Bruce Wilcox

Inaugural Presidential Talk

Director, University of Massachusetts Press

June 1994

Good afternoon. My name is Bruce Wilcox and I have the great privilege to serve as AAUP president in the coming year. In preparation for that assignment, over the past twelve months I have been observing the work of Peter Grenquist, Colin Day, and various committee chairs such as Lisa Freeman. I must tell you they have done a superb job. Never has the AAUP been so well represented in so many different places.

Colin Day deserves our special thanks for his energetic and effective work as president. If you are a soccer fan as I am, you may have seen the article in last Sunday’s New York Times about the Brazilian star, Romario. He is described as a man of “astonishing quickness, agility, and vision.” The same could be said of Colin Day. He is clearly a publisher of World Cup caliber.

This is, of course, a time of tremendous challenge for university presses—a time when many universities are struggling to make ends meet, and when much of what we do as academic publishers is being reevaluated in the light of new information technologies. It is no surprise that at this meeting a two-day workshop, three plenary sessions, and one-third of the other panels have focused on the implications of the digital revolution. The subject is everywhere in the air.

Which is not to say there are no skeptics about the promise of networked communication. Dave Barry, for one, has predicted that by the year 2000, people will come to realize that the Information Superhighway is essentially “CB radio, but with more typing.” He writes, “By late in the decade millions of Americans will have abandoned their computers and turned to the immensely popular VirtuLab 2000, a $14,000 device that enables the user to experience with uncanny realism the sensation of reading a book.”

I remember a less tumultuous time for university presses. As some of you know, I was raised by a “Woman in Scholarly Publishing.” My mother, Maud Wilcox, spent over thirty years as an editor at the Harvard University Press. Growing up in Cambridge in the 1950s and early 1960s, my siblings and I became well accustomed to finding her in the evening, sitting comfortably in her study, a green eyeshade on her forehead, a cigarette in her hand, and a manuscript in her lap. She was doing her homework—and, often as not, urged us to get on with ours.

In those days, professors had good reason to expect that any solid academic study, no matter how specialized, would be accepted and published by a university press, which could then count on a library sale of at least 1,500 copies. It was a stable system, based on peer review, and certain codes of civility prevailed. For example, as late as 1967 it was still possible for Tom Wilson, director of Harvard University Press, to glower with outrage when an editor from the University of Chicago Press had the audacity to visit Harvard’s campus and try to sign up members of the Harvard faculty. “Poaching,” is the term Wilson used.

By the time I found my first job in publishing—at the University of Washington Press in 1970—times had changed. “Poaching” had become commonplace, but there were more serious concerns to be addressed. An economic recession was sweeping through higher education. Academic library budgets were falling and librarians were shifting their expenditures from books to journals. As book sales declined, many presses were caught with excess inventory. A few closed their doors. The rest raised prices to make up for lost revenue, and this further reduced the number of copies sold. There was soon talk of a “crisis” in scholarly publishing.

As it turns out, most university presses proved resilient enough to adjust to the changing circumstances. They altered their mix of titles, reached out to a wider readership, and rode out the economic recession. But today, more than twenty years later, elements of that earlier crisis have reappeared. Once again, university presidents are talking about “doing more with less” and “making difficult choices between competing demands.” They are struggling to cope with budget cuts and an erosion of public support.

And within the universities, libraries are reeling through their own crisis, which is powerfully documented in a 200-page study released by the Mellon Foundation. The report describes a system that is breaking down under the combined weight of price inflation and publication proliferation. It urges academic libraries to envision new ways of organizing their services through the use of networked digital communication. It looks ahead toward the day when the virtual library will provide all the world’s learning at our fingertips.

This is a tantalizing vision. But of course there are a great many economic and legal issues that must first be resolved.

Some people say the time has come for major structural reform in the system of scholarly communication. There are those who would revise campus copyright policies—particularly with respect to fair use—in order to facilitate the movement from print to electronic media. Some say universities should step forward and claim joint ownership of scholarly writings by members of their faculty, in effect treating those writings as a form of work-for-hire. There are others who envision a shift in the publisher base, particularly in the realm of scientific and technical journals, with American universities displacing the monopoly position of European commercial presses. And there are those who are seeking to revamp the academic rewards system, to move toward qualitative measures of faculty research performance, with the aim of defusing the publish-or-perish syndrome that generates so many marginal articles and manuscripts.

All of these initiatives deserve careful consideration and the kind of thoughtful analysis evident in the Report of the AAU Task Force on Intellectual Property Rights. My own hunch is that efforts to transform the system of scholarly communication will be extremely difficult. Evolution, even rapid evolution, is likely to occur incrementally, through trial and error and the gradual accumulation of experience.

I place my faith in the creativity and initiative of individual university presses. Anyone who has been following the various electronic discussion groups will be aware of the staggering amount of activity and experimentation occurring at presses across the country. The thirteen pilot projects endorsed by the Coalition for Networked Information provide good examples. Never has there been more innovation and cooperation.

I don’t mean to imply that competition among university presses has withered away. In fact, there are some in our ranks who have elevated the practice of editorial poaching to the level of an art—a martial art. I could name some of the black belts, but you probably already know who they are.

And what of the role of the AAUP? I hope the Association can serve as an agent of change while still standing up for the fundamental value of what we do as nonprofit scholarly publishers. We need to continue to make the case to university administrators that just as they reward and support those who engage in scholarly research, they have a responsibility to support the communication of that research. We need to demonstrate that university presses remain the most reliable and cost-effective channels for this kind of publication, whether in print or electronic form. At the same time, we need to make common cause with the many other groups that share our interest in sustaining a literary culture in an age of Nintendo and 24-hour MTV.

I feel greatly indebted to Peter Grenquist and Hollis Holmes for their steady and sound leadership in our central office. And yet much of what this Association accomplishes each year is done through the committee structure. For the coming year, we have established several new committees, directly related to the challenges of the electronic age.

The first is a Policy Committee, headed by Lisa Freeman of Minnesota, who has been so effective in articulating the university press perspective at federal hearings and other national meetings dealing with such critical issues as copyright and the design of the National Information Infrastructure. In the coming year she will continue this work. Her committee will be supported by the Electronic Caucus, which will carry on as an informal discussion group—a kind of electronic think tank.

Apart from developing specific positions on policy issues, we need to do a better job of getting our message out to the constituents who matter to us most—university administrators, faculty, funding agencies, and others. With this in mind, Peter Givler of Ohio State has agreed to chair a Public Relations Task Force, to take a systematic look at this whole area and develop a 3-to-5-year plan that addresses the central public relations needs of the Association.

As electronic communication brings scholars in different countries closer together, the international exchange of ideas becomes increasingly important. This year we are revamping the International Committee, under the leadership of John Moore of Columbia, to explore new possibilities for cooperation with trade associations and publishing groups in other countries.

Back at home, the Computer Committee, chaired jointly by Chuck Creasy of Princeton and Bruce Barton of Chicago, will continue to develop the combined AAUP online catalog, as well as a raft of other electronic projects. And the Library Relations Committee, under the direction of Nancy Essig of Virginia, will further strengthen our ties to the library community, whose members have been so active in mapping the digital frontier.

For many years the Copyright Committee has been led by Sandy Thatcher of Penn State. His annual reports, packed with useful information, have reflected his commitment and formidable expertise. This year, however, in recognition of the extent to which copyright issues have become a crucial concern of our journals divisions, we have invited a journals manager, Jim Alexander of Cambridge, to chair the Copyright Committee. Sandy will continue to serve on this committee and act as liaison with various other copyright groups.

Many of you, if asked to name the most important service provided by the Association, would point to education and training. In the coming year, our efforts in that area will be led by Barbara Hanrahan of North Carolina as chair of the Annual Meeting Program Committee and by Doug Armato of Johns Hopkins as chair of the Professional Development Committee.

Because time is running short, I will just briefly mention the other committee chairs. Admissions and Standards will be led by Beverly Jarrett of Missouri, Nominating by David Bartlett of Temple, Scholarly Journals by Barbara Berlin Caplan of Johns Hopkins, Equal Opportunity by Cathy Fry of LSU, First Amendment by Paul Zimmer of Iowa, Development by Tom McFarland of UPNE, Design and Production by Mary Mendell of Duke, Marketing by Hunter Cole of Mississippi, Business Systems by David McGonagle of Catholic, the Business Handbook Task Force by Judy Bergman of North Carolina, and the new Creative Writing Task Force by Les Phillabaum of LSU. These committees will include more than 100 of your fellow AAUP members, zinging FAXes and e-mail messages across the country. A lot of people doing a lot of good work for this Association.

Finally, I note that a number of visionaries have confidently asserted that we are now living in the “twilight of the era of print.” Maybe so. But although technology can provide virtually limitless access to raw information, it can’t manufacture more time. The printing presses may someday be left to rust, but we will still need editors—with or without green eyeshades—making judgments about what deserves our attention and what does not. That gatekeeping function becomes all the more important in an electronic age. Somebody must still solicit, evaluate, edit, refine, and market the work produced by individual scholars. Who better to do it than the member presses of the AAUP?

I close with some words of advice I received years ago that seem equally relevant today: “Be dedicated to quality and survival and pray you don’t have to choose!”

Thank you.

ننهض بالدور الأساسي للمجتمع العالمي من دور النشر التي تتمثّل مهمتها في ضمان التفوّق الأكاديمي وتنمية المعرفة.

— AUPresses Mission Statement in Arabic