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Oct. 11, 2012 Volume 34, No. 8

Willcox rehired at Missouri Press, spends first days contacting, reassuring press authors

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FAMILIAR SURROUNDINGS Clair Willcox, editor-in-chief and associate director of the University of Missouri Press, is back in his former office on LeMone Boulevard in east Columbia. Willcox said he’s excited about developing relationships with MU departments, colleges and schools for future projects. He will soon be hiring to fill vacated positions. Rob Hill photo


Press Advisory Committee will help guide the publishing house’s future

The editorial leader of the Missouri Press who was laid off in August had his first day back on the job Oct. 5, making calls to press authors to reassure them that all was well.

Clair Willcox returns as editor-in-chief with the additional title of associate director. He’ll manage the editorial department, serve as acquisitions editor, and plan and direct book publishing. The move brings Willcox back to MU, where he was hired 26 years ago before joining the University of Missouri Press in 1988 as an employee of the University of Missouri System.

His new duties include forming relationships with MU schools, colleges and departments to develop ways the press can be involved in campus research, science and humanities projects. “I am enthusiastic to have the tie to a research university,” Willcox said. “It’s a great opportunity.”

His return marks yet another development in the nearly five-month saga of Missouri Press. Layoffs, rehires, realignments, tweaked visions, closed-door meetings and committee formations have underscored the journey.

It began May 24 when UM System officials announced that the press would be gradually phased out and its 10 employees laid off. An outcry ensued among professors, scholars and authors across the nation. Media outlets covered the controversy, including The New York Times. To try to save the press, supporters created a Facebook page and online petition, which had 5,000 signatures by mid-July. 

On July 16, a new press model was unveiled. It would focus on digital forms of scholarly communication with Speer Morgan, editor of The Missouri Review, as its director. Meanwhile, MU Chancellor Emeritus Richard Wallace and Deborah Noble-Triplett, UM System assistant vice president, were tapped to lead the transition of the publishing house to MU management. But by late August, when MU took control, Morgan ceased involvement. A national search continued for an editor-in-chief.

Willcox’s last day with the system-run press was Aug. 6. In late September, he met with Wallace and Provost Brian Foster in Jesse Hall and was offered the new role, Willcox said. He accepted Oct. 4.

Willcox “will provide continuity and help maintain the foundation that the press has built throughout its strong history,” Foster said in an Oct. 5 statement. “This is an important step in getting the press fully up to speed in the new campus environment.”

When interviewed Oct. 5, Willcox said he gave media interviews about the press closing during the summer because of the rampant misinformation. “I have 23 years invested in the press, and I didn’t want to see it go down the drain,” he said. “I honestly tried not to be specific about [decisions]. I just tried to give the correct information.”

Press decisions led to committee formations and talks between faculty and key administrators. The 21-member Missouri Press Advisory Committee was formed, including faculty from all four campuses, Missouri Press authors and former managing editor Jane Lago. Some MU Faculty Council members met with MU Chancellor Brady J. Deaton and UM System President Tim Wolfe to discuss “shared governance,” Faculty Council Chair Harry Tyrer said.

Tyrer chalked up Willcox’s return to better communication between UM System and MU parties. “We are pleased to see that the press is getting righted,” he said. “This is truly a great moment for shared governance.”

Craig Roberts, MU plant sciences professor and member of Faculty Council and the Press Advisory Committee, said he wished the decision to hire Willcox had been put before the advisory committee, which hasn’t met yet (its members were announced as recently as Sept. 27). Even so, “It is probably wise for committee members to assume the best [intentions] of the decision-makers,” Roberts said.

Willcox’s return is hardly the final piece of the Missouri Press puzzle. A search is under way for a press director (Dwight Brown is interim director), and Faculty Council is forming a committee to examine the decisions that led to the press closure. “This is not a fault-finding committee,” Tyrer said. “It is a learning experience to understand where the process broke down. We think things happened that show what not to do.”

For Willcox, it’s time to roll up his sleeves and get back to work. He needs to fill job openings since some of his former staff found other positions either at MU or elsewhere. He’ll develop book lists and continue the press’s expansion into digital media platforms. 

But his priority for his first full week back has been contacting Missouri Press authors. “I want them to know that we are in business and the press is stable,” he said.