A week of strong public opposition to firings prompts new reporting shift to university president.
Featured photo courtesy of Wayne State University
Three of the top managers at Wayne State University Press were dismissed from their positions Feb. 7, leaving uncertainty at one of the nation’s most prominent publishers of Jewish studies books.
Editor-in-Chief Annie Martin; Editorial, Design and Production Manager Kristen Harpster; and Sales and Marketing Director Emily Nowak learned they lost their jobs at a meeting at the Adamany Undergraduate Library. There was no public explanation and WSU officials say they cannot discuss personnel matters.
After a week of strong public opposition to the firings from authors, scholars and some faculty, as well as questions from other supporters, WSU announced on Feb. 14 that it would shift administrative responsibility for the Press.
“We have no intention of dismantling or discontinuing the work of the WSU Press,” wrote WSU President M. Roy Wilson in the statement. “On the contrary, we intend to continue supporting its important mission, and hope to position and strengthen the WSU Press for the future.”
The Press will now report to Wilson, via his Chief of Staff Michael Wright, who is vice president of marketing and communications at WSU and has administrative responsibility for the university-owned public radio station WDET.
This is a change from the previous structure, where the press reported to Jon Cawthorne, Ph.D., dean of the Wayne State Library System and School of Information Science.
Wright says he plans to meet quickly with Press employees, its Board of Visitors and Editorial Board, and other constituents to better understand them and their concerns.
Tara Reeser will remain interim director of the Press, a position she has held since October 2019.
WSU Press, founded in 1941, has strong connections to the Jewish community thanks to its early donors. Jewish studies is one of its specialty publication subjects. Typically, the Press publishes 35-40 academic and general interest books and 11 journals annually.
Upcoming books include a memoir by Guy Stern, director of the International Institute of the Righteous at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills and former WSU provost. The book is scheduled to be released in May.
News of the staff dismissals had sparked concern, including from authors, editors and advisers associated with the Press who were worried about its future.
In an interview with the JN on Feb. 12, two days before the university’s decision to move the Press out of his department, Cawthorne had reaffirmed WSU’s commitment to the Press and confirmed plans to expedite the replacement of the dismissed staff members.
“The Press will continue, including its books in Jewish studies and by Jewish authors,” Cawthorne said.
Soon after University Press authors and others were notified of the dismissals, 60 individuals, including former University Press Executive Director Jane Ferreyra, wrote a letter of protest to Wilson, demanding the dismissals be reversed.
“We are writing to express our shock and anger at what is tantamount to the destruction of this venerable institution,” the letter states. “In a series of moves that has left both published and prospective authors in the dark about the fate of their books, and has undermined the viability of the press, the new administration has, without notice, discharged the press leadership without cause.”
Some members of the Press Editorial Board, a group of appointed faculty members providing editorial direction, also expressed their concerns to Wilson.
Elaine Driker of Detroit chairs the Board of Visitors of the University Press, who were notified of the dismissals on the day they were carried out. This 19-member board has no operational responsibility, but instead helps with advocacy and fundraising.
Driker said many board members contacted her immediately with questions and concerns. A special meeting of the Board of Visitors was held by phone on Feb. 9. Sixteen members participated, showing “real allegiance to the press. They want to right the ship and expressed their concerns,” Driker said.
The university’s responses satisfied a majority of those present on the call. Driker said she and the board “were assured and reassured that the future of the Press is secure, including the Judaica and other series.”
After the announcement of the shift in organizational reporting to Wilson, Driker said she was “fully supportive” and that it “bodes well for the future of the Press.”
The late Leonard N. Simons, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist, began helping the University Press raise funds during the 1950s. He tapped many friends within the Jewish community to support the Press overall, particularly the publication of Jewish subjects. The University Press Building was renamed for Simons in 1994.
According to Simons’ daughter, Mary Lou Zieve of Bloomfield Hills, he was an avid book lover who donated a major book collection to the university.
Zieve later chaired the first advisory group for the University Press, at the request of former University President David Adamany. She is a member emerita of the Board of Visitors of University Press.
“I’m not worried about the Press,” Zieve said. “It will go on.”
An earlier version of the story incorrectly printed Annie Martin’s name. An additional correction was made: The WSU Press staff dismissed were not escorted out of the building.