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Cutbacks darken University of Missouri Press

By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER

Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — For 54 years, the University of Missouri Press has showcased the state’s history, culture and authors to readers close to home and scholars far beyond its borders. The 2,000 books published range from obscure treatises on Ozark folklorists to popular biographies of baseball greats Stan Musial and Satchel Paige.

That legacy ends next month after new university system president Tim Wolfe’s decision to shut down the money-losing press and steer its $400,000 annual subsidy toward other pressing campus needs such as building renovations or faculty raises.

The move, which has prompted a storm of criticism by faculty authors and renowned scholars, is among the painful choices being made on campuses across the nation this year as institutions cut costs to cope with budget pressures lingering from the recession.

With many legislatures reducing their financial support while also warning against tuition increases, colleges have been scouring their catalogues for programs they can do without, in some cases dropping second-tier sports or consolidating departments.

But the winnowing has kicked up a strong clash of opinions about the value of university presses, which have occupied a quaint corner of academia ever since John Hopkins established the first one at the Baltimore school in 1878, and that quietly turn out esoteric works by faculty members and specialty books on regional issues.

While some schools now consider the presses a financial drain, others universities have seized on the imprints as valuable tools for modern brand-building and for establishing eminence in areas of scholarship. While Southern Methodist University and Eastern Washington have also closed their presses, other schools have been getting into the business as a good investment. The membership of the Association of American University Presses has grown from 118 to 134 over the past 15 years.

“Presses at one point or another have been threatened with closure for as long as I can remember,” said Doug Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press and a veteran of the industry. “It’s not specific to the digital era. These are small businesses. They tend to be under-capitalized.”

The impact of the digital revolution has complicated the questions. Some colleges are wondering whether to shift partially or entirely to online publication or to stick with books, which have more academic stature.

“We’re in the middle of that transition,” said Peter Givler, executive director of the AAUP, the New York-based professional association. “And nobody knows how it’s going to turn out.”

Thirty seven public flagship universities have a college press. In a few states, such as Connecticut, private schools such as Yale fulfill that role.

Their catalogues, many of which offer a few dozen new titles a year, provide visibility to the work of faculty members and aim to build the university’s reputation as an authority in a key field; a western university might specialize in the settlement of the West or regional culture. The Missouri press is known for its books on 19th Century western expansion and presidential history.

“The public relations value of it is just astounding,” said Armato. “And for a regional press like Missouri, it’s really important to help connect with the people in your state.”

The University of Missouri’s catalogue for the fall and winter featured 13 new titles, includes “From Missouri: An American Farmer Looks Back,” “Play Me Something Quick and Devilish: Old-Time Fiddlers in Missouri” and “The Brothers Robidoux and the Opening of the American West.” The spring and summer list includes a book on Mark Twain, the latest of 21 books on the Missouri humorist published by the University of Missouri Press.

Some presses, like the University of Minnesota’s, are profitable, but most either make or lose a small amount of money. The Missouri press’ deficit ranges from $50,000 to $100,000 per year, officials said.

Wolfe’s decision to shut down the press at the end of the fiscal year on July 31 hit harder because of the abruptness. A Missouri graduate whose father taught at the school, he took over the four-campus system in February after a 30-year career as a software executive. He didn’t seek faculty input into the press’ operations.

“It raises some questions in people’s minds about the university’s commitment to scholarly excellence,” said Larry Gragg, a history and political science professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla, a part of the Missouri system. “That’s not entirely fair, but perception rules.”

Gragg, an editorial board member of the University of Missouri Press as well as one of its authors (“The Quaker Community on Barbados”), said the cost of the press is a drop in the system’s $1 billion budget.

University spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead said that administrators “understand the symbolic importance of the press and what it means for a university system such as ours.” Yet when faced with declining state appropriations, surging campus enrollment and the likely elimination of more than 200 full-time university jobs to help balance the fiscal year 2013 budget, hard choices must be made, she said. The university system’s state funding was at the lowest level since 1995 as the legislature struggled with budget problems.

“As president Wolfe has said before, in this kind of environment, it really forces you in ways like never before to make sure resources are aligned with priorities,” she said.

A university statement last month said Missouri will explore “new models for scholarly communication,” with editorial work done by students.

Industry experts remain skeptical that free or online substitutes offer an answer.

“It looks like the expectations on the press might be unrealistic,” Armato said. “These presses were funded to do things that commercial ventures wouldn’t. If you went to (commercial publisher) Penguin in New York and said, ‘I really want you to publish a book about Ozark folklore,’ you’re not going to get a listen.”

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

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