Saving the University of Akron Press

Kevin Nance

In the world of academic publishing, history keeps repeating itself. University executives, looking for budget items to cut due to dwindling government support, take aim at what appears to be a relatively safe target—their university presses—only to reverse course after a raucous backlash from the press’s supporters, who turn out to be surprisingly numerous. It happened at the University of Arkansas more than a decade ago, and at the University of Missouri in 2012.

The pattern was duplicated this summer at the University of Akron, where the administration laid off the three-member staff of the school’s press in late July as part of a round of cost cutting, and transferred oversight of its operations to the University Libraries department. But after a torrent of feedback from outraged faculty, authors worried that their contracts might not be honored, and thousands of community members joining protests and signing petitions to save the press and its respected poetry series, the university relented, restoring the staff positions and issuing a statement from president Scott Scarborough.

“The University of Akron Press has been and will continue to be a vital part of the academic core of this institution,” Scarborough said in the August 17 statement. “As we complete its transition to University Libraries, we will take all steps necessary to make sure it maintains its well-earned reputation as a vibrant, active, academic press, and to maintain its full membership in the Association of American University Presses. It will honor all existing publishing commitments, continue to seek out new, high-quality works to add to its catalogue, and proudly continue to support its nationally recognized poetry series.”

It was a source of immense relief for the press’s supporters, whose vociferousness—and the unwelcome media attention it brought the university, locally and nationally—appears to have played a crucial role in the turnaround.

Philip Metres, whose poetry collection, Pictures at an Exhibition: A Petersburg Album, won the 2014 Akron Poetry Prize and is scheduled for publication by the press in February, was elated by the news. “I’ve been involved in a number of causes, most of them lost causes, but I never give up hope that people can change things,” says Metres, who, among other things, wrote a letter to the editor of the Akron Beacon Journal calling for the university to reverse its decision. “It turns out that writers doing what they do best—writing clearly, convincingly, and provocatively—made a real difference in the future of the University of Akron Press.”

Kevin Kern, an associate professor of history and the recently elected chairman of the press’s editorial board, agrees. “I think the administration really was not aware of just how deep the support of the press was in the community or, really, the important role it plays at the university and in the community,” he says. In addition to publishing scholarly books, the press puts out two poetry collections each year as part of the Akron Poetry Series, edited by English professor Mary Biddinger, as well as a number of books focused on topics of local interest, including Wheels of Fortune: The Story of Rubber in Akron by Steve Love and David Giffels, with a foreword by former U.S. poet laureate Rita Dove. “I don’t think the president realized the extent of what the press does,” says Kern.

University spokesman Wayne Hill disputes that interpretation of events. “The layoffs were part of the overall effort to develop a sustainable budget now and going forward,” he says. “There was a range of cuts identified that needed to be made, but then there was an understanding that there might have been deeper cuts than were warranted in some areas. That became evident in relation to the University of Akron Press. There was always an awareness of the value of the press, the importance of the press. The staffing levels just needed to be readjusted after the cuts.”

Jon Miller, an English professor who was appointed “transitional” director of the press on August 11 (replacing Tom Bacher, whose contract will end in January 2016), said he was personally not surprised by the public reaction to the layoffs. “Certainly people who feel passionately about things will make those feelings known,” he says. “But I don’t know that it’s fair to think that everyone understood exactly how the bad news of the cuts would play out in the media.”

In any case, Kern gives the administration high marks for flexibility. “It looked like [what happened at the University of] Missouri at the beginning, but I think the administration here responded a lot more quickly,” he says. “In Missouri, it dragged on for five months, but here it was only three weeks from the firings to the restoration of the staff. Since then, the president has certainly struck the right tone. I want to believe him, but I also want to hold him to his word.”

Kern notes that Miller’s contract at the press continues only until January, and that the salaries of the other two members of the staff—editorial and design coordinator Amy Freels and print and digital production coordinator Carol Slatter—are guaranteed only for one year. “We do have a lot of confidence in Jon Miller, who I think is very keen on working with the editorial board and the administration in the budgeting process to make sure the press will have the same kind of support it’s had in the past. But we won’t know for sure what our situation is until this time next year.”

Miller is optimistic about the press’s future but offers no assurances. “Things are uncertain, but maybe they have always been, and will always be,” he says. “With the financial environment in academia as it is, I don’t think anyone should take university presses for granted.”

Kern agrees. “We feel we’ve dodged a bullet,” he says. “It was a learning experience for us, because I think we’ve become aware that we need to do a better job of communicating to the university community and the broader community what an important thing the press is. We can’t just sit back and say, ‘Whew! That was close!’”

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinNance1.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Tom Bacher chose to retire from his position as director of the press. Bacher did not choose to retire; instead, his contract will expire at the end of January 2016 and will not be renewed.