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SMU Suspends Its University Press

May 7, 2010

Southern Methodist University is suspending the operations of its university press -- a move that has angered faculty members and other supporters of the institution's publishing arm.

The current economic downturn has forced many presses to economize by trimming staff and titles, and those at Louisiana State University and Utah State University were at risk of being closed last year, but both survived. Part of the reason for anger at SMU is that advocates for the press said they never had a chance to propose alternative cuts or to defend the necessity of a university press.

Press supporters say that publishing should be viewed as central to the university, particularly at an institution not facing a crisis. "We're not in dire straits," said Edward F. Countryman, professor of history and a member of the advisory board of the press. "This is selling the family silver to pay the credit card bill."

SMU officials were not available for an interview to discuss the decision. But Paul Ludden, the provost, issued a short statement: "It is with regret that we make the decision to suspend operations of the SMU Press, which has enjoyed a distinguished history of publishing. But in these challenging budgetary times, difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions must be made. SMU has weathered the financial crisis well, but some cuts were necessary. By suspending operations rather than closing the press with finality, we retain the option to resume the press in a renewed form in the future."

The SMU Press is best known as a publisher of literary fiction, but also publishes works in such areas as Southwestern studies and the medical humanities. The press is relatively small, with a three-person staff, and publishing 8-12 books annually in recent years. In the field of literary fiction, however, supporters say that the press has had considerable influence for work that struggles to get the attention of for-profit publishers. Of the 82 original fiction titles the press has published, 31 were deemed significant enough to win coverage in The New York Times Book Review, and many of those titles were by emerging writers.

David McGlynn's short story collection The End of the Straight and Narrow was published by SMU in 2008. McGlynn, an assistant professor of English at Lawrence University, said that many publishers won't even consider story collections these days unless an author is already famous. He said that the genre depends on university presses like SMU's to survive.

"I think this decision is awful, just really awful," McGlynn said. "They've been one of the best and most stable houses for publishing quality fiction."

He added that the press was also "one of the major ways SMU has kept a national profile" in the literary world.

Many authors -- including Richard Russo, Ann Beattie, Madison Smartt Bell and Abraham Verghese -- are also speaking out against the suspension of operations.

One reason faculty members are angry over the move is that SMU has justified such moves as going after the George W. Bush Presidential Library (which comes with an institute many academics believe will be too closely controlled by Bush supporters to have academic legitimacy) in the name of raising the university's stature.

Cutting the university press "shows the reality of what the university wants" as opposed to "the rhetoric" about academics, Countryman said.

The Faculty Senate held a special meeting on Tuesday to discuss the university's decision -- and has urged administrators to reconsider.

A statement for the senators from the faculty advisory committee for the press criticized the decision to suspend its operations, and the fact that it was made without consulting faculty members. "We were told that there is no money available for the press. True, the press does not make money. But is it the mission of SMU to make money? We believe it is SMU’s mission to promote teaching and research, two activities which the SMU Press, directly and indirectly, supports with great success," says the statement.

"In fact, one could argue that the annual subsidy which allows the SMU Press to exist not only brings into being 8-12 new books each year but also spreads the good name of Southern Methodist University across the country and the world. From this standpoint, the press is a public relations bargain. For the same amount of money, we doubt one could buy such advertising and exposure in the New York Times and other influential newspapers and journals."

Even if the press can't be sustained, the advisory committee statement says, such a conclusion would be responsible only after "open and honest debate and reflection," not after a decision by administrators. Further, the statement questions the decision by the university to give only 30 days' notice to the three employees of the press who will be losing their positions -- after 24, 18 and 9 years of service.

The annual budget for the press is about $400,000 -- which faculty members argue should be manageable in the context of a large university that says it wants to be better known for its research and artistic contributions.

Keith Gregory, the director of the press, said that he and his two colleagues were called to the provost's office last Thursday, told of the decision, and told they had a month to shut down operations. "It was a complete surprise," he said. "It came out of nowhere."

Via e-mail, Provost Ludden said that there had been faculty consultation, but that it had been "closely held because of the impact on current staff."

Further, he said that the decision did not reflect poorly on the university's commitment to intellectual life. "SMU continues to be a venue for important symposia and conferences," he said. "SMU continues to publish Southwest Review, which is an important contributor to the intellectual wealth that emanates from the campus."

 

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