Recently I attended the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association of American University Presses in Chicago, Illinois. The theme was “Igniting the Future” and the organization is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The theme seemed rather ironic or dark considering the history of Chicago and fire, even though the MSL soccer team is called “The Fire.”
At the same time, the Chicago Cultural Center was holding an exhibit entitled “Morbid Curiosity.” According to the exhibit’s brochure, “the desire to investigate the theme of death is considered unusual and potentially unhealthy or abnormal.” As a director of a university press, after years of hearing about extinction, especially of monographs, subject areas, and almost anything that resembled a book, the art exhibit provided a nice juxtaposition. Even though the viewing space was filled with skulls and skeletons, the artists were using death as a way to emphasize the importance of life. I hoped to transfer the exhibit’s perspective to the university press setting—the death of one form of communication meant that other forms were emerging in need of the skill and expertise of university press staff members.
The upbeat mood at the conference was restrained, however, by the news that the University of Missouri press was going to be closed. Even before the announcement, perhaps with prescient foresight, the AAUP had scheduled a director’s meeting to hammer out a path for future vitality and visibility. Among the issues that were discussed was a statement that a Missouri administrator had made—”When you look at what we have invested in the press over the past 15 years,” [vice president for finance and administration Nikki] Krawitz said, “and maybe before that, we’ve invested a lot in the press, and relatively few of our faculty publish in the press, so the subsidy to outside authors is huge.” This statement highlights the problematic way in which university presses are perceived.
First of all, most universities do not have university presses. So, presses like the UM press, subsidize books for other universities without compensation. Among the colleges and universities represented in UM’s 2012 fall catalog are Miami University of Ohio, the University of Arkansas (Fort Smith), Andrew College, Washington University (St. Louis), Southeast Missouri State, and DeAnza College. Similar results would be found by browsing the catalogs of other university presses. Of course, the University of Missouri’s faculty benefits from being published at other university presses, too. A look at the vitas of UM’s English Department shows that at a minimum 56 monographs produced by department faculty where published at other university presses, including Cornell, Stanford, Georgia, and Ohio State, to name a few.
Secondly, being published by your home university press tends to be a sign of an author’s weakness. It’s like using the football coach to referee a home game. Everyone would understand the fix was in. The faculty of the UM English Department did publish at least seven books with their home press.
The hint that the UM press should be profitable was tacitly implied by several administrators’ comments. University presses are not profit centers. Of course, the majority of university sports programs, and in many cases, several university departments run deficits. University presses are just easier targets.
The scholarly ecology needs university presses because they are a deterrent against predatory, commercial publishers. The small investments by those universities that have presses enable younger faculty to get published. Perhaps, some forward thinking chancellor at a state board of regents will realize the value of sustaining scholarship and ask for a small levy from all schools in that state that do not have university presses. In this way, libraries would get free copies of every book published by their in-state university presses and open-access publications would flourish.
The old Fram tagline is right on target–either pay me now or pay me later. Closing a university press just escalates the costs across all of academia. Unfortunately, university administrators don’t always read the fine print.