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.
One thing I didn't mention, and am reminded of on reading the comment from @N. Adams, is that the board has discussed fundraising in terms of naming rights. As universities name chairs and buildings for donors, someone could have a "named" series, as a sponsor of sorts. But that could be done without allowing the donor to have a say about editorial decisions, except in the most general way: funding books on US history, say. That's common with literary awards, for example.
You did the right thing, Karen, but I'm sorry it came to that.
This was the right thing to do. And writing this note was good too because their response to your question (to treat it as if you were resigning) was to disappear the issue and try to control the story. I always thought the job of a board was to competently manage exactly these sorts of contingencies, ensuring integrity and good policy and responsible oversight. That they rushed to act in this way to shut you out is like failing at the one job.
I am reminded of Hachette's response to Amazon a few years ago. Two entities, Vague and Amazon, with no knowledge or respect for publishing and its value to a civilized society, only what it can deliver for them. I could imagine no other response than yours and, as a Greek once observed, "he who hangs around with chimney sweeps will sooner or later get soot on his toga."
Good on you Karen. Best to leave the mess and keep your integrity.
I fully support your ethical stand to call out academic cronyism in the UP context. There is already too much such mixing in at various boards of trustees. To see it bleed over into the decision-making process of an UP is another nail in the coffin that will potentially put an end to quality academic publishing. That you were "resigned" by some default process makes it clear that Penn Press is far down the quid pro quo pathetic path. You clearly made the correct decision.
Your decision to resign, and to do so via a public letter, strikes me as correct, principled and brave.
I fully agree with the other commenters that your “auto-resignation” was a transparent attempt by the executive director to make your concerns disappear by, in effect, making you disappear.
I was also struck by how disrespectful this auto-resignation was to you personally. That your verbal musing about resigning would be taken as a formal resignation trivializes your contribution of time and expertise to the organization and rubbishes the fact that as a board member, you are (I presume) one of the people to whom she reports. To treat your exit from the board in such a casual and even cavalier manner says clearly that the executive director views the board as largely ceremonial, and that true power and authority reside elsewhere.
As a final comment, if you believe the board is hearing late or not at all about important events within the organization, it’s time to resign if only for your own legal protection.
Thank you for informing us about this whole mess. I strongly support your decisions and your explications of this shameful situation. You are right. Penn Press has crossed a line that never should be crossed by a university press, and I’m grateful that you confronted them. I only hope the remaining board members recognize the importance of your letter and decide to take actions that will uphold the principles you affirm.
You made the right decision - you took the right action - it is so important to focus and take action when necessary - not only in politics (which is a total disaster today) but also in maintaing the standards of publishing. Bravo! Robert E. Baensch
You appear to have had no choice but to resign. Events proved that. Could you have achieved a resolution from the inside? Based on your account, it seems the answer is “no.” The “no need to write a letter” email seems to answer that question.
Complicated––as a university press author (Chicago, Penn State, Penn, MIT, Yale) I am aware how fragile these institutions are today. I think I would want to read the book, investigate how much money Mr. Vague was contributing to the press, ask to see the review letters etc., and raise it in a board meeting. Your resignation is an act of conscience but I am not clear what effect it will have on the institution you rightly served to protect. Was a resolution from the board possible? University presses are odd beasts––the University of Chicago Press didn't publish fiction––until it did. A colleague brought a brilliant historical study to press X where he had been published repeatedly before only to be told the topic was too technical (i.e., it wouldn't sell); he went to press Y where it was published to acclaim. Certain presses are clearly "commercial" in orientation; other presses are "academic" but have dispensed with copy-editors (and it shows!) One of my own works (I was only a co-editor) was "funded" by a single donor with lots of self-serving scholarly support: a disinterested evaluation? I very much hope your resignation serves as a wake-up to the rest of the board; I am not optimistic.
An update on my resignation from Penn Press. First, I’d better clarify that I was just a board member there and this has nothing to do with my role at Berkshire Publishing! Berkshire is my own company and I can’t resign (though there have been a few times when I would have liked to). The catalog that set this off is available here https://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/pdf/PennPress_Spring_2021.pdf. The most important clarification is that I did not intend to blame director Mary Francis for everything that happened. She wasn’t at the press when the Richard Vague book deal was made, and her trying to get me not to put my resignation in writing was surely done at the behest of the provost, Wendell Pritchard, who is really the decision maker, holding the purse strings. It put her in a difficult position. I know that most editors care a great deal about editorial independence, and would hate to be instructed to publish a big donor’s books. But they also need a job and generally aren’t people who want to be in the middle of a conflict with those in power. Some people wrote to say that I’d been brave. That’s kind, but I don’t deserve that: I wasn’t losing income, or damaging my prospects, or losing friends. (Actually, I may have lost one good friend, and that’s the worst of this.) Although Provost Pritchard dismissed my concerns in a curt email, I understand that there are people connected with the Press who are giving this serious thought, and I'm hopeful that some good can come of my resignation.
Since the Penn Press editor in chief has caved in to a rich megadonor's whim to treat this reputable publisher like a vanity press to showcase his own scribblings, resigning from the board and publicizing your decision to do so strikes me as the optimal choice, Karen.