Melbourne University Publishing in turmoil

1 February 2019
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Independent members of the Melbourne University Publishing (MUP) board and Chief Executive Officer Louise Adler have resigned over the new proposed direction of the publishing house.

In a statement, the University of Melbourne said that MUP will “refocus on being a high quality scholarly press in support of the University’s mission of excellence in teaching and research.” The decision was made in December 2018.

The refocus comes after a review of the publishing house, ordered after the publication of the 2017 Walkley award-winning Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of George Pell by ABC journalist Louise Milligan.

A University spokesperson told Farrago, “There is no connection between the decision to refocus Melbourne University Publishing on being a high quality scholarly press and the Pell book.”

The University of Melbourne’s chancellor, Allan Myers QC, was Cardinal George Pell’s barrister during the royal commission into institutional child sex abuse. Farrago is not suggesting Myers’ representation of Cardinal Pell influenced the University’s decision.  

The five independent directors that have resigned in support of Adler include former NSW premier Bob Carr, former chairman Laurie Muller, PwC executive Tony Peake, businessman Danny Gorog, and former human rights commissioner Gillian Triggs.  

Triggs, in an interview with ABC RN Drive, however, said that the latest review was a positive one, but that it revealed the original objectives set out for the publishing house had been met.

“I feel that as they’ve adopted a much more narrow scope for MUP. I think it’s only fair that the University should have the opportunity to appoint new directors that would give effect to that more narrow interpretation of that kind of work they want to publish,” Triggs said.

“My understanding is that the vice-chancellor is keen to look at the models of Cambridge University Press and the Yale Publishing Companies as models that he prefers, and he thinks that focus on scholarship and of academia and the works of the academic community is a desirable way to go,” Triggs also said.

According to The Australian, a memo sent by vice-chancellor Duncan Maskell to MUP board members ordered a “reset” of the publishing house’s missions.

Others believe that the shift is being made over financial concerns. The publisher has received $1.25 million a year in subsidies from the University for 15 years. Only recently under Adler was the company able to break even, making a profit of $286,000 last financial year. The financial state of the publishing house has prompted three separate reviews over the recent years.

According to the University, it will continue to provide financial support.

In an increasingly competitive industry, some have speculated that moving to focus on academic works may not be financially viable for the commercial publishing company.

Adler, a prominent Australian publisher, had been with MUP since 2003. Under Adler, commercial titles such as Rachel Perkins’ First Australians, Mark Latham’s diaries, Tony Abbott’s Battlelines and Bill Shorten’s For the Common Good have been published to widespread impact and notoriety. .

“The MUP Board has consistently upheld the mandate to publish fine writing from the academy and beyond that contributes to public discourse and documents the national story,” Adler said, thanking writers and the board for their work in a statement.

“MUP has been receiving a significant university subsidy for a long time. These changes have been a long time coming featuring extensive consultation within the university community,” Tyson Holloway-Clarke, student elected representative on University Council and former University of Melbourne Student Union president, said.

“I trust that with this refocus we will see a better use of university money,” Holloway-Clarke said, adding, “I think this change in direction will facilitate more opportunities for academics and some more clarity about what it takes to get published.”

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