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Strange Doings in Missouri: Thoughts on University Presses

July 24, 2012
Call me nerdy, out of touch, or just plain bizarre, but one of my secret pleasures is reading through the New Releases catalogues for academic presses. When stuck in something of a rut the last time I was in Dushanbe, in the fall of 2010, I was delighted and surprised to find in the Library of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tajikistan a huge stack of such catalogues from presses like Yale, Chicago, and others. After months of plodding through Brezhnev-era discourse on ‘the labor question’ or international youth movements in Bulgaria, I relished in being able to discover exciting new scholarly works like Carter Findley’s recent Turkey, Islam, Nationalism and Modernity, to be snapped up once I was back in a country with a functioning library system.

Pho + academic press catalogues = love

Similarly, the afternoon after an interview for a fellowship at Harvard this December, I knew that rather than waiting around my hotel room all day for a yes-or-no phone call, I had to get out and do something. I rang up a friend at Harvard Medical School, across the Charles, and arranged for a catch-up over coffee … but only after visiting the Harvard Coop, raiding the front of the store for its New Releases catalogues for History, Literature, and Social Sciences, and sitting down to them and an enormous bowl of fresh pho at a nearby grotty Vietnamese cafe with great expectations. The moment seemed like an affirmation of a lot of the things I treasure in America: ethnic mixings, immigration, and entrepreneurship; great philanthropic institutions, and a uniquely American scholarly culture that (for my money) remains the best in the world, although tailed closely by that of Germany.

I write about these catalogues in part with reference to recent news coming out of the University of Missouri, where Timothy M. Wolfe, the system’s new President, has announced that he plans to withdraw the university system’s $400,000 annual subsidy for the University of Missouri Press, part of a larger transformation of the Press that will involve layoffs, many firings of professional editors, and the transformation of the operation into something headed by Speer Morgan, a professional writer and English professor at Missouri who edits The Missouri Review, one of the finest fiction reviews in the country. More of the editing work, it seems, will be outsourced to graduate students rather than handled (as is traditionally done, and often expensively so) by subject specialists.

The decision and the debate surrounding it captures so many of the questions that surround higher education today: are university presses (which began, idiosyncratically, in the 1870s as a non-profit enterprise to publish the books of faculty) an inherent part of a university’s mission, and hence not subject to bottom-line thinking? Or are they more akin to a food court or a fitness center (some might say the entire athletics program) of universities – a nice thing to have but not something worth granting a subsidy to?

Many of those who, like myself, love the specialization and sometimes-erudite discourse that academic presses have permitted, have reasons to be pessimistic. Several university presses have closed down or limited operations in the last several years – Utah State and Louisiana State are two of the largest examples. Outside of a few élite presses (Chicago, Cambridge, and Oxford), almost no university presses turn a profit. And coming on the heels of the recent scandal at the University of Virginia, where business-obsesses Trustees seemed bent on pushing someone with actual higher education experience out, the fact that Wolfe came to UM from a career spent entirely in business would seem to confirm the fears of some of my more apocalyptic friends. Out with The Collected Works of Langston HughesThe Complete Sermons of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Mark Twain and His Circle – to name three respected works that came out of the UM press in the last several decades; in with more and more stressed out adjuncts, ‘administrators’ somehow banking six-figure salaries, and the corporate hollowing out of prized American institutions.

Shake, shake dat money maker: Oxford University Press, one of the few profitable academic presses in the world

Maybe those fears are right. And perhaps it’s easy to speculate on things from the comparative comfort of a … gargantuan library in Tajikistan staffed in large part by illiterate teenagers? I don’t have job to lose at the UM Press. Still, I wonder whether the developments surrounding the Press might not offer the chance for creative reflection on how people interested in university governance could re-think the role of university presses in university life, or what presses are supposed to be (both from the perspective of finances as well as mission). In particular, a couple of thoughts strike me.

For one, it seems to me that in general university presses are massively underutilized teaching or community spaces on university campuses. I had the privilege of attending Princeton, which has one of the best (if not, apparently, profitable) university presses in the United States. From my sophomore year on, I felt like I was interested in potentially pursuing a career in academia, or simply learning more about the book and publishing business today. Yet even though I walked by Princeton University Press’ offices innumerable times during my four years in New Jersey, there were remarkably few chances to find out what goes on inside of there, or to speak with the professionals there. The same thing is true at Oxford, which also has an amazing University Press. Now, perhaps I’m just not enterprising enough. I can imagine that if an enterprising student got it in their head that they had to know what was going on in these presses, there could be ways to organize internships, tours, or seminar sessions with the professionals there. Yet such opportunities seemed absent at both Princeton and Oxford. The Press, it always seemed, was a separate institution even as it was, in theory, part of Princeton or Oxford.

Princeton University Press: produces awesome books but remains a black box to PU students

That’s a shame. While it’s probably true that a lot of the work that goes on at Princeton University Press or OUP is relatively unglamorous and by its very nature confidential (say, peer reviews from professors at third institutions), having gone through the process myself of publishing a book, I feel comfortably saying that there are plenty of steps in the process that would interest not just in-the-clouds English or History majors but also others interested in design or business, too. Working with an anonymous in-house editor at Polity (which, granted, is an independent company not affiliated with a university) when I was revising the introduction for Writings on War was an unbelievably helpful experience in learning how to write more concisely and clearly. Before then, I would have viewed cutting down the length of a draft by 50% as impossible and also probably undesirable; after seeing what a different an editor can make, I now believe the opposite. Why isn’t it possible for more university presses to make those non-sensitive parts of the editing process open to students?

Even attending a university like Princeton, which offered lots of one-on-one contact, I feel like it was only thanks to the exceptional outreach of professors like Michael Gordin that I was able to improve my academic writing. Maybe if juniors, seniors, and graduate students had the chance to attend a three-part series with a professional editor, it might help improve their own writing. At the least it would clue in graduate students (many of whom know nothing about how academic publishing works) into the process at an early stage in writing a dissertation that will (hopefully) become some kind of book. More than that, it’s clear that university presses employ lots of people to draw (often beautiful) maps and graphics. They choose fonts. They design what are often striking covers. I suspect there’s a lot to be learned for anyone interested in making their work public from speaking with these professionals with a lot of experience in visualizations – and yet at both Princeton and Oxford such opportunities were scant.

Other parts of university presses could also be opened up to students from other faculties. While it appears that much of the cost involved in publishing books comes not from the production but from non-associated administrative costs, why isn’t it more possible for interested electrical engineering or computer science students to work more closely with presses on digitization efforts? If most universities accept in the end that most presses are not going to be profitable under most circumstances, it seems to me they should at least do as much as possible to open them up to the wider university community. It would be insane if English Departments or Computer Science departments became as closed off as OUP or PUP were, in my experience. I might not have wanted to take courses on (or with!) Toni Morrison, or learn C++, but the opportunity was there, and those departments at Princeton felt like open units within a broader community rather than a walled garden.

Walled gardens: an inherent part of Oxford, perhaps, but generally not a good way to run universities

Maybe there are ways to make more university presses more profitable. I’m not sure, and it would require more investigation. But I do think that finding ways to integrate university presses more into the overall life of the institution would go a long way to making those the loss centers that bottom-line-oriented administrators automatically look to when it comes time to cut costs.

Sometimes, it seems that the difference between successful institutions (like, say, Stanford) and ones that have fallen into at least media troubles (like UVa or Missouri) is that the former (while very wealthy) have the wisdom to let their talented people – professors, graduate students, and non-academic professionals – do awesome projects and get out of their way. Even if Stanford did have a budget crunch, I suspect that they would look at places other than, for exampleRichard White’s digital history projects to save a few dollars. That was a case where humanities scholars and digital visualization experts got together to produce amazing scholarship; the headline is the professors, not the administrators. Princeton and Yale are famous for the Humanities Sequence and Directed Studies, respectively – multidisciplinary environments where, again, the professors are the headline.

But institutions get into trouble when, as in Missouri and Virginia’s case, administrators – who always seem to have some vague background in business and sometimes law, but rarely actual academia – take the headlines. There’s a reorganization. People get fired. The faculty rarely seem consulted. Or, often, administrators and trustees seem more interested in a bottom line than maximizing the output and creativity of the people – faculty and students – that should be providing the real value-added to institutions.

I’m interested to read and learn more about the finances of university presses, but for now here’s a tip: find ways to integrate these institutions more with the undergraduate and graduate curricula, while still producing awesome books. The presses themselves may still not make money, but the value-add – and the good press – your institution can get from these encounters between the Faculties and the Press might add up to something still greater over the long haul. Find a way to make University Presses a center on campus where people are actually involved – where, to paraphrase Peter Thiel, they’re seeing human capital investment and consuming education for fun, and a lot of the budget cuts might get shifted elsewhere.

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