How Arkansas nearly lost a 'living press' 

The 10th anniversary of the near closure of the University of Arkansas Press passed with only casual notice this spring. And that, in itself, is a shame.

Those two weeks in 1998, following University of Arkansas Chancellor John A. White's poorly thought-out decision announced March 24, were a time that galvanized those of us in this state who love history, the printed word, poetry and books of all kinds.

White, for the record, was closing the press over a long-term bookkeeping debt of $2.5 million, he said.

The press' debt had accumulated over almost 18 years.

By way of full disclosure: As a full-time beat reporter for the Northwest Arkansas Times when it was a proud newspaper, not a wrap-around section of the state's largest newspaper's edition printed in Lowell (Benton County), I covered this story.

Two days into the scrape, I was not at ease with the decision to close the state's only academic press. It was while calling each and every UA board member for their thoughts that I got a sense of how bad the decision was. Most toed the party line of supporting the administration's need to bring spending in line, but one UA board member broke ranks. Asking to go off the record, he whispered into the phone, “Don't let this go unchallenged.”

In phone calls, letters, e-mails and whispered encouragement all over the campus, more and more reasons for the state's flagship university to keep the award-winning press alive came to light.

While the UA Press' 17 employees were admonished not to talk to the press, many bravely spoke out — their jobs, as they knew them, were already gone. In Little Rock, Bobby Roberts of the Central Arkansas Library System and Tom Dillard, then with the Butler Center, began to initiate legal action to keep the UA Press alive.

The behind-the-scenes pressure was building. Finally on April 1, White said he would “restructure” the press, in essence putting off the June 1 closure and trying to work out details of the remaining books, authors and projects in the UA Press pipeline. 

On April 9, in a hastily called press conference, White, with UA President Sugg in attendance, issued a terse reversal of his decision to close the press. White didn't seem to like the song he was selected to sing.

White spoke at a podium in the Heritage Room just off his freshly remodeled executive office. In back of the podium stood a bookshelf full of UA Press titles. This collection had been just feet away from White's office since his taking the chancellor's job the July before.

Twelve days later, after the decision to leave the UA Press alive, Tyson Foods donated $1.5 million, a nest egg to keep the press afloat.

Since Jan. 1, 1999, the UA Press has proudly published an additional 244 books. It has also taken on additional partners, such as the Ozarks Foundation Society and Phoenix International (a small Fayetteville press) and the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, to boast of another 35 titles.

Of the top five best sellers of the press to date, only two were on the list prior to the 1998 effort to shut down the press. They are (from first to fifth), “An Arkansas History for Young People,” “The Apple That Astonished Paris” by U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins, “Arkansas: A Narrative History,” “Long Shadow of Little Rock” by the late Daisy Bates and “The Blood of Abraham” by former President Jimmy Carter.

The decision to save the press recognized that a major academic press was about more than just printing books and making money. I dare say no other press in the nation would have devoted the resources to the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Central High School as did the UA Press. I dare say few other presses would have published many of the books so dear to those of us like Roy Reed's epic bio of Orval Faubus, the Nan Snow and Dorothy Stuck book on Roberta Fulbright, or even those slim volumes of poetry that continue to win national and international awards. Collins' novel, published by that little press in the Ozarks, has been a capstone to his career.

So let's not forget the time the UA Press almost suffered the same fate as the University Museum, the old 4-H Building (now a paved parking lot), the Carlson Terrace complex (designed by award-winning architect Edward Durell Stone), the Summer Fulbright School of Public Affairs for high school seniors and the prestigious Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences advisory board — all gone under the regime that is to end soon.

The UA Press lives on, stronger than ever.



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