Wayne State fires three managers in university press shakeup

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — On Friday, three managers of the Wayne State University Press were terminated, The Detroit News has learned. That decision has raised questions as to future plans for the book publisher. 

The choice to let the three managers go, including the press's editor-in-chief, was "reached only after careful and deep consideration at every level," according to a statement the press sent to its faculty editorial board on Friday, which was obtained by The News. 

"We believe, moving forward, our future can be created through leadership and staff collectively committed and open to new ideas, deeper community connectivity," the statement continues.

In a secondary statement, the press names the three managers and says that their firings "in no way (indicate) a lack of support for the press."

While Matt Lockwood, a spokesman for the university, declined to comment on the personnel matter, he said Sunday that the press "will continue to operate and publish books as it has for the last 75 years."

Kathy Wildfong, who was interim director for the two years preceding her retirement in summer 2019, saw the matter differently. 

Wildfong is concerned that the press is removing people who worked closely with authors and others essential to the press' operations. Publishing is a relationship-based business, she said.

"They're the heart of the press," Wildfong said. "They're the people that authors interact with directly the most. They're the people who are identified with the press, and they're the most public-facing."

Interim director Tara Reeser did not respond to a request for comment. But in a letter to authors published by the press, which was obtained by The News, Reeser sought to allay concerns regarding the personnel moves.

"I am sad ... my introduction comes as an email to you under such difficult circumstances," Reeser wrote. "I am writing to offer assurance that the press will continue to remain fully open, with initiatives that will move us forward...these initiatives include serving you, as a very valued author, with all the attention, professionalism, and quality of work that should be expected of dedicated and skilled staff."

Reeser goes on to write that the press "will very soon hire for four critical positions," including editor-in-chief.

"We are neither closing nor slowing our commitment to the vital publishing work we do every day," Reeser continued. "We take every aspect of our duty seriously (and this includes respecting privacy protocols in personnel matters)."

Wildfong augurs bad things in the tea leaves. 

"I am very concerned that this is a first step in closing or changing in some really profound way what the press is and what it does," Wildfong said. "I'm terribly worried about my former colleagues, both those who are staying and those who've been let go." 

Late last year, the press, which publishes 35 to 40 new books a year, was made part of the Wayne State library system, after reporting previously to the provost. Detroit News features writer Michael Hodges has been published by the press in the past. 

More:Detroit News' fine arts writer Michael Hodges wins First Place at Midwest Book Awards

"As has occurred with other long-running and distinguished university presses, the host university, Wayne State, recently considered a new path of support for the press, believing the reporting change will help create a sustainable business model that leads to future successes," read a statement on Wayne State's website announcing the change. 

Jon Cawthorne, dean of the university's library system, said in that statement that "this administrative reporting structure will only enhance and invigorate the high-quality scholarly works that will come from the press for years to come."

Reeser said in the statement that "our sharing of expertise and interests will strengthen and support both entities."

One of the press' best-known efforts is the Made In Michigan Writers Series, Wildfong said. It was the brainchild of then-editor-in-chief Annie Martin, one of the three people fired.

The Made In Michigan series has received $1 million in grants from the Meijer Foundation. In 2012, after Made In Michigan received a $500,000 Meijer Foundation grant to be spread over five years, Martin told Michigan Radio, "It’s nice to know that we can take a risk and not be worried about the huge financial failure that might be. I mean the series itself was a risk. ... We didn’t know how it was going to come out,” Martin said.

Two others, Emily Nowak and Kristin Harpster, also were let go.

Rachel Harris, associate professor of comparative literature and Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, published three of her five books with the Wayne State University Press and had entered discussions on a possible fourth before learning of the firings via social media.

"I'm so horrified. I'm really, really shocked," Harris said. "What they've done is, essentially, destroyed the existence of the press itself. There's no sense of what will happen under the new regime.

As recently as December, Harris had visited the office, taking a picture there with her newborn. 

"For the new governance to take such a drastic step without immediately following it up with communication highlights the degree to which they have no idea what they've done," Harris said. "Or, they know and they don't care."

A press, Harris said, is only as good as its reputation. The reputation of Wayne State University Press is that it was a good steward of a writer's works, often willing to "go outside the box," the kind of works other publishers shy away from.

In April the press published her most recent work, an anthology called "Teaching the Arab-Israeli Conflict." 

The sudden firings, left unexplained, could turn the press into a publisher authors shy away from, Harris warned. Authors talk, she said.

"We tell each other who you want to work with, and why you want to work with them," Harris said. "There are all kinds of considerations that go into how we choose where we're going to publish. Wayne State had the best reputation in the field for just taking a risk, making sure that authors were happy with what was happening, and being included in the thinking about the process."

The News was unable to successfully reach any of the three former staffers. 

"This is such a human enterprise, publishing," Wildfong said. 

"What I don't understand is why there's no clear rationale and statement about 'this is what this is, we're going in a new direction but here's the direction,'" Wildfong said. "Not having a statement like that and never having seen one — that's, to me, incomprehensible. It's very much worrying." 


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