ILR Press

A Farewell to Frances Benson

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Our very dear Frances Benson, Editorial Director of ILR Press, is retiring. Here is a brief synopsis of her career and some messages from authors who have worked with Fran, and who’d like to wish her farewell.


“Frances Benson moved to Ithaca in 1969 so that her husband could finish school at Cornell. She was just passing through, but her first job as an editorial assistant launched her on a career at Cornell that spanned 50 years. She joined the ILR School as managing editor of the publications division in 1974. Four years later she was named director. By 1980, under her direction, the nature of the division had shifted considerably, from pamphlets to books, and the name, too, changed at that time to ILR Press.  The growth over the next two decades was phenomenal, the introduction of computer programs transformed the way business was done, and the press gradually earned an international reputation. In 1995, John Ackerman, then director of Cornell University Press, and Fran, engineered a merger of the two presses. Fran became editor-in-chief of Cornell University Press, where she also continued to oversee the ILR Press imprint and began acquiring books in sociology and anthropology. Over the years, she became known for thinking broadly about workplace issues, making connections with scholars in fields beyond industrial relations, and extending the boundaries of the field. She has been given awards that credit her for helping to shape the field of labor relations and for her farsighted intellectual leadership in bringing the field of working-class studies into being.

In 2002 Fran left Ithaca to live on the Jersey Shore, her old stomping grounds and arranged to telecommute from there. It was an arrangement intended to last about three years. In the 18 years since then, she has sponsored 320 more books. Now, she is taking her leave.

Of her years at Cornell, she says ‘I have been blessed with profoundly interesting work and astonishingly supportive colleagues, throughout my career, which has never felt stagnant. The authors I have worked with and the books I have published have shaped who I have become and will enjoy spending time with her in my so-called retirement.’

For more than fifteen years, I have had the great pleasure and honor of working with Fran Benson on our Cornell University Press Culture and Politics of Healthcare Work Series. We cooked up the idea together and have since published some of the most intriguing, and perceptive books about healthcare that have appeared in the last several decades. Fran’s skillful navigation helped to bring these titles to the attention of those who have a significant influence on how healthcare is delivered both nationally and internationally. 

What makes Fran so special is not that she works as an individual but that she has the intelligence to know how to create, work on, and lead a team.  She knows when to be a leader and when to be a member. She knows when to step forward and when to move back when to solicit input and give her own. Knowing that sunlight helps us all grow and is not a finite commodity, she shines and is not threatened when others shine as well. Publishing is the ultimate act of teamwork and Fran Benson is the ultimate team player— in the best and most accurate sense of those two words.” —Suzanne Gordon


“For decades, while serving as the country’s premier labor editor, Fran Benson has also functioned as an intellectual colleague and collaborator for scores of labor academics. She is so sharp, so knowledgeable, has such a keen grasp of the field, and is so bold about encouraging and promoting scholarship that she believes will strengthen and expand the field—talking with her was like talking with the best-read and most critically informed scholar in the field.  Neither of my books would have happened without her support, and she will be sorely missed as an editor, colleague, and friend. “—Gordon Lafer


“I am so happy for Fran as she moves into a well-deserved retirement from her years of leading the ILR Press, and making it the premier imprint on labor relations. Fran will now hopefully spend her leisure time reading for pleasure, among her other Act Two passions that she chooses.

I will always treasure Fran’s counsel and advise as I wrote and edited Dying to Work: Death and Injury in the American Workplace. Even while writing this tribute, I can hear Fran’s generous voice, which gave me the needed encouragement to edit and edit and edit and edit. Mostly I enjoyed talking with Fran over the phone or over a meal in New York about our shared experiences, the state of our politics, life in the Florida Keys, and new ideas for another book. 

In the challenging times, we find ourselves, where truth, justice, and equality are under attack, we must honor Fran’s commitment to stories that needed to be told and new ideas that needed to be heard. So, as we cheer Fran on into retirement, we must promise to keep her legacy at the ILR Press strong and keep writing the books that Fran was passionate to publish.”—Jonathan Karmel


“To celebrate Cornell University Press’s 150th anniversary in 2019, I wrote that of the many reasons I published three books with the press, here were the first three: Fran Benson, Fran Benson, Fran Benson. Thank goodness we found one another! 

Fran’s mentorship has been a beacon for me as an author throughout my entire career. I will always be grateful that Fran could see in me and my writing what I sometimes could not see in myself. She picked out an obscure manuscript about migration from the South Pacific and saw in it the ethnographic mainstay it could become, almost 25 years in print.

She has been such a creative partner in my academic life! I enlisted her as a sounding board for potential projects, like the slightly crazy idea I was considering going back to live in the dorms as a freshman. Our collaborative friendship remained a big part of producing My Freshman Year (Cornell 2005) as it was a lifeline in wading through the waters of notoriety and controversy that followed.

I am honored now to have what is probably the final book of my own career correspond with Fran’s final year at Cornell. One of the great gifts of her many years of guidance was that she offered a rare balance of unflagging support coupled with unvarnished honesty. The result was an abiding and grounding trust that led me to produce my best work. Thank you, Fran.”—Cathy A. Small


“I have so many academic friends and colleagues who have told me about the misery of getting their books published. Every time I hear these horror stories, I thank my lucky stars to have worked with Fran Benson and ILR Press on two of my own titles. She has always been smart, kind, funny, and incredibly perceptive about the book marketplace. She has wisely and patiently led me away from my worst inclinations about book titles and covers and has cheered on my better ideas and successes. ILR’s booklist is her amazing, incredible legacy, and it is a lasting monument to her curious and expansive mind. 

Congratulations on your retirement, Fran, and thank you for everything!”—Chris Martin


“I am happy to salute the amazing career of Fran Benson. To go back in time, at some point in the 1970s, Charlotte Gold who had headed the Publications Division (where the ILR Press was located) announced her retirement. Fran was part of the organization. The faculty committee that oversaw the Division was unanimous in recommending that Fran be promoted to fill the vacancy. It was a very wise appointment.

Fran has taken the Press from its role of primarily publishing materials to be used by extension teachers into a publishing house with world stature. Having it join the Cornell Press family is recognition of the important and unique role that it fills for the broad field of work and employment internationally.

Under her direction, the ILR Press has published an amazing array of books. She has been especially effective at helping researchers with their first foray into publishing and identifying subjects that need attention. This speaks to the breath of the portfolio. At the same time, she has created a number of special series that produce a deep dive into timely subjects.

Her presence at the annual meetings of LERA and the table display of the latest publications has always been a popular venue. And the fact that the ILR Press publishes the annual volumes of LERA is evidence of the close association of the Press to our field of scholarship.

As a grateful author and reader of the ‘goodies’ in her ‘store’, I say ‘Well done, Fran’.”—Robert McKersie


“I have been working with Fran for a little over a year since my essay collection We Walk: Life with Severe Autism came under contract at Cornell. It has been a tremendous privilege to work with such a responsive, committed editor. Even when we disagreed—about the title, for example, or the cover—I always felt respected, and more importantly, heard by Fran. My book is stronger for her influence, and while I wish her the best in her retirement I regret we won’t be able to work together on future projects.”—Amy Lutz


“In April 2019, we sent our fledgling book proposal to Fran Benson for consideration by Cornell University Press. She had the great prescience and kindness to send the proposal to Suzanne Gordon for the Culture and Politics of Healthcare Work Series where our book has found a happy home. As authors, the two of us are odd collaborators. John is an experienced, published academic author, and Martha is a first-time memoirist. Fran saw both the strengths and the weaknesses of our collaborative effort and helped us manage and navigate the writing and publishing process with wisdom, care, and encouragement. When Kidney to Share is published next May, we will owe much credit to Fran for helping turn our ideas and our story into a book and getting that book ready to be launched into the world.”—Martha Gershun and John D. Lantos, M.D.


“Fran was enthusiastic and supportive of my first book, skillfully helping me through the process of publishing, calming my fears, and encouraging my editing with great patience. It was a pleasure to work with her.”—Jonathan Preminger


“I had the great pleasure of working with Fran on my book From Migrant to Worker: Global Unions and Temporary Labor Migration in Asia from 2017, when I first submitted my proposal, to its publication in 2019. It was a wonderful experience. Working from the other side of the globe, with all that entails, can feel isolating. But Fran was always encouraging and supportive. I wish her well for the next chapter of her life—she will be sorely missed.”—Michele Ford


“Is it possible to feel over e-mail that somebody is not only an excellent editor but also a caring one? I think it is. Working with Fran was a delight. She was such an excellent professional and also a caring editor. In academia and the publishing world, it seems quite hard to find a combination of professionalism and care. I am glad that I worked with one and ILR Press should be proud. 

Fran and I were planning to meet in the Spring of 2020 but it got cancelled like many other plans due to the pandemic. Perhaps, I’ll be able to show her around Istanbul if she decides to visit Turkey in the future. I wish Fran a wonderful and healthy retirement period. I am sure she will continue to do excellent work to enable a more democratic and caring world.”—Ergin Bulut


“I have had the privilege of knowing Fran Benson for 30 years, ever since I joined the ILR Faculty. Over this period, I have reviewed several manuscripts for her, and she has often contacted me when she had proposals. In the 1990s, the ILR Press was a very small operation at that time, and not well known. Over the years, I have watched Fran expand its footprint and reputation. Today it is a clear leader in labor-related publications and has a dedicated and loyal following. For many professors, publishing a book with Cornell ILR imprint is sufficient for tenure—a testament to the way in which Fran has had an outsize impact on labor scholarship. She has expanded the ILR press with dedicated effort, working overtime, schmoozing with authors at various conversations, and always being willing to listen to, and encourage young authors. And I am honored that my book was one of the last ones that she has stewarded through the byzantine processes of CUP. She has accomplished a lot and should be very proud of her achievements.  I wish her next innings is just as successful.”—Sarosh Kuruvilla


“Fran Benson has made enormous contributions over her career. She has been a remarkable acquisition editor, especially helpful in the learned guidance she provided to new authors. She made the ILR Press the leading publisher of books related to the world of work and in the process broadened the focus of the Press, in areas such as healthcare and new forms of organizing and worker representation. She did so while maintaining the Press’s historic role covering labor-management relations and labor policy.

I benefited immensely in the guidance Fran provided to me during the writing of the five books I published over my career with the ILR Press. When unsure how to focus the research that eventually led to Converging Divergences, Fran was a critical but constructive source of guidance and encouragement. Fran also helped me, Tom Kochan, and Alex Colvin, shape our two ILR Press textbooks and she took the risk of extending the Press’s reach into textbook publishing.

Our field and the public-at-large owe a great debt to Fran as through her work debates about the role of labor in modern society were enhanced by the scholarship and many new voices she brought forward. What’s more, she did it all with grace and charm. Thank you, Fran.”—Harry Katz


“As I worked on completing my new book, Clearing the Air: The Rise and Fall of Smoking in the Workplace, Frances Benson worked very hard with me to help the manuscript find a home at Cornell University Press. From our very first emails and discussions of my book proposal to finding external reviewers, and to the actual publishing of the book in late 2016, she was always enthusiastic about my research and very helpful and supportive throughout the publishing process. Fran took good care of me! Throughout my career as a historian, I’d never worked with an editor who was as generous with their time. In every way, Fran made possible what was my proudest moment as a scholar: the publishing of my book about tobacco control in the workplace with ILR Press. I’d say she made that honor and privilege possible.”—Greg Wood


“I feel lucky to have been able to work with Fran.  She cares so much about her authors and their ideas and helps make sure important books happen.  Her retirement will be felt by authors and readers, teachers and students, and the labor community.”—David Madland


“One of the true gifts of writing and publishing I Am Not A Tractor! How Florida Farmworkers Took on the Fast Food Giants and Won was the opportunity to work with Fran. Our very first conversation felt as though we had known each other for years. Her deep enthusiasm for the project and the topic of farmworkers defining and claiming their human rights let me know I was on the right track and I needed to write this book. Her steady support, thoughtful insights, and intelligent critique were essential as Tractor came together. Her critique and edits were exactly right and she offered them in such a way that it was clear we were in this together. Just as important is the friendship Fran and I developed. I’m certain I was not the first author with whom Fran became friends, nor the first to express the value of her friendship. I’ll long appreciate our discussions, whether over the phone or a glass of wine in NYC, of books, pickleball, family, and the state of the world. Fran is a smart and highly capable pro and a friend to be treasured.”—Susan Marquis.


ALL EDITORS RETIRE

Samuel Cohn

Actually, only the good ones retire.

Fran Benson is one of the best.

*

The bad ones are fired.

They fight with people in the office.

They leave to write allegorical trilogies about global warming.

No one wants to read the books they publish.

They’re booted so that their press does not go broke.

*

Everyone wants to read what was on the Cornell table.

There is always a crowd.

Scholars leave with six books on their order sheet.

Cornell Books Get Read.

Cornell Books Shape Thinking.

*

Non-Cornell Stands beg for visitors with candy.

They feature “The Encyclopaedic Handbook of Nonparametric Methods”.

Others have hot reads on college hookups and lawnmower history.

.

Those books have no four syllable words.

*

How Does Fran Benson Do It?

She is the greatest schmoozer in academic publishing.

A flatterer, a flirt, she softens you up in 60 seconds.

In 360 seconds, you tell her everything you know.

She knows what was important and what is new.

She pounces when she finds both.

*

She comfortably navigates arcane politics.

In 1580’s Venice, she gets her cathedrals built.

*

Academic publishing needs more cathedrals.

Her loss is scholarship’s loss as well.


*Featured photo Photo by Eduard Militaru on Unsplash

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