Universities and their Presses in Hard Times

Summer 2004

Recently, two universities announced that they intended to close their university press. The University of Idaho announcement was made on February 24, and Northeastern University’s on March 22. The reason given in both cases was the press’s drain on the university’s financial resources.

Public outcry was immediate and as a result neither press has actually closed, despite the announcements. Operations have been suspended at the University of Idaho Press until the new president of the university takes office on July 1 and has an opportunity to examine the options for maintaining the press. In the meantime, the press’s regional best-seller, Linda Lawrence Hunt’s Bold Spirit, winner of the 2004 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, is being reprinted to meet demand. Bold Spirit and other books published by the University of Idaho Press can be ordered from the University of Idaho Bookstore through June 30, and will be filled by The Caxton Press after July 1. [UPDATE: the university has not revived the operation of the University of Idaho Press, but Press titles are still available through the two links above.]

At Northeastern University Press, operations continue while the university actively explores new arrangements for the press, such as joining a consortium of other presses, that would allow it to reduce expenses and continue to publish. Meanwhile, the press’s books can be ordered directly from the press or from their distributor, Cornell University Press Services. [UPDATE: Northeastern University Press joined the University Press of New England in December 2004.]

AAUP applauds both Idaho and Northeastern for their willingness to reconsider their original decision and seek more creative solutions. This is an undeniably grueling time for universities. Although the economy appears to be recovering from the recession and book sales over the last nine months are up for most university presses, the recovery has not yet profited universities themselves. State tax collections, which always lag a year or two behind an economic recovery, are still down, putting enormous pressure on state budgets and, in turn, on the budgets of public universities. The recession also reduced the value of university endowments, wreaking havoc with the budgets of private universities. Universities everywhere are being forced to make painful choices.

It’s not up to us to decide whether a university press is worth more or less than a new swimming pool, or what kind of message the university sends to its faculty by closing its press—let alone to those it may wish to recruit. Only a university provost or president can make such decisions. Ultimately though, we do know these judgments turn on questions of institutional priority and value, not dollars and cents. On average, a university press only receives about 8% of its budget directly from the university.

Money aside, though, it’s still fair to ask, what does the university get for its investment in a press? A voice. A voice that speaks in the name of the university itself. A voice that expresses the university’s commitment to the development of ideas and the transmission of knowledge, but also to the university’s deep engagement with the life of its own community, through books like Bold Spirit, as well as with the nation and the world. It’s no accident that the top three national best-sellers in the months after September 11, 2001, were all published by university presses—one of them, in fact, published by Northeastern University Press, Simon Reeve’s The New Jackals.

The closing of a university press won’t stifle academic discourse, although it may disrupt it. Writers won’t be gagged; they will continue to find publishers for their work. What will be silenced—and diminished by the silence—is the university itself.

In hard times, when a university needs more than ever to make the case for the importance of what it does, closing its press doesn't seem a wise choice. A university that does so may end by losing a great deal more than its voice. There are better alternatives—better for scholars, for the general public, and for universities.

Peter Givler, Executive Director
The Association of American University Presses