by Sheri Boggs

Their current catalog of titles includes, among other things, a full-color journey down the Columbia River, the only known mystery by celebrated Northwest poet Richard Hugo and a history textbook used by all fourth graders in the state of Idaho. There is also Common Courage: Bill Wassmuth, Human Rights and Small-Town Activism, a book that could single-handedly dismantle Idaho's image of being the last great stronghold of white supremacy. There is even at least one Pacific Northwest Booksellers' Association award winner in Linda Lawrence Hunt's Bold Spirit, the bestselling true story of a woman and her daughter who crossed the United States on foot in 1896.

As important as these books are to the history, culture and literature of the region, their publisher, the University of Idaho Press, will be no more as of July 1. In order to stem a hemorrhage of deficits projected to reach $385,600 by the end of June, the university announced its decision to close the press, in spite of the fact that director Ivar Nelson and staff had successfully met several conditions of its continuation.

"At the end of last summer, a financial committee was formed, and they told us that the press should continue if three things were done," says Nelson from his home in Moscow. "One of those three things was to lay off some staff, which we did in December -- two positions. They suggested that we negotiate an agreement with another publisher to share services in order to ensure financial stability and cut costs. We had negotiated a draft agreement -- not a final agreement or a contract -- but a draft agreement with the University of Washington Press, which was pending when this happened. And finally, they asked us to get the press in the black, which we had done for the last few months."

While the university's position is that the decision was first and foremost a financial one, the closing of the U of I Press raises some troubling questions. After being told by interim associate vice provost Linda Morris that the press would be closed down in four months and that his own contract would not be renewed, Nelson had two days to collect his things, tie up loose ends and turn in his keys.

"I had no idea it was coming to this. The status of the press has been discussed for a number of years, and I have to say that, personally, I thought that what we had done in the last six months would lead to the press continuing," says Nelson. "I had no idea that I was going to be put on administrative leave, and I had no idea that they were going to get rid of the staff in two weeks."

Particularly ironic is the fact that the press had one of its biggest successes this year with the publication of Bold Spirit. Its author, Linda Lawrence Hunt, will be given a PNBA award on March 19, and Auntie's Bookstore reports that more than 1,000 copies of the book have sold since last May (compare that to 671 copies of the national bestseller The DaVinci Code sold at Auntie's in the last 12 months).

Still, Kathy Barnard, associate director of the university's communications and marketing department, would only say that the decision to put Nelson on administrative leave was a "personnel decision" and as such, she had no comment. Barnard did go on to concede that, "Nationally there is a trend toward universities scaling back and looking at programs with a more business-oriented approach."

What many concerned individuals are asking is, at what point is a university's mission more about the bottom line than it is about history, culture, language and research?

"It doesn't even work as a business decision, because they're not saving any money," says Bob Green of Bookpeople, (incidentally, a business Ivar Nelson started up back in the 1970s). "The university is creating a women's swim team so that the football team can continue to compete in the same league it's in now. So of course they have to spend $100,000 to bring the pools up to standard for the swim team. And here they are gutting the press. Are we entering the national entertainment state where what matters is how much entertainment we can provide and no education?"

In addition to announcing the closure of the press, the university quietly sold its Clark Fork campus last September. The Clark Fork campus offered writing, nature, history, art and cooking classes in a beautiful, forested North Idaho setting. Critics claim it was sold to a private outfitter for much less than its market value rather than being put up for public sale.

"The minute the administration has a hiccup about the budget, the first thing they do is go after the poets and the painters" says local poet Dennis Held. "And they didn't even announce that they were going to sell the Clark Fork campus. All of a sudden, it was just gone."

Regional reaction to news of the press's closure traveled swiftly over more than 200 miles of literary grapevine. The Lewiston Morning Tribune published a story with a statement by poet and director of the university's Creative Writing Program, Robert Wrigley, indicating he was in support of the university's decision. Wrigley, however, says he was misquoted by interim associate vice provost Linda Morris and in fact sees the closure of the press as a sad statement about the larger cultural attitude towards academia.

"The idea that it is somehow so easy to raise money for sports programs while academic programs such as the press are allowed to die really says something about the culture we find ourselves in now," says Wrigley, who has since written a letter to the Tribune requesting an apology from Morris. "There is a feeling among those of us teaching in the humanities that we are marked men and women. There's not a lot of money to be made in history or poetry or anthropology, so that's where the cuts always get made."

Meanwhile, Sandpoint's Christine Holbert, founder and director of the Lost Horse Press, a small, independent publishing house, has single-handedly begun an e-mail campaign to save the press.

"I started this letter-writing campaign and contacted every writer I could think of. I'm not just targeting these interim people, but the incoming President Tim White," says Holbert. "You've got to reach the people who can actually do something about this, and that's your Idaho senators, legislators and the governor. The more letters that come in, the more they'll see that the citizenry is upset about the closure."

Although Holbert hasn't heard back from any representatives of the university, she did get some positive feedback from state Rep. George Eskridge, who sent a lobbyist to the University of Idaho to investigate the matter.

Bookpeople of Moscow is encouraging its customers to vote with their pocketbooks by offering University of Idaho Press titles at 40 percent off and then delivering the books to the president of their choice, either interim president Gary Michael or incoming president Timothy White, who will take office over the summer.

"Actually, several people have said they really want to keep the books so we can also send a receipt or an invoice instead of the actual book," says Green.

Keeping U of I Press titles is not a bad idea, given the fact that no other publisher is likely to come in and do the kinds of books they've done. In addition to their nature guides, Bold Spirit, Common Courage and the only state history of Idaho currently in print, the U of I Press planned to unveil two new books on Ernest Hemingway this spring, as well as a new anthology of Idaho writing. The university will only say that the contracts for those titles are under legal review, and the school's nationally respected Hemingway Review, a periodical academic journal of Hemingway studies, is also under review. Additionally, the U of I also published university titles for Montana and Wyoming, neither of which have their own university presses.

"The university admits that the press had been turned around and we've had some enormous successes. They admit that. But they also say 'we just can't afford it,' and I think that's a huge mistake. I think having a press is an essential part of a big research university's mission," says Nelson. "Yes, there aren't a lot of people out here, and yes, this region is sort of isolated, but is that a good enough reason to give up on the whole mission of the university to educate and provide information? This is only going to harm the heritage and cultural life of Idaho."

Publication date: 03/11/04

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