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Frank Urbanowski, director of MIT Press for 27 years, dies at 79

Frank Urbanowski
Frank Urbanowski

The MIT Press mourns the loss of Frank Urbanowski, who served as director of the press for an unprecedented 27 years, building it into one of the largest and most successful scholarly publishers in the world. Urbanowski passed away after a long illness on Sept. 19 in Essex Junction, Vt. He was 79.

Urbanowski served as director of the press from June 1975 to January 2003, and is acknowledged as a pioneer in the strategy of the focused disciplinary specialization now widely adopted by university presses. Shortly after his arrival at the MIT Press, Urbanowski devised and implemented the publishing strategy that was fundamental to its success: focusing acquisitions and marketing efforts on a small number of selected disciplines. Under his guidance, the press grew from $3 million to $22 million in annual revenue, and from publishing an annual list of 135 books and four journals to 220 books and more than 30 journals.

Among the highlights of Urbanowski’s time at the MIT Press were the establishment of a desktop publishing operation in the late 1980s, the creation of the first university press website, and the publication of the first interactive electronic book — “City of Bits” by William Mitchell — in 1994. He also established the MIT Press Bookstore on Main Street in Kendall Square in 1981.

In the late 1990s, Urbanowski created the Digital Projects Lab, an innovative digital-publishing group that led to today’s successful CogNet (the online community for the cognitive sciences) and ArchNet (the online resource for Islamic architecture).

In addition, he ably steered the MIT Press through two significant economic downturns, managing strong recoveries each time. The press celebrated its 25th anniversary as a full-scale university press in 1986, with Urbanowski, then serving as director and editor-in-chief, citing “faith in our staff” as his core reason for confidence in its future.

According to Amy Brand, current director of the MIT Press, who served as the acquisitions editor reporting to Urbanowski during the 1990s, “I and the staff of the MIT Press are deeply saddened by the news of Frank’s passing. Not only was he a remarkable leader and mentor to many of us, but he was an extremely decent and warm human being. Frank’s legacy endures as a source of inspiration for me and others at the press and in the broader academic publishing community.”

Urbanowski was an engineering graduate of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and had many and diverse interests, from cabinet making to classical music. He was an opera fan, an avid rower and member of the Cambridge Boat Club, and traveled widely. At his retirement, he moved to Vermont, where he enjoyed the country life and his many advisory positions for the University of California Press, Transaction Publishers, SUNY Press, and the Massachusetts Continuing Legal Education Council. During his career, he also served on numerous boards, including: Cambridge Insight Meditation Center, Wisdom Press, University of California Press, and University Press North-East.

Before coming to MIT, Urbanowski’s publishing experience included editorial and management positions at the Educational Testing Service, The Free Press of Glencoe, and the College Division of Macmillan Publishers.

He is survived by his wife, Julia Blocksma; two daughters by a previous marriage, Alexandra Urbanowski and Tasha Urbanowski, as well as their husbands; two granddaughters; two stepchildren, Dewey Dunnington and Anneke Dunnington; and many cousins.

Update: A memorial service will take place at the MIT Chapel on March 31, 2016.

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