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Univ. of Mo. leaders back decision to close press

The "Dictionary of Missouri Biography" stands on display at the University of Missouri Press on Friday, June 1, 2012, in Columbia, Mo. The dictionary is one of many books that have been published by the University of Missouri Press whose focus has been to preserve the cultural history of Missouri. The original illustrations for the book remain on display at the offices. The planned closing of the University of Missouri Press comes as academic publishers struggle with the shift to digital-first information.

The "Dictionary of Missouri Biography" stands on display at the University of Missouri Press on Friday, June 1, 2012, in Columbia, Mo. The dictionary is one of many books that have been published by the University of Missouri Press whose focus has been to preserve the cultural history of Missouri. The original illustrations for the book remain on display at the offices. The planned closing of the University of Missouri Press comes as academic publishers struggle with the shift to digital-first information. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — University of Missouri leaders stood behind the school's cost-cutting decision to shutter its academic press on Wednesday, saying they looked forward to remodeling the 54-year-old publishing house to emphasize digital distribution.

The Board of Curators didn't seem swayed after dozens of supports of the University of Missouri Press attended the campus governing board's meeting a day earlier in Columbia. Few of those supporters showed up for Wednesday's meeting since the board generally doesn't carve out time for public comment.

Curators did not publicly discuss the recent decision by new University System President Tim Wolfe to shutter the press, though Wolfe and the board's chairman, David Bradley, said the university hopes to soon unveil a new model for the publishing house.

"We are looking for a new model for the press that takes into account the latest and greatest technologies, perpetuates what's good about the press relative to the assets that we have in our library, and leveraging those as best possible," Wolfe said. "We look forward to a press that brings vibrancy and affordability to the publishing of scholarly work."

The university plans to honor its publishing agreements with authors who are under contract, Wolfe added. He declined to specify the timing of the shift. The press' official last day is Saturday, the end of the university's current fiscal year.

The move has generated significant criticism from faculty authors, scholars and literature lovers across the country — particularly as Missouri simultaneously announced a $200 million long-term plan to expand its 71,004-seat football stadium and boost its spending on athletics as part of a move to the Southeastern Conference.

The SEC is known for its on-field prowess, particularly in football, but Missouri will now carry the distinction of being one of just three schools in the 14-member conference without an academic press. And its two companions on that list — Auburn and Mississippi State — are in states where the larger flagship universities (Alabama and Mississippi) continue to operate publishing houses.

"This new university is ready to discard the great traditions that have emerged over centuries and resulted in an enduring body of knowledge and systematic support of the arts and sciences," said Dan Jaffe, a retired professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who was among the protesters.

The university system provides a $400,000 annual subsidy to the press, which in recent years has also had yearly deficits of $50,000 to $100,000. But press supporters note that the operation has been hindered by the absence of a permanent director for several years and had expected to nearly break even in the current fiscal year after a series of austerity measures were implemented several years ago.

The press was started in 1958 and is known for its works on presidential politics, regional history and 19th Century western expansion. Its 2,000 publications have included collections by Missouri native Langston Hughes and more than 20 volumes on the legacy of native son Mark Twain.

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