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Another Press on Chopping Block

August 6, 2012

The University of New Orleans has eliminated the job of the director of its university press, and plans to put the publishing operation on a "hiatus."

A university spokesman declined to confirm the plan, except to say that the institution is facing a new round of deep budget cuts, and that officials would announce this week how to respond to the cuts. The spokesman also suggested that it would not be correct to say that any final decision had been made, and that the university would have no further comment. But the dean of arts and sciences -- in an e-mail to the director, obtained by Inside Higher Ed -- states that "we have put the press on hiatus."

The same e-mail told the director, Bill Lavender, that his job was gone. He said that the press has some help from graduate assistants (who report they can't get into the office) and no other staff for the press.

The news from New Orleans comes at a time when many academics are concerned about the future of university presses. The University of Missouri announced in May that its press would be eliminated (although officials have since said that the press may survive in an altered form focused more on teaching students). Recent years have seen presses closed or suspended at Southern Methodist University and the University of Scranton. And in March, the Utah State University Press announced that it would merge into the University Press of Colorado.

The universities that have eliminated university press publishing have generally cited the inability of the operations to support themselves in an era of tight budgets. While some advocates for scholarly publishing question that standard, defenders of the press at New Orleans are making a different argument.

They note that Lavender split his time between the university press and running the university's low-residency M.F.A. in creative writing. The program -- which has gained enrollment over the years -- involves students working online in the fall and spring semesters and then gathering at a location abroad (this year in Scotland) in the summer. The portion of Lavender's job spent on the M.F.A. program is also being eliminated. (Although Lavender has worked at the university in various capacities for 15 years, including teaching duties, his faculty roles have been as an adjunct, so he has no protection from layoff. The university said that it is planning changes for the M.F.A. program.)

Lavender said in an interview that the M.F.A. program brings in more in tuition revenue than the entire budget of the university press. So he said that if one were to combine the two parts of his job, he brings money into the university, and that it is unfair to portray the small operation of the press as a money-loser.

The press is relatively inexpensive (as publishing operations go) because of its size. It typically publishes about 12 books a year (up from two when Lavender took over the press in 2007).

The press is best known for its publication of literature in translation, poetry and Louisiana-related material. A petition to preserve the press started last week cited prize-winning books in areas (such as poetry) in which other presses have pulled back.

Skip Fox, whose poetry has been published (to strong reviews) by the press, said he was stunned by the news about the press going on hiatus. He called the press "one of the only artistic flowers to blossom in this state since Katrina," and said that Lavender had been the one to revitalize the operation.

Fox, a professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, added: "I am baffled by UNO's decision to abandon such an inexpensive means to become recognized nationally and internationally as an active and innovative institution. What the football team is to students, alumni, and fans, a university press is to scholars, readers, writers, and academics."
 

 

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