Melbourne publishing shake-up ‘a return to core business’

Accusations of interference as Melbourne University Publishing focuses on scholarly works

January 30, 2019
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The University of Melbourne says that a policy U-turn at its wholly-owned publishing house, which caused a high-profile chief executive and five independent directors to resign, is a return to core business.

The university said that Melbourne University Publishing would no longer produce the general interest non-fiction works that have made it a household name. Instead Australia’s oldest university publisher will “refocus on being a high-quality scholarly press in support of the university’s mission of excellence in teaching and research”, in a change prompted by an “extensive review”.

The revelation triggered the resignation of the publisher’s chief executive of 15 years, Louise Adler, along with chair Laurie Muller and directors Bob Carr, Danny Gorog, Tony Peake and Gillian Triggs.

Mr Carr, a former New South Wales premier and Australian foreign minister, denounced the change. “Like other board members, I was appalled by the decision of the university leadership to effectively wrap it up, consigning it to narrow scholarly publishing,” he told The Guardian.

“MUP will no longer be a lively publisher of books on Australia, but a narrow, cloistered printing house for purely academic work.”

MUP has published dozens of books by political leaders, public figures and prominent journalists on topics ranging from climate change and indigenous Australia to culture wars and political coups. Its author list includes former conservative prime minister Tony Abbott, current and former Labor opposition leaders Bill Shorten and Mark Latham, former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane and Professor Triggs, a former president of the Australian Human Rights Commission.

While their books have proven popular, it is understood that the university has been subsidising MUP to the tune of A$1.25 million (£690,000) a year and has reviewed the publisher three times over the past decade.

The Australian newspaper reported last July that the most recent review had begun after Melbourne chancellor Allan Myers took exception to MUP’s decision to publish a book containing allegations of child sex abuse by former Melbourne archbishop and Vatican heavyweight George Pell.

Mr Myers, a barrister, represented Cardinal Pell when he appeared before an Australian Royal Commission into institutional child sexual abuse in 2015. In 2017, Cardinal Pell was charged with multiple historical sexual assault offences.

The book’s author, Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Louise Milligan, tweeted that Ms Adler’s departure was “terrible news for Australian writers”. In another tweet she said staff and students should “ask serious questions about [the] value your university places upon editorial independence…ask yourself questions we’re taught at journalism school”.

In a statement, Ms Adler said that it was “time to hand the digital equivalent of the blue pencil over to the next generation”. But she said that MUP’s status as Australia’s “foremost publisher of serious nonfiction…could not have been achieved without the unwavering support of [former] vice-chancellor Glyn Davis and his commitment to the principle of editorial independence”.

Professor Davis left last September and was replaced by Duncan Maskell, a former senior pro vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge.

Melbourne’s pro vice-chancellor Su Baker said that her university would continue to provide MUP with “significant annual funding”. She committed to maintaining MUP’s Miegunyah Press imprint, which specialises in “landmark” books on Australian themes, and the literary magazine Meanjin.

Times Higher Education understands that MUP will honour current contracts to produce general interest books.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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