearly, programs like the Publishing program at Portland State University are indispensable under this new model.” So just as the ebook revolution arrives to deliver us unto the self-publishers and the OA Rapture descends to eliminate a variety of superfluous publishing functions from scientific discourse, Missouri decides to restore its press by adding more graduates ready to hit the ground running — where?

Ooligan Press’s redeeming feature — as is the case with any redeemed publisher — would be its book program. With series like the OpenBook Titles on sustainability in print publishing, OP appears to be committed to its path to redemption. If Missouri can replicate OP, good luck to it.

I’m an Ooligan Press alumna, and I always enjoy reading positive comments about the press…but I do want to point out that Ooligan is not a scholarly publisher (or at least it wasn’t while I was there). We did focus on publishing works by local authors and of local interest, but it really isn’t a “university press.” What Dennis Stovall created was a teaching press, operated on a trade model, encouraging champions of the written word–and while I agree that a replication of this would be good, I’m not sure that this is an apples-to-apples situation. (Oh, and Mr. Bolick? It’s possible that the “breathless” interviewer was with Ooligan–we’re a pretty enthusiastic bunch. But we also understand the differences in communicating in various outlets, so I don’t think you need to fear.)

I find the lack of support and emphasis on university presses somewhat confusing. There’s an enormous level of advocacy going on about control–control of access, control of copyright, control of re-use, control of the funding available in the research world. It seems obvious that if the academic community wants better control of these things, they’d be best served by using the channels that they own and control, university presses and not-for-profits.

Instead there seems to be great enthusiasm for doing away with all current aspects of research publishing, including those that are owned by and directly benefit the community itself, followed by a reinventing of the wheel. Even worse, there seems to be great enthusiasm for turning over that control to privately owned, for-profit businesses. Will a researcher’s best interests coincide with those of the venture capitalists behind PeerJ, or the profit-seeking business minds behind F1000 Research?

If the faculty and administration of Harvard University thinks it’s important to create an OA mandate for Harvard researchers, then why aren’t they also using their own Harvard University Press to create the outlets those researchers will need? If so many University of California professors are intent on changing the publishing ecosystem, why isn’t the University of California Press, which they own and control, leading the way?

While I second David’s comments, I want to put in a good word for Harvard University Press and the University of California Press in this context. I’ve worked with both Presses, and I know that they have for a number of years been in the forefront of reshaping the relationship of the press and the university. Both have inaugurated innovative programs to break down the admittedly well established wall between them. So while it is true that universities should recognize the great value their presses bring — not just prestige, but professionalism, expertise: both faculty and administrators suffer from what I call the “how hard could that be?” syndrome in regard to publishing — those two presses, Harvard and California, have done some terrific work to _demonstrate_ that value.

Thanks Bill. I don’t want to demean the excellent work done by the Harvard and UC Presses. I just want to know why the advocates within those universities aren’t “eating their own dogfood” as it were, and using their own presses to accomplish their goals. Instead they are willing to turn to privately held commercial entities whose goals are to take funds out of the academic community. Is this an implicit admittance that these new forms of publishing are really difficult, and too expensive and risky for the universities to take on themselves?


The big UPs have focused on book publishing, largely in the humanities and social sciences. The OA mandates are focused on journal articles, esp. in the sciences. Presses don’t see an obvious stream of money for open access in the humanities and social sciences as in the sciences, since that research for the most part isn’t funded by grants. So I think the issue comes down to books vs. journals, and science vs. the humanities/social sciences.


UC Press has a fairly robust journal publishing program, though as you note, it’s heavy on non-science areas:
But the necessary infrastructure is certainly in place there. Why not use that rather than building from anew or turning the keys over to private businesses intent on removing funds from academia?

The notion that a university press would rely on unpaid interns is deeply troubling for several reasons:

First, it diminishes the value of editing and copy editing. As the press relies on revolving cohorts of students, it is not clear who takes responsibility and accountability for errors in their work.

Second, the notion of an internship is to give students an opportunity to gain valuable hands-on experience in order to increase their employment potential when they graduate. It is not clear how these students are going to find jobs in a market where their skills are valued with no monetary compensation.

Last, some schools provide credit-hours to students who perform unpaid internships. The school benefits in two ways: by charging students tuition, and by putting them to work as volunteers in a profit center for the university.

To me, this relationship seems exploitative.

The University of Missouri Press has for nearly 30 years used interns through a course-credit arrangement with the university. The statements implying that using interns is something new are misleading. What is different about the proposed “new model” is that the interns would no longer be working with and receiving instruction from professional editors, and it appears that they would be charged with carrying a far greater burden of responsibility for the book projects.

It is indeed troubling that students working perhaps 10 hours a week for one or two semesters would be responsible for overseeing projects that might be in the pipeline for a year or longer. I suspect that few scholars would dare to risk their chances of tenure and promotion by publishing with a press set up on such a model.

As someone deeply involved in the effort to prevent the shutdown I must respectfully offer a dissenting opinion about one point in this otherwise excellent piece. Yes, the shutdown is harsh–ten publishing professional are about to lose their jobs–but, no, it is not at all “a necessary thing.” While the university began by saying that they were shutting down the press to save the $400,000 dollar subsidy, and that the press had not improved its financial situation in recent years, both things turn out be misleading. In the case of the “new model” press they are attempting to create, they refuse to make public any financial details, and it will cost a lot of money in various ways, not the least of these being the hiring of new faculty members who will also work at the press. Keep in mind these cuts were not mandated by the legislature. Furthermore, the press just finished a three-year austerity program, and in this new fiscal year has almost no deficit at all.

As Janese Silvey of the Columbia Tribune has pointed out, the university has never really explained why they are taking this action:

The president and the university’s reputation are being roasted to a blackened cinder:

I could go on and on, but I would ask everyone to dig a little deeper into the strange case of the U of MO Press shutdown, and not be too quick to draw all kinds of tasty conclusions about university presses from this series of events. The university has changed course in the last two months more than once. For example, they canceled the Spring 2013 list, but now that they have cobbled together some sort of evolving “model” they have refused to release the authors from their contracts.
This movement may have grown out a personal animus towards the press by Steven Graham, who is Senior Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs, and gathered steam when the new president, Tim Wolfe, took over on Feb 15th of this year. This is speculation, but speculation with some substance behind it.

The university would like you to believe that this is harsh but necessary, but please don’t fall for it. The AAUP (Professors) are holding a meeting in Columbia on July 24th to address the shutdown, and it is open to the pubic. We are expecting many people to show up, academics and non-academics alike.

Bruce Joshua Miller

To clarify, my comment about how this might be necessary has more to do with macro issues — like the fact that all content businesses are being eroded by attitudes about free, commodity competition across melted borders, and incursions by technology companies — and not the micro issues at U of M. Sorry for any confusion. It was part of the transition to the Jarvis piece.

The situation at the University of Missouri Press reminds me of nothing so much as the current trend (particularly rife in New York City) of putting non-educator business people in charge of public school education. After all, isn’t running any business–whether publishing, educating, manufacturing widgets, or investment banking–just a question of applying sound business principles?

That said, the situation for university presses bodes ill for much nonprofit publishing, where organizations squeezed by the current economic climate have to consider whether they can support niche publishing programs squeezed by the changes in the publishing field.

I think Bruce Miller is right, that there is an explanation involving internal politics that we don’t yet know much about, including Mr. Speer’s own ambitions to expand his empire.

However, it needs to be pointed out that UM did have another option under serious consideration, viz., outsourcing all noneditorial functions to a larger university press, which would have resulted in none of the unfortunate consequences that will ensue from the model now chosen, except that some (though not all) of the current staff would have been let go. This model is viable and is operating at a number of presses, both those that work within a consortium (like New England, Florida, and Colorado) and at a single press (like Rochester) that outsources noneditorial functions to a larger publishing house. The core function that makes a university press what it is lies in editorial acquisitions in conjunction with a faculty editorial board, and this model preserves that core. At one point, when I was still director at Penn State, the provosts in the CIC suggested exactly this model, with each university having its own editorial office but all other functions handled by the University of Chicago Press (which already was handling distribution and order fulfillment for many of the presses). Though this idea was not implemented, you can expect that it will rise again as a possible model to save expenses while maintaining the crucial editorial distinction of each university participating in the consortium.

The explanation for the failure of Rice University Press in its resurrected digital form lies mainly in its odd decision to focus on art history–a field least susceptible to digital publishing (mainly because of rights problems with images)–rather than on the infrastructure of the operation, which relied on the highly effective Connexions platform at Rice that had already been developed for open-access textbook publishing.

There have been suggestions from intelligent people, like Kathleen Fitzpatrick, that university press publishing may evolve back toward the earlier model of a press being a service agency for the university’s own publishing, which is how the University of California Press functioned for many years (and to which it has, in part, returned in providing services now to institutions on UC campuses that want to publish). Fitzpatrick makes a good case for this working if the system also moves in the direction of post-publication peer review.

The new plan lays off the ten professional staff at the Press and replaces them with four faculty (apparently in the English Department) and five graduate assistants.

I hope readers who are interested will check out the Save the University of Missouri Press Facebook page:

Sign our online petition:

And read our response to the University’s press release:

Comments are closed.