Inaugural Presidential Talk
Director, Temple University Press
Thank you, Peter, for that very kind introduction. We go back a long way and I deeply appreciate your willingness to do the honors. I also want to say thanks to two people who are not here. David Bartlett was the first Temple director to be president of AAUP; he’s living the good life in Mexico now and I don’t see him often, but not a day goes by when I don’t feel gratitude for the work he did in both assembling an incredible staff, many of whom are still at the Press, and a core list on which we’ve been able to build. Following in his footsteps as AAUP president is a real honor for both the Press and me.
I would also like to give special thanks to another person not here today, even though a lot of us begged her to be. Our friend and colleague Seetha Srinivasan officially retires Monday from the University Press of Mississippi. I say with no exaggeration that Seetha has been a dear friend and a source of great wisdom for all of us and I am going to ask Todd Lape, who is representing Mississippi at the meeting, to give her our very best wishes as she heads off to new adventures. Please join me in a round of applause for Seetha.
Finally, I’d like to thank Sandy Thatcher for his work and achievements this past year, for his guidance in making the transition a smooth one, and for his gargantuan effort in serving as AAUP’s unofficial critical bibliographer. As Doug Armato said to me yesterday, “When Sandy says an article is something I should read, then I read it.” Sandy, you’re relieved of all other responsibilities, but on behalf of the association I ask that you continue to keep us all abreast of the diverse articles and postings we should be reading. I’m afraid we’ve all become addicted to—and deeply grateful for—your work on our behalf.
It is a special pleasure to give this speech in Montreal, a place full of warm summer memories when my family escaped the NY heat by visiting our Canadian cousins. As a young man, the first plane ride I ever took was from New York to Montreal so that I could attend L’Expo soixante-sept. It’s good to be back!
My thanks to the nominating committee and the association for offering me the opportunity to lead the association for the coming year. Those of you who know me will know that I’ve worried—more than a bit—ok, maybe to the point of obsession—about making this speech. But what the heck, we’re here, so let’s give it a go, keeping in mind Bill Sisler’s advice, relayed to all of us by Peter Milroy in his 2002 presidential speech: “Nobody remembers what you say, only how long you take to say it.”
We meet under some darkening clouds; worried about an economy that seems to worsen daily, about the continuing controversies and potential impacts of the various implementation schemes for open access—some well described in this morning’s plenary—and about just keeping up with the myriad evolving technologies and the companies representing them that keep us up nights trying to separate real opportunity from sheer hype. To employ Doug Armato’s now famous 2004 metaphor, the canoe of university press publishing is entering some dangerous rapids.
And yet, as Andy Abbott reminded us in his wonderful presentation at yesterday’s plenary session, when it comes to university presses in crisis, plus ça change, plus ça meme. I was reinforced in this belief when I recently re-read Bruce Wilcox’s 1994 presidential speech, in which he worried about budget cuts, public support, copyright issues, and the complexities of digitization. There’s an old joke that defines every Jewish holiday this way: “they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.” Well, maybe in our business, it’s “we worry, we cope, we survive. Let’s eat.”
With that optimism in mind, let’s take a quick review of the issues. The concerns we have about open access remain—that the solution to an STM-serials crisis will render university presses, as a friend of mine says, “collateral damage.” Not a pleasant fate to contemplate, but as we make our slow progress in communicating to librarians, administrators, and faculty the true costs and complexities of publishing—and see, for example Sandy Thatcher’s excellent piece about author addenda in the latest issue of Against the Grain—we should also always remember that the STM problem is crushingly real. Or as the same friend reminds me, his library has to increase spending by a dollar amount in the high six figures every year just to retain its current subscriptions. A little empathy on our part can go a long way in helping us resolve our respective issues in a way that benefits everyone.
At the same time, however, we can’t be asked by others to stand by quietly while we become collateral damage. Suicide is not painless and I personally—and here I am speaking personally—am sick to death of people lobbing grenades into our front yard, then acting surprised we hurl our own back. Fair use is a deeply complicated question, but when an institution blithely copies any and all materials, then refuses even to discuss the matter, are we supposed to shrug, go to our parent universities and say, you’re either going to have to increase our institutional support by rather high multiples or put us out of our misery? Since some interested parties have expressed outrage that presses would defend themselves against such stonewalling by a member of the university family, I’ll just say this: if your big brother watched you open a model kit and meticulously assemble its hundreds of pieces into a beautiful ship, then took it without your permission and gave it to his friends just because he thought he could and then refused even to talk to you about why that wasn’t exactly a “fair” thing to do, would you sit back and take it just because he’s your brother? Give me a break.
What we need here—and what I’m happy to say is beginning to show some signs of happening in various quarters—is for the moderates to take back the discussion. The Ithaka report was right—university presses are first and foremost units of the university and we must work with others in the university to solve our problems. When I see the various experiments presses are trying with open access, often jointly with their libraries, when I see more administrators grasping the fact that abandoning all restrictions on intellectual property can be a double-edged sword for the university, well, then I truly believe at least some optimism is justified. I am heartened that we are increasingly getting a seat at the table, both locally through such venues as scholarly communication committees, and more nationally, through meetings like the one being put together by ARL and other library associations in August, to which three press directors have been invited. If all of us in the scholarly community recognize that we are in this together, that we are actually on the same side, then together we can find ways to solve our problems in a way that achieves the goal we all share—the broadest dissemination of scholarship at the lowest possible cost. Not free—because as Stan Katz noted this morning, whatever it wants to be, high-quality, polished, refereed, and linked information isn’t free. Who pays for it is up for discussion, as is the means to reach the goal of wide dissemination at low cost—there is cost. Whether you agree with his solutions or not, it is cheering to see an open access founding father like Stevan Harnad recognize that—as, in fairness, I believe he always has.
But we face other issues as well. As I said, we also meet under the storm clouds of the economy. We have been down this road before, of course, but that doesn’t make it easy and some presses are already facing difficult times. While the year has produced widely differing outcomes across the university press community as a whole, it seems clear returns are up—in some cases way up. There is an air of worry about the coming fiscal year and, for presses at state universities, about the possible impacts down the road as state budgets will inevitably tighten in the face of declining tax revenues until the economic skies brighten.
Internally, we all face the challenge of what Jon Elster once used as a title for a book analyzing how Eastern European countries changed whole systems of government after the fall of the Soviet Union: “Rebuilding the Ship at Sea.” We are all experimenting with new business models that account for real and anticipated revenue from electronic sales of books and bits of books, as well as various open access experiments. Perhaps more immediately we are working out what freedoms and constraints the blossoming of short-run digital printing and true print on demand offer. Meanwhile, we encounter—seemingly daily—new companies offering to digitize this or that, streamline our workflows, store and repurpose our files, send email blasts to exactly the right customers, redesign our websites, disseminate our content far and wide, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. None of us wants to miss a good opportunity and so, as my old colleague and mentor in all things electronic, Michael Holdsworth, used to say, we go about kissing frogs, hoping some will turn into princesses and princes. It ain’t easy.
In all these matters AAUP wants to help. This isn’t my association or the Board’s or Peter’s—it’s yours, as you show all the time in so many ways. This past year, AAUP’s eleven committees involved seventy people working for nothing but the greater good of all—and produced, just to list a small sample: this splendid annual meeting program, the marketing survey on libraries, two successful workshops, the beautiful book, jacket, and journal design show and catalogue, a great new slate of officers whose presence bodes well for the association’s future, a more streamlined statistics-gathering process, and more I haven’t the time to list. When I sought help in organizing the directors’ meeting, Kate Torrey, Richard Brown, and Doug Armato jumped in without hesitation. The central office and the Board monitored issues of interest and import to the industry and did its best both to keep member presses informed and to present our positions clearly and reasonably. I thank them all and really thank you all. Your generosity in helping the entire university press community through your work and your willingness to share information has continued to amaze me through 22 years in the association.
Still, any good organization must always strive to improve itself. As part of the strategic planning process led by Lynne Withey during her presidency, we embraced the idea of reexamining the AAUP committee structure. However hard those committees work—and they do—it is time to look at some fundamentals. And so the major initiative of my year as president will be to involve our community—led by a task force on committees that Richard Brown has graciously consented to chair—in a reappraisal of the current committee system designed to lead to a set of recommendations for reform by a year from now. We will engage any and all issues, including but not limited to: Do we need to retain all the existing committees? Should some be combined in new ways that reflect not so much traditional press departments but more thematic issues that cross old boundaries? Do we need new committees? Should we resurrect former ones? How long should committee members serve? How can committees better communicate with each other so as to pursue tasks whose scope encompasses a subject broader than any one of them? Or just help each other out? How can we make it easier for new blood to make its way on to committees? For individuals in the association to communicate with committees? For committees and the association to serve ALL members, from the largest to the smallest?
Besides Richard, the other members of the task force are: Tom Bacher, formerly of Purdue and soon to be director at Akron; Michael Jensen, Director of Strategic Web Communications, National Academies Press; Kathleen Keane, director at Johns Hopkins and importantly in terms of continuity, our new president-elect of AAUP; Brenna McLaughlin, Communications Director in the central office; and Frank Smith, Publisher, Academic Books, Cambridge University Press. All but Tom and Frank are attending the meeting and I would ask those of you present to stand so people can see who you are. If anybody—and I stress that this is not meant to be a directors-only or directors-primarily undertaking but a project involving our entire community—so if anybody has ideas, thoughts, questions, feedback from your own service on or experience with committees, whether positive or negative, please find one of us and let us know. Or email us or call us after the meeting. And please complete the survey we will be sending to you all early this fall. This undertaking’s success is limited only by the extent to which we all participate—so please, participate!
I want to close by talking about an issue a colleague I deeply respect raised as those of us who participated in teaching the acquisitions workshop were discussing plans over email a few weeks back. She asked—quite legitimately—whether we could in good conscience encourage young people to enter a profession seemingly so besieged. I’m a person whose glass is generally half-full, but in this case it’s entirely full. To quote Peter Milroy quoting James Joyce in his 2002 speech: “yes I said yes I will Yes.”
I entered university press publishing a little late in my career—I was 36 when I went off to Ohio State—because prior to that I thought UPs were just a little too safe. Print a book, sell 1000 or 1200 or 1500, find another good book, repeat process. Mix in journals where possible. Only when that business model began to show signs of breaking down did I think, ah, NOW this is getting interesting—scholarship and a business challenge. That’s what I want! This may be a lesson in why you should be very careful what you wish for, but I haven’t regretted it for a moment.
I met the young editors in that workshop, and they are a talented, enthusiastic group. Should they stay in this business? Well, I assume you love words and scholarship, so let me ask you this: Do you like a challenge? Do you like being part of a team of dedicated professionals, working with incredibly smart authors, and helping increase the world’s knowledge? Can you accept a paycheck lower than your talents deserve? Do you enjoy following and participating in the dizzyingly fast development of digital tools to serve scholarship? DO YOU LIKE CHANGE??? If so, university press publishing offers you a great career. University presses will undoubtedly look different twenty years from now and I won’t even begin to speculate on the ways. But will there be a place—a good place—for talented people curious about the world around them and anxious to spread the knowledge the world will so desperately need as it faces climate change, energy shortages, and rapid demographic and political changes? You bet.
Beyond that, look around at the people you’re sitting with in this room. Warm, generous, smart people like those I’ve already named and this year’s Constituency Award winner Robbie Dircks, with whom I had the honor to serve on the annual meeting committee several years ago; and former winners like Susan Schott and Jennifer Crewe and those who serve selflessly without formal award like my treasured colleague at Temple, Janet Francendese. What an array of collective talent and generosity! I could go on and on and on—young friends, this is a great community and I couldn’t imagine a better place to spend a working life. To paraphrase that late, great son of Buffalo, Tim Russert, what a profession!