Beancounter heading University of Missouri to shut down university press

A tide of anger has been swelling here since May after the new University of Missouri president, Timothy M. Wolfe, disclosed plans to close the university’s publishing house, stoking arguments over the institution’s priorities and fueling an escalating national debate over the necessity of university presses and their future in the digital world…

Such disagreements are playing out on campuses around the country, as tightening budgets have complicated efforts by university presses to keep up with the changing publishing marketplace.

Half a dozen universities have closed or suspended their presses over the past three years. Utah State’s press had to join a consortium of university presses in Colorado to survive. Another press, at Louisiana State, was spared after cutting the staff and making other organizational changes…

Scholars argue that university presses are vital for academic discourse. They publish erudite texts that commercial presses do not, giving scholars a forum to share and further research. Professors often rely on them to publish the works they need for tenure and promotion. But they are usually money-losing operations. The presses at the University of Chicago, Oxford and Cambridge are the only ones widely believed to be profitable.

In their early decades the bottom line did not matter. Cornell started the first university press in the United States in 1869, and the presses were set up to publish the research results of faculty. As time passed, however, presses were increasingly asked to generate revenue for their institutions. Now their future at many campuses revolves around two questions: Are presses part of a university’s core mission, akin to an academic department? Or are they business investments, expendable if they fail to draw profit?…

Before becoming president in February, Mr. Wolfe spent his entire professional career in business. When he announced in May that he would eliminate the press’s subsidy, detractors said he did not appreciate its value. Mr. Wolfe defended the decision-making process, saying he relied on the university’s chancellors and vice presidents who have lifelong backgrounds in academia.

But Mr. Wolfe acknowledged that he had never spoken to or consulted employees of the current press, and none of them were involved in the creation of the new model. Many critics said the new plan was vague and full of corporate jargon.

Putting beancounters in charge of an enterprise that serves a university as a marketing arm as much as a profit center for the institution is about as useless as picking a creationist minister to head the science department. Something that might also happen in Missouri.

Cutting academic functions on the basis of profit is as historically corrupt as placing many of the expenses of headline sports into the budgets of other departments to make those sports appear profitable. Universities, after all, are presumed to give primacy to education not the almighty dollar.

That should be the direction of fundraising.

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