Nancy Hill’s jaw dropped.
Officials had just announced that the University of Missouri Press, which has produced more than 2,000 titles over five decades, would be phased out beginning in July.
The future of her almost-completed book, a biography of powerful but little-known 20th century activist Grenville Clark, was up in the air.
Still in a daze, Hill, an administrator at UMKC’s Diastole Scholars’ Center, sat at her desk, which had once belonged to Clark himself, and wrote a letter to University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe.
“I do urge you to strongly reconsider this decision,” she wrote. “Shutting the UM Press sends a bad signal about the quality, sophistication, and priorities of our University. Working, researching, publishing professors, students, and scholars like myself will be harmed.”
Then she posted it to Facebook.
Now the “Save the University of Missouri Press” Facebook page has more than 1,300 “likes” so far as supporters take the fight to their keyboards.
“I see this as an attack on everything that I care about,” said Bruce Miller, who created the Facebook page on Memorial Day. “It’s an attack on publishing, scholarly publishing, editors, authors and ultimately the citizens of Missouri.”
Miller, a publisher’s representative based in Chicago, sells titles from more than 25 university presses around the Midwest to bookstores.
Since its founding in 1958, the University of Missouri Press has published books on world history, philosophy and literary criticism, among other scholarly topics, but it may be best known for works about important regional figures: “Tom’s Town,” about Kansas City political boss Tom Pendergast, the entire collected works of Missouri native Langston Hughes, a biography of Cardinals baseball legend Stan Musial and several books about Mark Twain.
In 2009, the press published “They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust,” by former Kansas City Star columnist Bill Tammeus and area rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn.
In a statement, officials said the university has provided a $400,000 annual subsidy to the press, but even after several cost-saving measures (including laying off eight of 18 employees in 2009), the press still operates at a deficit. The university has not released an exact date for the closing.
“Unfortunately in this economic time, the current model of the press is not sustainable,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Hollingshead.
Several university presses throughout the U.S. have suffered budget troubles recently. For example, after trying an online only version, Rice University Press closed in 2010, and Louisiana State University Press narrowly managed to survive budget cuts in 2009.
Still, the University Press of Kansas, founded in 1946, continues to represent all six state universities in Kansas, focusing on history, political science and social and political philosophy. Truman State University Press, established in 1986, in Kirksville, Mo., narrowly focuses on American studies, early modern studies and poetry.
Because most university presses are nonprofit and subsidized by their schools, they can afford to publish material that many trade publishers would ignore, said Greg Michalson, publisher and editor of Unbridled Books and former managing editor of The Missouri Review, a quarterly literary magazine at the University of Missouri. This includes regional books that would have a limited audience in other areas.
“If those kinds of things aren’t published, ultimately what happens to the body of knowledge that we have?” Michalson said.
Ned Stuckey-French, an English professor at Florida State University, has been working with Miller in his campaign to save the press, writing letters to Wolfe and the media.
“I’ve been up to my gills in it,” said Stuckey-French, whose book “The American Essay in the American Century,” was published by the University of Missouri Press last year. “I have other things to do, but this has been a priority for me.” His father was a Mizzou alumnus.
“Dad was a lifelong Mizzou football fan, but I know he would question the priorities of a university system that shuts down its press to save (according to the University’s press release) a $400,000 annual subsidy, while paying its head football coach $2.7 million a year,” Stuckey-French wrote to the Columbia Missourian, referring to Tigers coach Gary Pinkel.
In a recent letter to those who have expressed concern about the press, Wolfe reaffirmed the university’s commitment to academics, saying the university is “exploring dramatically new models for scholarly communication.”
But Nancy Hill thinks the administrators don’t understand how important the press is to so many people.
“I think and hope maybe that it’s just an educational issue and that maybe through all of this hubbub maybe hopefully the value of the press will become more apparent,” she said last week. “For the community’s sake.”