On Value

In the days after news broke of the decision by Provost and Oedipa Maas school chum Persis Drell to not renew the subsidy for Stanford University Press, those who value SUP and university press publishing responded by writing on social media, signing petitions, and muttering to themselves in their cars. The decision was apparently sort of reversed this afternoon. An unintended consequence: the event provided an occasion to examine the differences between the ways people think of university presses.

Remedios Varo, “Bordando el Manto Terrestre”

Many people wrote about the importance of university presses to higher learning, so obvious to them but seemingly forgotten or never learned by so many of the people who control the purse strings. But while this message–that the value of university scholarly publishing lies not in its ability to turn a profit or even stay afloat but rather in its ability to enable the creation and sharing of knowledge–was the dominant note in criticisms of the provost’s decision, a few commenters sang a different tune. It’s not that there were (reasonable) people saying Good, shut that thing down; it’s that there were people saying this regrettable situation could be avoided if these presses would just straighten up and make enough money to not require subsidies, the implication being that those who are upset that a university as prestigious and well-endowed as Stanford could decide to no longer fund its press are being emotional rather than realistic.

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As Joe Esposito wrote over at The Scholarly Kitchen, “The unfortunate truth is that indignation is not a business strategy.” The rest of Esposito’s argument is two-pronged: university presses need to make enough money to be self-sustaining, and they need to make themselves indispensable by tying themselves to other units, departments, &c., that are priorities for those who draw up the budgets. The title of Esposito’s essay–“Where Does a University Press Sit in its Parent’s Priorities?”–is worth noting here. While I get that “parent institution” is a term of art, with repetition, the metaphorical weight is hard to ignore: “When university presses work on their strategic plans, that is what they have to do: ask first how to become more important to the parent, and then ask how to become financially independent of the parent.” There’s practical wisdom here, but the underlying assumption is that the university is right to cut you off if you’re still living at home and if it loves your sister more.

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O. Von Corven, “The Great Library of Alexandria”

Taking about all of this yesterday, a colleague drew an analogy to the ancient world, where the great libraries were a point of pride for their cities. The libraries required huge investment, of course, but the advances in knowledge made by the scholars attracted to them (knowledge sometimes useful to the rulers who built them) and the prestige accrued were considered to be of great value. The idea that knowledge might be useful for governing might seem quaint these days, and it seems harder than ever in administration buildings to get non-economic forms of value recognized, but the administrators who run our universities need to be shown that they should see university presses as Ptolemy saw the library in Alexandria: as things of value whose ROI has to be measured differently.

(Also, I learned yesterday that the Great Library of Alexandria was stocked with originals seized from ships that came into port, copied, and kept, the copies given back instead, and I’m now wondering if there’s the seed of a business model there.)

It’s excellent news that Stanford’s provost has at least temporarily reversed herself. It also would be good if the episode reminded people that there are other ways to think about the relationship between universities and their presses than the parental and that presses aren’t at fault if they’re not profitable. One thing I’m learning about from writing about the history of university presses is the impressive variety of ways they have tried to reach profitability, move closer to being self-sustaining, or lessen the degree to which they rely on funding from their university or outside benefactors. But it would be good for everyone to remember that university presses exist historically because trade houses wouldn’t and couldn’t publish monographs, and they still won’t. Presses have found many ways to stay afloat, but the core mission of spreading knowledge, without regard to profit, is supposed to be the university’s mission too.



And I Was Worried About Kentucky

Today’s news includes a story from The Stanford Daily about the fallout from this year’s lower-than-expected endowment payout. Speaking to the Faculty Senate, Pynchon character Provost Persis Drell discussed the university’s decision not to continue the $1.7M annual subsidy of Stanford University Press, saying that budget constraints led the university to reject the press’s request for five more years of support at this level.

The Stanford Quad. Photo by Hannah Ronca
Printed 10/11/17

Last spring, when I started writing and talking about the lack of support for university presses and what that lack said about the priorities in university administration, state houses, and the culture, I was talking about public universities, not Stanford. As reaction on Twitter today shows, it’s scary when the presses housed at universities with $26.5B endowments (Stanford’s, last year) are effected by constricted funding environments–or, in plain English, when Pynchon characters provosts of major research universities with 125-year-old presses don’t seem to get why those presses are important and worth preserving. I’m hoping one effect of the book I’m writing on the history of American university presses will be to explain this to people who don’t get it. I’m also going to need to talk about why it is that they don’t. Stanford’s provost rejected the request for continued funding because when it was first given, “The assurance from the Press was that this would be a bridge to a more self-sustaining future.” One of the things the people running universities these days need to be reminded of is that “self-sustaining” is not necessarily the most important feature of a university unit. The production and dissemination of learning, for example, the credentialing and promotion of academics, the contribution to local and national culture: these are also worth something still. Aren’t they?

Guns. On campus.

Today the Missouri Senate Transportation, Infrastructure and Public Safety committee voted HB575 out of committee. This is a bill that would force the state’s public universities to allow concealed carry of loaded firearms on their campuses, against the wishes of the people actually responsible for the welfare of the students (and staff, and faculty) who are there every day and against the overwhelming evidence that it will make campus less safe, not more safe. The vote on the committee was 5-0. Democrats, who were outnumbered on the committee, were absent. It heads now to the Senate floor.

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I testified the other day in front of the committee in opposition to this bill, and talked about my time as Director of Graduate Studies and, currently, Director of Undergraduate Studies for my department, and how I’ve learned a lot about the stress that students are under these days, about the jobs they’re working while taking a full load of classes, about the emotional and mental health issues they’re dealing with. I talked about how maybe introducing firearms into this mix was a bad idea. Other people talked about the rising rates of depression and the far higher rates of “success” when suicide attempts involve firearms; still others talked about the chilling effect on classroom discussion the mere possibility of the presence of concealed weapon would have.

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Senator Brian Williams spoke out strongly against the bill for this last reason, saying that it was in classes in college that he learned how to get along with people who hold different ideas than he holds, which lessons made possible his ability to work with people like the Senators from the opposing party. That the MO GOP continues, every year, to try to ram legislation like this through, is incredibly frustrating to those of us who work on these campuses, send our children to them, want to be part of the life of higher education in our state.

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 3.31.14 PMToday and tomorrow my campus is filled with high school band students from around the state (and many of their families), here for their annual competition. I can hear them practicing outside my window right now. They are in black tie and they are nervous and goofy and very teenaged. Every year they descend on Tate Hall and other buildings, clogging up the hallways, making beautiful noise, honking and bleating and warming up, excited to be on the campus of their state university. I wonder if they’ll want to come back next year.

Mother of the West

Minor in Missouri Studies

Some developments in the new minor in Missouri Studies: new catalog copy describing the requirements for the minor is in the works; a new course in Health Sciences is being added to the list of electives and others are being developed; the email address I made up for the above slide for the A&S screens now exists; there is now a Twitter account,  @missouristudies (now that I’ve managed to convince Twitter that I am in fact human); I have learned that one of the old nicknames of the state was Mother of the West. I’m on research leave next year (working on this), but I’ll keep working on the minor and will find someone to teach the Missouri Writers course in the spring.

Other Missouriana: I had a fantastic time in February giving a paper at the Kinder Institute conference on the Missouri Crisis. I talked about race in Missouri–since before it was Missouri, during the Missouri Crisis, and today–and as it appears in two novels by William Wells Brown and Mark Twain, and I learned a ton from the actual historians (including that mentions of DeWitt Clinton are sure to get a laugh among diplomatic historians, for some reason). I am available, as one of the speakers at the Missouri Humanities Council/State Historical Society of Missouri Show Me Missouri: Conversations about Missouri’s Past, Present, and Future Speakers Bureau, to give a public version of this talk (enriched by things I learned in February) and a talk on Missouri writers. I can also now speak at some length about the history of the term doughface, should anyone be interested. There’s one taker so far, in a town (and county) I’ve never been to, so here’s hoping we can figure out the scheduling.

Writing News

An update to my first post on this mostly neglected blog on this here website: I’ve signed a contract with Princeton University Press to write a book on the history of the American university press. A non-comprehensive but wide-ranging look at the history, value, and difficulties of university press publishing in the U.S. with the extremely working title Higher Learning By the Book: A History of the American University Press (I’ll optimistically italicize, since it’s not even a manuscript yet so why bother with quotation marks), it’s still just getting underway. I’ll be visiting archives and interviewing people and reading everything I can find on the subject, which is both a lot and not much–that is, there’s a lot on individual presses and issues and trends but not a lot on the subject as a whole.

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Chester Karr’s 1949 AAUP-commissioned study (above) isn’t the last book to tackle the whole subject, but there haven’t been many since. It’s my hope that my book will be the first to tell the story in a way that shows how the history of the institution reflects and influences the history of the modern U.S. and so that argues for its value.

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That value is one of the central values of the research university. One of the responses to my essay in the Chronicle last year argued that the big presses were enough–why does every research university need one? The report of the 1957 committee to explore starting one at the University of Missouri (above) contains one good answer. Another good answer is the value of these presses to the knowledge and culture of their state and region, something I didn’t know enough about at the time I wrote that essay–I learned about it from responses on Twitter to my own tweets and responses to the essay. I hope in the next year or so to learn a lot more from the people who work at these presses and from the people who value that work, and to use that knowledge to more fully answer this question. Like the universities and the country in which they thrive and struggle, we do need them, and also like those institutions, we need them to do their best for all of us.

P.S. I’ve just submitted a roundtable proposal for the next MLA called “The Uses of the University Press” on this very subject. I’m hoping it gets accepted and people come and help me write my book  share their thoughts about this question.