In the latest instance of a university press being shuttered, the University of New Orleans Press has been placed on hiatus and its longtime director, Bill Lavender, laid off after his position was eliminated. While the move has been blamed on a state mandate to cut the university’s budget, a number of students and professors have launched online petitions denouncing Lavender’s removal and calling for him to be reinstated.
In an official statement released by the University of New Orleans public relations department, the university said that the press is “not being closed. It is currently on a brief hiatus, during which time it will be accepting no new manuscripts while the administration reviews the UNO Press’ business plan.” The statement says the press, “plays an important role as a publisher of scholarly and literary books, and we hope it will return to full operation soon.” The statement also emphasizes that, “All contracts that have been issued will be honored.”
In addition to directing the UNO Press, Lavender, who is also a poet and essayist, was director of the UNO’s Low Residency Creative Writing Program, which combines study abroad in Europe with online classes and workshops. The Huffington Post has cited the UNO creative writing program, calling it one of the “Top 25 Underrated Creative Writing MFA Programs.” Lavender has taught at the university for 15 years and has been director of the press since 2007. He is credited with taking over a moribund entity with two books in print and transforming it into a lively, distinguished and self-supporting publishing program with prize winning authors and a focus on literature in translation and contemporary poetry, available in digital and print editions. The press has a backlist of about 50 titles published since Lavender has been director.
Despite the university’s statement, online petitions have been launched by a group of professors and by students. The petition from the group of professors, which includes Marthe Reed, PhD, MFA, director of creative writing, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and Skip Fox, PhD, professor, English department, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, called on UNO president Peter Fos to “Keep Bill Lavender as Director of the UNO Press.” The petition cites Lavender’s work building a distinguished international literary reputation for the press, “UNO Press, under the guidance of director Bill Lavender, has an extraordinary range and keen sense for the scholarship and creative work which needs to be available.”
The student petition, organized by John Shinholser, a current student in the Low Residency Creative Writing program, cites Lavender’s impact on the program: “Bill Lavender is one of the primary reasons that the Low Residency MFA at UNO has become the thriving, financially profitable masters program it is today.” Shinholser also claims that the university plans to replace Lavender “with a member of the University's unrelated and fundamentally distinct residential creative writing program.”
By all accounts Sinholser appears to be referring to Fredrick Barton, director and University Research Professor, the Creative Writing Workshop, currently out of the country. However, contacted by e-mail, Barton blamed the situation on “massive budget cuts” called for by the state, noting that the university has been victimized by “several consecutive years of budget cuts by the Jindal Administration.”
In an e-mail Barton said the UNO president, provost, deans and “selected” faculty—not including himself--met to decide what cuts should be made and “there was little left in the UNO budget to cut other than the salaries of our employees.” Barton said “regrettably, Bill Lavender was one of the individuals whose salaries were cut. I can personally attest that Bill did an outstanding job at the UNO Press, taking over a publishing operation that was fundamentally moribund and producing several dozens of fine titles and fine-looking books.” He also emphasized that, “Bill’s performance with the press was not the reason for his dismissal,” and said he expects the UNO dean will ask a faculty member to take over the press.
Reached by phone, Lavender said he was notified that “my position had been eliminated” by e-mail late in July while he was in Scotland overseeing the residency program’s summer abroad program. Once he returned to New Orleans in August he found he was locked out of his office. He said he was asked but declined to “help transition the press to I don’t know what.” Despite 15 years at the university, Lavender is not tenured and he said he is not being offered any kind of severance package and will receive only a cash payment for any accumulated leave time and some retirement through a 401k. (A spokesperson for the UNO told PW that “state employees in Louisiana can’t be offered severance. Empoyees are entitled to be compensated for unused vacation time.”).
Lavender declined to address the reasons why he was being fired, “I’d better leave speculation to my fans and my students.” He said he was making plans for the future including several “private publishing ventures. I’ve always had a micro-press and I will expand it. I’ve got a couple of prospects I’m thinking about. I’d like to stay in New Orleans and I’ll cobble something together.”
But he was quick to note the pride he had in building the UNO Press into a publishing program with an international reputation, despite little funding to support it. He cited works like the forthcoming Black Tulips by Jose Maria Hinojosa, the first English translation of the Spanish poet, a contemporary of such renowed Spanish artists as Garcia Lorca, Dali and Bunuel, calling it and other works he was able to acquire, “a real coup.” He said, “We published a few cool little things that cost us nothing. I did more with less than anyone thought possible.”