Inaugural Presidential Talk
Director, University of Minnesota Press
I drove here from Minnesota, across Canada, and I take it as auspicious to be beginning a term as AAUP president here in western Canada. My press is located in a part of the US with very close historical and cultural ties to Canada. The first white explorers of Minnesota and the upper Mississippi valley came via canoe across the Great Lakes from the French settlements of Montreal and Quebec and the first commerce in my region was undertaken by the voyageurs, government-sponsored fur traders, and the more independent coureur de bois. The first white settlers of Minnesota, those hardy enough to tolerate the bitterly cold winters and independent enough to prefer isolation to society, came to be called the hivernauts; they were joined each year after the thaw by additional traders, who must have arrived each year just in time for the height of mosquito season, and were known as the manger de lard, or porkeaters. In the period when the American Revolution raged across the British colonies on the Atlantic seaboard, you would have heard few words of English in the upper Mississippi valley. And if in our own highly-politicized times, some Americans politicians have viewed Canada suspiciously as too tied to its French heritage to join the Anglo-American military alliance, well my press has also often been seen as a little too French and European for comfort.
The French explorers and settlers of my region traveled by canoe and, in the rigors and uncertainties of backwoods canoe travel, I imagine several parallels with the recent history of university press publishing. Like canoe travel, university press publishing has been characterized by periods of clear water—the Great Society fueled library purchasing budgets of the 1960s; foundation funding of monograph publication in the 1970s; the superstore boom of the 1990s—interrupted, however, by the arduous, boulder-ridden crosscountry portages that we collectively map as the crisis in scholarly publishing. As canoers and university press publishers alike know, even the stretches of smooth paddling can be interrupted suddenly by fast water or dangerous rapids that can threaten to swamp even the best-built vessel. When confronting rapids, the advice of canoing experts is uniform—don’t panic and paddle forward as fast as possible. Indeed, university presses seem to be in one of those periods of fast paddling now as the announced shutterings of the presses at Northeastern and Idaho suggest as well as the threatened but averted deep funding cuts we’ve heard about at presses such as Massachusetts, Georgia, and Iowa. At the Directo’s Forum on Saturday, Bruce Wilcox, Nicole Mitchell, and Holly Carver all gave us insight into their techniques for fast paddling in disturbed waters.
One other thing about the voyageurs and coureur de bois. At the end of each season of fur trapping and trading, hivernaut and manger de lard alike would gather from across the wilderness for an annual meeting at Grand Portage on Lake Superior. Doubtless some important business was transacted at those annual meetings, but the historical accounts that have come down suggest that there was also a lot of story-telling, boasting, grudge-settling, feasting, and, yes, drinking late into the night. At Grand Portage, these spiritual ancestors of ours assessed the year’s work just completed and celebrated their survival against the elements and rigors of the year just past. I’m happy to be here in Vancouver to mark another year of hard work, successful trapping and, yes, some fast paddling by all of us who represent university press publishing.
What should be the mission of a university press and the mission of the AAUP? The most ennobling oration of the purpose of a university press is the oft-quoted statement of Daniel Coit Gilman upon the founding of the Johns Hopkins University Press in 1878—which I’ll note parenthetically was an otherwise awful year for the republic, with a disupted election having placed in the White House a President who was outpolled by his opponent, thus polarizing the nation politically, and the country just emerging from near financial collapse brought about by unregulated financial speculation. In founding the Johns Hopkins University Press in those troubled economic times known as the Gilded Age, Gilman spoke of how—and many of you can probably recite this along with me—it is “one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to difuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures—but far and wide.” In the succeeding century and a quarter, many of us have had occasion to wish for a university president with the vision of Daniel Coit Gilman and, indeed, it is telling that the press he so stirringly founded carries as its mantle not the words oldest university press but the oldest continuouslyoperating university press in North America. Though university press closings remain very rare, the continuous part can be very tricky.
A less lofty statement of the university press mission is the oft-repeated maxim sometimes attributed to the longtime director of the University of North Carolina Press, Matt Hodgson, that “the mission of a university press is to publish as many monographs as possible short of going out of business.” Recently, I heard Bill Sisler express this principle in more diplomatic and measured terms, saying that the goal of a university press is “to balance our mission with our survival.” This was most likely a subconscious reformulaton of the old Hodgson maxim on Bill’s part, but it is instructive to note that in Bill’s update the word “monograph” has disappeared—suggesting the much broader publishing mission of university presses today—and also that the notion of operating on the brink of “going out of business” has been replaced by a more reassuring principle of “balance.” To return to my outdoors manuals, I read that balance is best achieved by a careful and prudent loading of the canoe—and what is the development of a successful and sustainable publication program but a careful and prudent act of balancing between fore (the frontlist) and aft (the backlist), the heavy ballast of the scholarly book in the center and the less bulky, tastier provisions of the trade list at either side?
As many of you know, my background is in marketing and—in following this lineage from Gilman to Hodgson to Sisler—I keep thinking that the danger facing us is the temptation to separate mission from market, to divorce our role in bringing to a broader public the knowledge and research created by scholars from our financial imperative to be self-sustaining. When Fred Woodward became president of the AAUP, he told us that the “market has made us better publishers” and no one looking at university press catalogs from the “fully-funded” epoch of the 1960s and 1970s would have much room to doubt that our programs are much more vital today than in the era before we started paying as much attention to scholar-readers as scholar-authors, to serving the wider public and not just those who reside within the academy.
Fred discerned that the market has made us better publishers, but I believe it is also true that it is our scholarly mission that gives us a role in the marketplace and provides our best opportunity for sustained growth and economic stability. But just as it sometimes seems that our working definition of the monograph is “a scholarly book that doesn’t sell,” so we too often disparage the overall scholarly contributions made by our programs—by the 11,500 books and 600 journals published annually by AAUP member presses—in favor of celebrating those books that stand alone by virtue of their commercial success or influence. I enjoy a commercial success as much as any scholarly publisher, but what I believe is truly valuable in our work—and I speak economically as well as socially—is the breadth of basic research in the humanities and social sciences in particular, but also in the natural and physical sciences, that we collectively sponsor, assess, and disseminate each year. Just as a healthy ecosystem is made up of more than just top predators, so the books and journal articles that appear as footnotes in broader studies are as crucial to the creation and testing of knowledge as the breakthrough book that synthesizes that resesarch and knowledge.
The AAUP, I would argue, is more than a diffuse collection of scholarly publishers, some large and some small, some state funded, some private, and some institutional. The AAUP represents a system of scholarly publishing, an ecology that connects scholars who write books and articles with scholars, students, policymakers, journalists, and general readers who read or consult them via a network of distribution channels ranging from libraries to bookstores to digital access. And like an ecology, the system of scholarly publishing is interdependent. Just as the loss of a native species damages the health, upsets the balance of an environmental system so the loss of a press such as Northeastern with its important lists in criminal justice and music damages the system of scholarly publishing. And, I would argue, the best way to preserve individual presses is to promote the value and contribute to the health of the system as a whole—to create a healthier environment for scholarly publishing and to make the case for the importance and value of our collective mission. This must be the cardinal goal for the AAUP in the year ahead.
Mission is not antithetical to good business practice or economic sustainability—as Bill Sisler said, it is a matter of balance. Nor is mission synonymous with the most narrow and traditional sense of what defines a university press. Our parent institutions, the universities themselves, have established over the last decades broad missions based not solely on educating students and advancing knowledge, but also on contributing to the cultural life of their communities; providing expertise to government, industry, and the public at large; and partnering with other institutions and agencies to the benefit of society. The mission of university presses has expanded along with those of the modern university and, if university presses seem irrelevant or tangential to our parent institutions, at least part of the reason for that is that we haven’t successfully made the case for how central our contribution is to a university’s core misisons nor have we successfully demonstrated how we can contribute to solving the challenges facing scholarly communication. Why are university presses sometimes seen as financial liabilities even though, on average, we recover 87% of our costs from revenues—an almost unheard of level of cost recovery for any university unit? At least in part, it is because we haven’t successfully argued for how our editorial judgment, business experience and management skills can be not just of value but also of utility to our parent institutions as they continue their transition into the digital era.
When we disparage the monograph, determine however regretfully that any area of scholarship is no longer worth publishing, or judge a book solely by its advance sale to the superstores—when, in tough times, our balance shifts from mission to survival—we contribute, however reluctantly, to the American tendency to simplistically equate commercial success with social value—a tendency that is already taking its toll on the vitality of the American music industry, filmmaking, radio broadcasting. newspapers, and electoral politics. In doing so, we contribute to a social ill that threatens not just scholarly publishing but universities themselves and society at large—and here I refer to the erosion of civil society and the rise of the entrepreneurial university.
I asked earlier what should be the mission of the university press and answered that, at least in part, it parallels the broad scholarly and civic mission of the modern university itself. And beyond mission, the fiscal health of university presses is dependent on the health of the universities, and I am not so much speaking here of the familiar issues of subsidies and library budgets, but of the general health of the scholarly ecosystem in which we operate—everything from the support given to the scholars who write most of the books we publish; to the job market for the younger scholars who purchase our books or read our journals in order to master their fields and write their dissertations; to the financial aid available to the undergraduate and graduate students who buy our books for course use. And while all of us are aware of the fiscal constraints at universities, particularly as they impact our own budgets, it seems that as we look at our own challenges, we seldom see them in the context of the core issues facing our parent institutions, particularly regarding the humanities and social sciences—the pillars of the liberal arts education.
In the June 4, 2004 edition of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation and former president of Brown University and the New York Public Library, cites as “a major failure of our higher-education system” that “it has largely come to serve as a job-readiness program.” “In fact,” writes Gregroian in an essay entitled “Colleges Must Reconstruct the Unity of Knowledge” (and this is worth quoting at length), “mass higher education is heading toward what I call the Home Depot approach to education, where there is no differentiation between consumption and digestion, or between information and learning … colleges are becoming vast academic superstores, vast collections of courses, stacked up like sinks and lumber for do-it-yourselfers to try to assemble on their own into a meaningful whole.”
As we university press leaders worry about the impact of the book superstores on our business as title selection drops and inventory is homogenized, Gregorian’s statement is an important reminder that we need to be equally concerned with the superstore model as it relates to our parent institutions. But Gregorian makes clear that more is at stake than the ideal of the well-rounded student. Citing Thomas Jefferson’s belief that “a nation cannot be ignorant and free,” Gregorian extends his critique to a society that “tends to pay lip service to the complexity of problems and then continue[s] to gamble on simplistic solutions.” The example he gives, tellingly, is of those who seek to solve the problems of crime by building more prisons; here the shuttering of Northeastern with its distinguished list in criminal justice is resonant. Without the liberal education needed to “integrate learning and provide balance,” Gregorian worries, graduating students are “more likely to become the kinds of citizens who abidcate individual judgment in favor of others’ opinions … or worse, to charlatans posing as experts.”
Is Gregorian overstating his case? The following is from a address given in 2000 by the president of a research university—though not one with a university press—to the American Association of University Administrators. The speaker celebrated the new entrepreneurial university as a place that “makes money,” “where you can legally talk about your students as customers,” and which “unlike many [universities] in Europe and Asia are not breeding grounds for discontent, let alone violent revolution.” The university president continued that “thinking about money—and chasing it—has made our universities the wonders they are,” adding that he hoped that “someday, and soon,” “articles in the Wall Street Journal and the Harvard Business Review” on “the effectiveness of faculty and administration as a team will supplant … articles about political correctness” in the newsmedia.
Here, the reader of Vartan Gregorian might well exclaim: “superstore me.”
It is important to note in the university president’s speech the clear opposition between management and politics—between students as “customers” and students who “revolt” or are even “discontent.” It is important because there is, I believe, a political dimension to the corporate management model that has cast its shadow on the university and, thus, on scholarly communication. For some of you, this next part may verge on conspiracy theory. But we should recall that the conspiracy theory is, along with jazz and baseball, one of most characteristic and enduring forms of American popular culture. Conspiracy theories such as Hilary Clinton’s “vast right wing conspiracy” give us a way of organizing related phenomena when we don’t quite have, or we are being denied, the sources we need. They are, with apologies to Vartan Gregorian, a way of “reconstructing the unity of knowledge.”
This much is documented. Recently, conservative groups and legislators have promised to intercede in the rising cost of university educations by making them accountable to parents and students “exercising their power as consumers in the higher education marketplace.” Tracing the ideological root system of this higher education version of the “No Child Left Behind Act,” Stanley Fish, in a recent article in Academe, summarized the strategy as follows: “if the public can be persuaded that institutions of higher education are fiscally and pedagogically irresponsible—wasting your money, teaching your children to be unpatriotic and irreligious—the way will be open to a double agenda: strip colleges and universities of both federal and state support and then tie whatever funds are left to performance measures in the name of accountability and assessment.” If you believe Fish’s analysis, the threat to the liberal arts and to basic research in the humanities and social sciences is clear. And if you don’t—if you doubt that there is a political element to the remaking of universities—a week spent watching Fox News or listening to Rush Limbaugh will demonstrate the extent to which a free professoriate is seen as both ideologically dangerous and fiscally wasteful by the political right.
As university press publishers, our defining interest is in giving voice to scholars—in enabling them to exercise their fundamental right of free inquiry and expression and making that fundamental right more than simply a theory. Freedom of written expression is widely held of equal importance to freedom in the classroom itself. The Association of American University Professors 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure stated, “institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good and not to further the interest of either the individual teacher or“—and my emphasis here is for the entrepreneurial university president I quoted earlier—or “for the institution as a whole. The common good depends upon the free search for truth and its free expression.”
This crucial partnership between faculty and publisher and the intertwining of academic freedom and publishing has long roots in the United States, as does the effort to suppress those freedoms, often in the cause of protecting religion and moral values. One of the earliest government statements on public education, if not the earliest statement, specifically links the two. In 1671, Virginia Governor Sir William Berkeley stated, “I thank God there are no free schools nor printing and I hope we shall not have these … for learning has brought disobedience and heresy and sects into the world and print has divulged them … God keep us from both.” Learning, disobedience, and the printing press are thus closely aligned and I believe that universities and university presses need to value and to support all three.
University presses enable scholars and members of the university community to gain access to scholarly and public debate—to give scholars the capability to exercise “free expression” and to write and speak as public citizens. That freedom, I believe, requires not just publishers but nonprofit scholarly publishers. In a 1997 report to a Presidential Commission on the Arts and Humanities, political philosopher Benjamin Barber wrote of the dilemma facing democracy when “civil society has been collapsed into the commercial market sector,” subjecting the arts and humanities to the market’s relentless “uniformity of taste, leveling of standards, and commodification of [culture],” in a market that “while free in theory, is in practice often monopolistic in ownership and conformist in taste.”
Commercial publishers, reporting as they do to shareholders rather than scholars, often shun emerging ideas and areas of inquiry and make market-based decisions on what scholarship is worthy of dissemination. It took Johns Hopkins [University Press] to pioneer publishing in human genetics when it was considered a scientific backwater and MIT Press to publish widely in artificial intelligence when that field was just emerging and benefited from little corporate funding. In the 1970s, university presses helped to advance scholarship on African-American history at a time when commercial publishers considered slavery and emancipation a closed issue; in the 1980s, university presses nurtured emerging areas of enquiry such as Chicano studies and gay and lesbian history at a time when no market for such books was thought to exist.
More recently, at the time of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, nearly all the relevant existing scholarship guiding public debate and policy had been published by scholarly presses—as we know, nearly every title listed by the New York Times as an essential resource on the region was a university press book and one of them, we’ll recall, was published by the now shuttered Northeastern University Press. As Peter Givler, likes to say “we publish the book before it is news” and this is seen again in the growing relevance of a book Cornell published two years ago on the subject of corporate soldiers and the outsourcing of the military (itself, another instance of the danger that arises when corporate models are applied to civic institutions). AAUP member presses publish significant books that gain national attention, but most importantly, a look at the bibliography or endnotes of nearly any nonfiction book that rises to national prominance will reveal that it is built on a foundation of university press published monographs and journal articles. Simply put, without university presses, crucial, validated knowledge about culture, science, politics, and history would share the fate of light hidden underneath a bushel or of one link in a Google search that turns up 440,000 results (which is the number of results you get if you type the words “military outsourcing” into the Google searchbox).
It is difficult to talk about mission without sounding messianic, but I can’t help believing that this wealth of independent and, yes, noncommercial research conducted by university faculty and disseminated by university presses are alike threatened by this collapse of civil society into the corporate market sector. AAUP needs to make the case that university presses are one of the primary means by which faculties and universities can retain and express their independence from commercial pressures and, by doing so, achieve their mission to serve society.
Finally, I’ll return to the voyageurs. The primeval forests of the upper midwest were so dense and perilous and the terrain so flat and without landmarks that ordinary ways of marking trails were insufficient. So individual traders and parties of exploration would create “lob trees” by removing the branches from one entire side of the tallest pines so that those looking for a reference point could always find their way. These lob trees were both trail markers and rallying points—places to come when an individual trader had become lost.
AAUP creates many such markers and rallying points. The Mellon Grant Statistical Project initiated by Colin Day, funded by the Mellon Foundation, and shepherded by Bob Faherty gives us a crucial understanding of the current status of our business. The Sales Task Force created last year by Seetha Srinivasan and chaired by John Kessler and Susan Donnelly has opened clearer paths between our camps and the trading centers that are our major vendors. The Copyright Committee, chaired for many years by Sandy Thatcher and now by Daphne Ireland, has been crucial in helping guide us through the thickets of intellectual property law in the digital age. The Marketing and Business Committees have created handbooks setting-out best practice in two crucial areas of our operations and the Professional Development Committee has set up training in all the areas of scholarly publishing woodcraft that constituite our business. The Diversity Handbook Task Force, co-chaired by Sylvia Hecimovich and Jill Shimabukuro, has established guidelines for recruitment and employee retention that promise to make all our presses better environments for our talented workforces. We’ll set out more such markers and rallying points in the year ahead, including a task force Marlie Wasserman has agreed to lead in the next year to draft a statement that will affirm the central role of university presses in the future of scholarly publishing and digital communication, taking into account—balancing —both our mission and our sustainability.
Our presses are far flung and determinedly independent. That diversity and decentralization is both our strength and our greatest challenge as an association. AAUP needs to continue to mark trails, establish rallying points, and to make the case for the importance of nonprofit scholarly publishing as a whole, both for the academic community and for society at large. There is plenty of fast paddling ahead of us, but these annual meetings remind us how much we accomplish as a group; of the talent and decication of university press editors, business staff, marketing professionals, designers, e-publishing personnel, and administrators; and of how fortunate we all are to be a part of an enterprise as vigorous and important as scholarly publishing.