On Friday afternoon, Wayne State University Press fired three longtime senior employees who were part of its five-member management team: editor-in-chief Annie Martin; editorial/design/production manager Kristin Harpster; and marketing/sales manager Emily Nowak. The three, who collectively had approximately 54 years experience at WSUP, were called into a meeting, informed that they were dismissed effective immediately, and then escorted from the building on Wayne State University’s urban campus in Midtown Detroit by campus police.
In response to PW's query, WSUP interim director Tara Reeser would only confirm that the employees had been "separated" from the press and from the university, adding, "I can tell you that the Press is moving forward and we absolutely intend to continue to meet our commitments to authors, readers, supporters, and all others involved with the WSU Press."
In a statement she sent Friday afternoon to the press’ 17-member editorial board that was made available to PW, Reeser disclosed that “management changes were made” at WSUP “after careful and deep consideration at every level.” WSU “remains committed to [WSUP]’s mission and continued success.” The statement concluded that WSUP will be “committed and open to new ideas” and have “deeper community connectivity” that will “help build an even stronger, more innovative reputation among the nation’s university presses.”
Eleven employees remain at WSUP, including two members of the senior management team. Reeser, previously WSUP journals manager, replaced Kathryn Wildfong in October as interim director. Wildfong retired in July after working for the press for 33 years, the last two as interim director. Previously, the press’ director reported to WSU’s provost; about a month after Reeser was named director, WSUP was placed under the control of its library system. Reeser now reports to WSU Library System dean Jon Cawthorne.
The press launched in 1941 with a single title, A Workbook for Reading German. Since its solidly academic beginnings, WSUP has made significant inroads into the trade market: 35%–40% of its annual output of approximately 35-40 frontlist releases is trade titles. The press publishes books under the WSUP imprint, as well as primarily trade titles under the Painted Turtle and Great Lakes Books Series imprints. It also publishes the Made in Michigan serious of regional titles.
Bruce Joshua Miller of Miller Trade Book Marketing, who serves as WSUP’s sales rep in the Midwest, publicly announced the news of the firings on Twitter Friday afternoon and also sent an email to the press that was made available to PW in which he stated, “Despite any denials, the business of the press-the ongoing promotion of current and back list titles, and the publishing of new books--has essentially shut down. You cannot throw the editor-in-chief, the production manager and the marketing manager into the street and continue as if nothing happened.”
In a letter to authors obtained by the Detroit News, Reeser is quoted by the newspaper as stating in it that the press "will very soon hire for four critical positions" including editor-in-chief.
A half-dozen sources, some of them employed at WSU or formerly employed there, as well as several outside observers belonging to the academic publishing community, spoke to PW over the weekend. Most of them, requesting anonymity, blamed Cawthorne for the firings. More than one source said that Cawthorne had openly criticized the fired employees for the press’ inability to hire a new permanent director after all three finalists for the role declined to take the position.
Wildfong, the retired interim director, praised the three fired employees and described them as “the heart of the press” who did “amazing” work. Wildfong confirmed that Cawthorne had complained to her and to others that “the culture of the press had turned off the [recent job] candidates.”
“That narrative is wrong,” Wildfong said, “I fear for the future of the press. My worry is that it’s a first step to close the press or to change the press as we know it, and to bring it more under the control of the library.”
Adding fuel to the speculation by some to whom PW spoke that the firings are a prelude to the transformation of the press into a digital publishing operation, the WSU Library System manages a program called the Publishing House, the goal of which is to make academic scholarship available through open access publishing. It also is developing a platform to support online open access publishing called Vega. Cawthorne, who came to WSU in 2017 from West Virginia University where he served as dean of libraries, is a passionate advocate for digital publishing. At WVU, he promoted both digital publishing and open access scholarship by establishing the WVU Digital Publishing institute.
Cawthorne did not respond to PW's requests for an interview but Matthew Lockwood, WSU director of communications stated in an email to PW: "The university remains fully committed to the press and it will continue to operate and publish books as it has for more than 75 years. The press has contracts with authors through 2022, and there are no plans to reduce or slow down its publishing schedule."
UPDATE (2/11): Close to 60 WSUP authors and Jane Ferreyra, the last permanent director of the press (2002-2017) signed a letter that was sent to WSU’s administration yesterday, condemning the university provost and "library governance" for the firings of the three WSUP employees. Complaining that it “has left a gutted press staffed with people without editorial and publishing expertise, which undermines the ability of the press to operate and severely damages its reputation,” and it has violated the authors' trust, the letter demands that the decision be reversed and Martin, Harpster, and Nowak’s “immediate reinstatement.”
UPDATE (2/17): Wayne State University's Communications Office disputes that the three employees were informed of their dismissal in the WSUP offices and denies that campus police escorted the three from the premises . In response to PW's queries, Jennifer McManus, the attorney retained by the three fired employees, wrote: "The women were fired in the Dean’s office in the library. They were watched as they left and were not allowed back into the Press offices. Library security was in the Press office."