Skullduggery and Conniving at University of Missouri Press: The Saga Continues



The battle continues in Columbia over the fate of the University of Missouri Press, which lost its $400,000 in annual funding just before Memorial Day and then, miraculously, rose from the dead a few weeks later with a new director, a radical new model that proposed using student interns instead of experienced full-time staffers and (whaddaya know?) a $100,000 operating budget.

In the wake of the first announcement, university system president Tim Wolfe received a series of angry protest letters. In the wake of the second, he received requests from approximately 30 UM Press authors demanding copyrights to their books back so they can publish them elsewhere.

Now an open records request for correspondence between Speer Morgan, the press's new director, and Steve Graham, UM's vice president for academic affairs, by the Columbia Tribune has revealed that the two had been discussing the new press model, outlined by Morgan, as early as April, a month before the surprise announcement to shut down the existing press.

Morgan, who is also the editor of the Missouri Review, the university's literary magazine, sent his original proposal to Graham in April. It was based largely on a model established by Lookout Books, a year-old nonprofit literary press based out of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington; UM subsequently paid Lookout's editorial director, Ben George, a $1000 consulting fee, plus travel expenses.

Like the new UM Press, Lookout Press is closely linked to a university literary magazine. It does not use peer review, a longstanding custom among university and scholarly presses to ensure that the research and scholarship in each book are accurate and up-to-date. Under its old director, Clair Willcox, who, as of July, is now unemployed, UM Press had required two peer reviewers for each new title.

(And if you don't think that's important, check out the recent scandal involving Jonah Lehrer and his new popular science book, Imagine, which was published by Houghton Mifflin, a commercial press. Lehrer was caught fabricating quotes, which caused him to resign his job as a staff writer for the New Yorker and caused his very embarrassed publisher to recall all copies of the book. Lehrer's science, according to a New York Times reviewer, who happened to be a psychology professor, wasn't so great, either.) Though George and Outlook Press don't use peer review ("I don't think that the comments of peer reviewers are as valuable as the reaction to and reception of a book once it's published," George wrote), Morgan still plans to use peer review in the form of a committee of professors from all four UM campuses.

Nonetheless, in e-mail discussions, Morgan frequently cited nonprofit literary presses as models, including Graywolf, Coffeehouse and Milkweed. Those presses are widely respected for the experimental fiction that they publish, but not so much for scholarly work.

And why is this important? Ned Stuckey-French, a UM Press author and one of the co-creators of the Save the University of Missouri Press Facebook page, told the Kansas City Star that academics pay a lot of attention to the reputation of the presses that publish scholarly texts, particularly when it comes time to assigning them as required reading for their courses, which is how most authors of university press books get their royalties.

"That's what the university press is supposed to be all about," Stuckey-French said. "They don't want their books associated with a press that has a bad reputation. This press has a bad rep now."

(Stuckey-French also had access to the documents and wrote his own interpretation of events on the Facebook page in an essay called "The Coup.")

Morgan, pre-press stress. - IMAGE VIA

Even with the plans for the new press already in motion, Morgan told the Tribune that he was still surprised at Wolfe's May announcement. "I was surprised because I had thought the planning of the new press would be further along before they closed the old press," he wrote in an email.

Meanwhile, the press has been struggling with damage control for the past week, begging the 30 authors who have requested that the press revert the copyrights to their work to wait just a bit longer until the university has worked out a final plan. That didn't placate one author, Roger D. Launius, who also happens to be the editor of the press's Sports in American Culture series. On Monday Launius sent Wolfe a letter of resignation, writing:

[UM Press] has always been an effectively-run, professional organization with a major reputation and I was honored to be associated with it. Such is no longer the case. I had hoped that you would reconsider this decision, but it has become clear that your actions were based on ideology and that your vision for digital publication carried out by students is not a sound model for the press's future.

Morgan wrote in an e-mail in early June, after the announcement, that he was feeling "stressed"; Graham promised him a nice dinner with a good bottle of wine. Janese Silvey, the Tribune reporter who has pretty much owned this story from the beginning, doesn't have much sympathy for the press director:

Clair Willcox, for instance, says he's also been a little stressed since being laid off from his job at the UM Press as fallout over Graham and Morgan's plans. And then there are the nine other press employees waiting for their termination dates.

"If stress is the qualifier for dinner with good wine," Willcox said, "then Graham owes 10 people dinners and the best wine his salary can subsidize."

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