Why I resigned from Penn Press (or was I fired?)

On Wednesday, I wrote a letter of resignation to the board of Penn Press, but the decision to remove me may have been made already.

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I had planned to write today about preparing for climate change, with news about a regular “ask me anything” chat and Zoom office hours, but my resignation from the board of Penn Press is something you may want to hear about first. It’s not a happy story.

I’m pragmatic: we all need to pay the bills. But for me publishing is something of a sacred trust, and editorial independence is vital in book publishing as it is in journalism.

Here’s my letter of resignation. I would love to know what you think, whether you agree or disagree with my decision.

Wednesday 2 June 2021

Dear Colleagues,

Please accept this letter as my resignation as trustee of Penn Press. I hope it will be helpful to know why and how I came to the decision that I can no longer serve with you.

While I had noticed an economic treatise by Richard Vague [chair of the board of trustees] in the Penn Press publications list a while back, I didn’t think much about it. Only when I received the latest catalog did I take real notice, upon seeing that in this period of national and global turmoil, with myriad new challenges before us, the Press’s lead title is a history of US business, to which the first three pages of the catalog are devoted, by the chair of the Press’s board.

I understand that Richard is a prominent financier and philanthropist in Philadelphia, someone who aspires to high office and floated the idea of a US presidential run early in 2020. Richard has always been pleasant and welcoming to me, and he seemed an appropriate board chair as a businessperson and major donor to the university. That he should also be the Press’s lead author, however, troubled me.

I looked at other university press catalogs. They featured books on current affairs and current debates, by leading scholars. How could a US business history by a previously unpublished author who is not a scholar be a wise publishing decision for a press that has a new director, new staff, and a new focus on diversity, innovation, and global thinking?

And was it right for a trustee and donor to publish with the press? Shouldn’t there be a wall around editorial decision-making? The implications were deeply worrying. It isn’t easy today to get a trade book contract; even prominent businesspeople are self-publishing their books. I imagined wealthy donors who wanted to be published authors - something useful in various ways to some, and a vanity boost to others – who could see opportunity in a relationship with a university press. How about other kinds of influence on editorial decisions? I imagined wealthy donors who wanted to promote or repress certain political viewpoints. Or imagine if a grant-giving organization, like the Mellon Foundation, said it would award $1M to the Press, and would it please publish a book by their CEO? Imagine if the provost said they would approve a budget increase, and would the Press please publish a book by my nephew? 

I talked about the situation with colleagues. One simply called it “tacky.” Another argued that university presses are so strapped for cash that they do what they have to do. Most of my academic friends were stunned. Some simply couldn’t believe it. 

No matter how this came about (and I realize it was before [executive director] Mary Francis’s time), I couldn’t see it as anything but detrimental to the Press. But what to do?

My initial thought was that transparency might be enough. If there was no quid pro quo, how did the decision to publish Richard’s books come about, and when? What was the agreement, and what were the terms? Was a standard review undertaken? How was it decided to make his book the season’s lead title?

But that would not set things right. After further consideration, and conversations with colleagues more knowledgeable than I about the whole UP ecosystem, I have come to think that to have a board member, stakeholder, or lead donor publishing with the Press gives the appearance of a vanity press, suggesting that the Press's precious bandwidth and catalog placement can be had for the right price.

I believe our role as board members should be to advise and champion an august university press, and that we need to avoid even the appearance of interference in editorial decisions. In any case, board members in any industry should not approach the firm they advise as if they were a potential client. I see no reason the ethical bar should be lower in a public institutional or university setting as it dilutes the brand and corrodes the editorial authority and independence of the Press. 

We have routinely signed conflict-of-interest statements each year for the university and I hope the provost and the board will take similar action to safeguard the editorial independence of the Press and to avoid even the appearance of any editorial interference. 

Given the fact, however, that the board was not informed even about something as serious as the recent sexual harassment issues until it came out in a consultant’s report, and that we have only received limited financial information, I wonder what influence the board really has. 

Why am I resigning, rather than stay to argue my position? There’s a history here, too.

When I initially posed a question about the publication of Richard’s books to Mary Francis, she told me that the arrangements to publish had been made before she joined the Press, at the time when Richard became chair. She offered no further details. I said I was thinking of resigning from the board, and that it would be fine for her to discuss my concerns with others. To my surprise (I found out some weeks later), she apparently told Richard and the provost’s office that I had resigned. She had written me a note after speaking to them, saying that there was no need for me to write a letter of resignation – that is, to put my concerns in writing.  But I had not made a final decision, I had not resigned, and I had not given her permission to resign for me.

I take this as a dismissal from the board based on my questioning about the publishing of Richard’s books and I have no choice now but to resign. I do hope that the current board and the university will take a serious look at the choices made here and consider setting and publicizing a set of editorial and board ethics standards that would provide clarity for all concerned.

My connection with Penn Press began in 2014 and came about as a result of a much longer connection with Sophia Mumford and the Lewis Mumford estate. Mumford had a long-standing relationship with Penn, and [former Penn president] Judith Rodin hosted a celebration of his centenary. I am certain that he and Sophia would agree with my decision today, and be as saddened by it as I am.

I wish you and the Press well, and am grateful for having had the honor of serving with you.

Yours most sincerely, Karen.

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The Zoom office hours and “ask me anything” chats will be for paid subscribers, but if you are a Berkshire Publishing author, I’ll be happy to provide you with free access. I’ll be setting up a special discount subscription, too, that’ll be available for a couple of days before the first couple of meetings. The first Zoom “office hour” will be on 15 June, from 10.45-11.30am Eastern, with a focus on getting publishing. I’m hoping to help some of you to find a new direction or some useful resources, or just reassurance that you’re not alone.

I’ll do this just as my college advisor, Marvin Mudrick, did: I’ll be at my desk writing or editing until someone turns up to talk. (I once walked in on a conversation in which my fellow student was telling Professor Mudrick about his mother’s being murdered over the Christmas break. I sat there stunned and silent.)

Getting published seems to be a hot question right now, so that’s where I thought we could start. But if you want to know how to start a blog or a campaign (like TrainCampaign.org) or a third place, or how to encourage pollinators or get started with Chinese cooking, I’ll be glad to tackle those questions, and any others you come up with. And I’m going to vary the times so those in different parts of the world will have a chance to join.

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