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Missouri press supporters look to tap students

By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER

Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The University of Missouri’s decision to scrap its academic publishing business in favor of a digital-driven alternative has generated withering criticism from authors and scholars far beyond Missouri. Opponents now hope to boost their efforts by tapping into the school’s biggest resource: some of the nearly 35,000 students who will descend on campus next month.

The campus chapter of the American Association of University Professors hosted nearly 70 faculty and other University of Missouri Press supporters Tuesday to discuss strategy. The call for student involvement came from author William Least Heat-Moon, a former MU English professor and four-time Missouri graduate.

“We can sit here and talk to each other, and go on and on and on the way faculty meetings do, but it’s going to go virtually nowhere,” he said. “We are not going to win this fight in this room, or in any other room on this campus. We are going to win this fight only when we take it to the streets.”

Several participants invoked campus protests against the Vietnam War and the recent successful efforts by University of Virginia students, faculty and alumni to help reverse a Board of Visitors’ decision to oust the school’s popular president.

Others urged group members to lobby elected leaders in Jefferson City or Washington, who in turn could share their displeasure with University of Missouri system president Tim Wolfe. In his most high-profile decision since moving into University Hall in February, the former software company executive decided in May to shut down the 54-year-old academic press and put the $400,000 annual university subsidy to better use.

The university recently announced plans to replace the press — and most, if not all, of its 10 full-time employees — with a digital publishing operation that will rely largely on student workers and be overseen by the editor of the Missouri Review literary journal, creative writing professor Speer Morgan.

Once-silent press employees have grown increasingly vocal in their objections to Wolfe’s plan, noting that the operation has enacted significant cost-cutting measures while also becoming actively immersed in electronic publishing. Most of those press employees, including editor-in-chief Clair Willcox, attended the two-hour meeting at the Missouri Student Center. Several faculty members were scheduled to meet with Wolfe later Tuesday to voice their concerns.

Wolfe has acknowledged that he was caught off-guard by the level of rancor surrounding the press changes. About 5,000 people have signed an online petition in support of saving the press, while several authors —including former U.S. Rep Ike Skelton — have said they will take their book projects elsewhere or have asked the school to return publishing rights.

Some audience members at Tuesday’s rally were concerned as much about how Wolfe made up his mind — without faculty input — as with the actual decision.

“We’re doing damage to our brand,” said Karen Pasley, whose husband is an MU history professor. “We need to bring in outside political pressure.”

The press’ transformation will be a likely topic of conversation Thursday at the regular meeting of the campus Faculty Council, a group that has broader representation and participation than the Missouri AAUP chapter. But it’s also a group not known for taking activist stands, said math professor Stephen Montgomery-Smith.

“You’d think they would be totally outraged,” he said.

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Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier

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