Without a Staff, Does a University Press Exist?

U of Akron denies killing off its press, even though the university eliminated the jobs of all employees. Many are dubious.

July 31, 2015

The University of Akron has insisted for the past two days that it is not eliminating its university press. But the university admits that it has eliminated the jobs of all three employees, including the director.

Reconciling these facts has a lot of people doubting the viability of the press at Akron, although many are campaigning to keep it.

Earlier this month, the university announced that more than 200 people would lose their jobs -- and that the baseball team would be eliminated -- as part of an effort to put the university on stronger financial footing. The baseball team was the only specific program that Akron said at the time would be eliminated.

But this week, the university started telling people that their jobs were being ended -- and people noticed when all of the employees of certain divisions received such notices. There was the multicultural center, for example. But the university said the center's programming would be handled elsewhere. Many at Akron and in the scholarly publishing world took note that the layoffs included all three employees (including the director) of the press -- and they all figured this meant that the press was history.

The local newspaper wrote of "another cultural hit" at the university. Hundreds signed petitions. A Twitter hashtag was created. The Association of American University Presses issued a statement condemning the action. "Sudden and unplanned press closures are not a solution to budget crises. Such a top-down approach produces breached contracts, alienated faculty and staff, and culturally impoverished communities," said the statement.

As criticism spread, the university issued statements on Wednesday and Thursday, but press supporters said the statements raised more questions than they answered.

On Wednesday, the university issued a statement from Lawrence Burns, vice president for development, which said reports that the press and the multicultural center would close were inaccurate. The statement said the university press was being transferred to the library. Further, the statement said that the budget cuts were developed "in close consultation with faculty leadership," including the American Association of University Professors union, which represents faculty members.

The statement offered no further details on the press -- and both those who had published and worked there said that they had been told nothing about any functions moving to the library.

Then on Thursday, the university issued a new statement saying that "the director [of the press] will work with the interim dean of libraries and the provost to assess press operations and recommend priorities going forward. It is anticipated that books under contract will be completed. Proposals under review or consideration for publication will be evaluated.” The director, however, said that he has been told nothing about that plan -- only that his job is ending.

Further, while some universities have moved press operations to their library divisions, the norm for this is to bring press directors and press employees into the library as a unit, not to eliminate the press staff and just assume library staff can handle everything. The Association of American University Presses requires, for example, that its member presses all have a director and at least three employees. And adding to doubts about whether the university press will continue in the library, several Akron faculty members said they believed layoffs in the library were too high as is, so that librarians were already losing necessary support to do the job they have been doing.

Thomas Bacher, director of the press, said in an interview that the university's statements were "spin," and that no discussions have taken place involving the press about moving its duties to the library.

The press is attracting support because it has a strong reputation, not as a major national press, but as a regional press with a focus on Ohio history and culture, and a well respected poetry series.

And many are disputing parts of what the university has said. Stephen Weeks, a professor of biology who was the AAUP representative in the budget discussions that produced the planned cuts, said that the three professors were never given a total amount needed for cuts, and that their suggestions about spending less on an expensive, money-losing football program were ignored. He said no one in the room during budget talks came to the defense of the university press, but that it was unclear it was more than one possible cut, when in fact it turned out that just about everything on the list was cut.

Weeks also said that he didn't think anyone present knew anything about university presses. "I'm a biologist. I don't know how many people you need to run a university press," Weeks said. He added that the press "would not have been on my chopping block."

Peter Berkery, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, said that he hoped that the various university statements indicated a commitment to keeping the press functioning. But he too said that a university press needs a staff. "It of course is impossible to have a university press without staff, just as it’s impossible to have a a chemistry department, or a football program, or a provost’s office without staff," he said.

Bacher said one of his frustrations is that eliminating the press employees' jobs won't save that much money. He estimated that the three employees had combined salaries and benefits of about $200,000 and that the press was self-supporting beyond that. With a few small endowments and book sales, the press was releasing 15-20 books a year. Bacher noted that he teaches every year -- and was scheduled to teach two courses in the honors college in the next academic year -- so the university will have to eliminate those sections or hire someone else to teach.

"In my seven years here, we've never had to go back to the university to ask for more money," he said.

There are currently 25 or so books that the press has signed contracts to publish, he said. But those books require book editors with time to spend on them.

Among the questions that the university declined to answer were how much money the university expected to save by eliminating the press employees' jobs, how the library could handle the responsibility in light of its own cuts, and how many library employees (and what share of the library staff) had been subjected to the layoffs. A spokesman first said that answers would be provided, but then said that would not be possible.

Bacher said he was very proud of the role of the press and sad to be leaving it. But he said he had different feelings about the university, in light of the way administrators are handling budget cuts. "I like to leave a ship that's sinking before it hits the bottom," he said.


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