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Blue Civil War Hits Universities

A few months ago, Via Meadia did a piece on the poor quality and low readership of the material that fills up university presses. Perhaps someone at the University of Missouri was reading this, as the New York Times reports that the university has just announced that it is closing its university press after losing its annual subsidy of $400,000. Now professors and students are up in arms over the closure, decrying the move as an attack on scholarly discourse and taking to Facebook petitions to protest the decision.

Look past the uproar, however, and it is clear that this is part of a wider trend. A number of other universities, including prestigious schools like Rice, have shuttered their presses, and six more have joined it in the past three years alone. As state budgets contract, and as private universities face higher costs, schools across the country are all finding out the same thing—the money just isn’t there. Some tough questions get asked:

In their early decades the bottom line did not matter. Cornell started the first university press in the United States in 1869, and the presses were set up to publish the research results of faculty. As time passed, however, presses were increasingly asked to generate revenue for their institutions. Now their future at many campuses revolves around two questions: Are presses part of a university’s core mission, akin to an academic department? Or are they business investments, expendable if they fail to draw profit?

Much of what the academy publishes could be trashed with little loss, but at their best university presses are a priceless asset for civilization. Fewer university presses with higher standards would probably serve humanity better than the current system. Some of the problem stems from the nature of the tenure system, in which every academic in the country is under pressure to publish books whether he or she has anything worth saying or not. In that sense the university press problem is a symptom rather than a cause of academia’s woes. Parts of the university press system work like vanity presses, where the driving force in the system is the author’s need to be published rather than the reader’s need to know.

What’s going on here, however, is less about quality than it is about money and the outmoded foundations of American institutions and practices built in the post World War Two era. The baroque inefficiency of the academic enterprise—and especially the research model university, which transposes a vision of the intellectual life from the hard sciences and engineering into the social sciences and the humanities—has built a system that demands enormous outside resources to continue to function.

In a handful of cases, notably the best endowed private universities, there is enough money on hand to make this system work. But less affluent private universities and virtually all public universities face a harsher climate. And as state governments in particular face claims on their tight revenues from more powerful constituencies than university faculty and staff, the public universities are being systematically starved of cash.

There are two ways for the system to respond. One is by cheese paring: cutting costs on “extraneous” or “non-core” activities while trying to preserve the heart of the old model. This looks like simple common sense to most administrators, and it is often the thinking that leads to the closure of university presses as well as other activities that, in the cold light of a budget crunch, suddenly look like frills.

The second way is more difficult, but it is ultimately what the academy must do: it must reinvent itself and radically restructure. This would involve not merely closing down an expensive university press but rethinking the relationship of scholarship to teaching, and re-examining the relevance of the “publish or perish” system for the large group of disciplines and institutions where it doesn’t really make sense.

Speaking personally, the best work of university presses fills me with awe and admiration, and on the whole I’d rather see a too many scholarly books published than too few. But I’m the type that wishes that that awful Mr. Gutenberg hadn’t wrecked the market for illuminated manuscripts, and I’m glad that the Torah readings in synagogues still come from scrolls.

That personal preference, however, is irrelevant to the choices universities face. As the blue system implodes, politicians are going to come after universities the way Henry VIII went after the monks. The blue meltdown pits the universities against the public service unions, against the public schools, against families and students struggling under student loan burdens, against everyone else who wants or needs a share of the state budget. Academics are among the weakest and most vulnerable of those who depend on the state; the universities are fated to lose badly in the money wars.

Those who love what the academy at its best can do and be need to think creatively and act decisively, because the money crunch isn’t going away. Change is coming, and that is a given. The question is, can academia develop a constructive and creative response? If we do, and I think we can, the American academy will maintain its global leadership even as it plays an ever more constructive role in the life of this country and the world.

If not, it’s going to be a miserably long and cold winter of cheese paring budget cuts and eating the seed corn.

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  • gooch mango

    The problem with universities is the problem with healthcare is the problem with state/city budgets… administrators get the money first. And from the administrators perspective, administrators make the world go ’round… everybody else is an expense.

    So a wave of change sweep over the land, from either the “good government” reformers or a simple lack of money… it doesn’t matter, and what do we get?

    We get more adjuncts, less professors, and a new vice chancellor in charge of saving money.

    We get less face time with doctors, lower medicare payments, and a new vice president in charge of cost cutting and budgetary overview.

    We get longer lines at the DMV, less cops on the street, and a salary bump for the poor, overworked bureaucrats we never see.

    The bureaucracy gets the money first. It feeds itself first. And from the bureaucracy’s point of view, that is the rational thing to do.

  • Charming Billy

    The University of Missouri Press publishes the Eric Voegelin Institute Series as well as the Collected Works of Eric Voegelin. That makes it one of the few academic outlets for conservative political thought. It will be missed.

  • Emerson

    Can’t they offer these as e-books either for sale or not? Make the sites for them look prestigious and such? Seems that would cost very little and I hear in the future we’ll all read books on cyber-contact lenses anyway.

    On a tangential point, why do leftists make it seem that supermarket paper bags come solely from old growth forests with Bambi’s blood as ink? I like to say out loud at Trader Joe’s that paper, like vegetables, are a renewable resource.

  • Ann

    I agree with Emerson, why not have a Gutenberg Project type of university publication system. Jstor and other sites give access to papers and such, but they’re very expensive if you can’t access them through your college. If they can make it cost effective for subscribers to access scholarly papers and books it would save the universities “presses”. Of course, this is a business model that media in general has had trouble with. I only buy art books or illustrated books, every other kind of book is bought through my kindle app these days and my house is much less cluttered.

    As for dead trees, yes, I always laugh at people who have no idea that paper comes from tree farms, I tell them they should stop buying produce as well then.

  • ms

    Happy news–just as my dissertation is being reviewed by an academic press. There’s one positive reveiw so far, but maybe the press will close down before the review is finished!

  • Steve

    Part of the uproar over the Missouri closure was that the same budget that shut the press also confirmed their football coach making almost $3 million a year.

    That seems like a much more obnoxious waste for a taxpayer supported insitution than a small press.

  • Jim.

    Making information available online is far cheaper than Elsevier and Jstor want you to think.

    Making information available online cheaply — or for free — will revolutionize human development.

    Someone needs to contact the guys at Google to buy out academic presses and the information they represent, before the $25-per-article crowd (whose overhead is minimal and author payouts are a joke) lock it down behind a paywall.

  • Anthony

    The money just isn’t there – are presses part of a university’s core mission or are they business investments…

    Points definitely worth consideration; significantly, rethinking the relationship of scholarship to… makes for cogent advise in era of both structural and financial re-examination (advise to perhaps avoid harshness of money crunch).

  • Felipe Pait

    States fund university education funding at a lower rate than the cost of a private high school. Once you consider the numbers, your argument collapses.

  • Duncan Frissell

    Eliminate the (non teaching) administrators and the special programs for victims and concentrate on core subjects and you can thrive. Note how well Grove City College and Hillsdale do without government funds and government student loans.

  • dearieme

    “… politicians are going to come after universities the way Henry VIII went after the monks”: at last, someone who agrees with my slogan on the university question – “Dissolution of the Monasteries”.

  • Kris

    Some people seem to have a very simplistic understanding of the concept “free press”.

    “Now professors and students are up in arms over the closure, … taking to Facebook petitions to protest the decision.”

    Facebook petitions? What are these? Surely if a petition is to mean anything, it must be written on dead tree products!

    “I’m glad that the Torah readings in synagogues still come from scrolls.”

    Codices are the Devil’s work!

  • Tom Gates

    Steve, the University itself does not pay its football coach that kind of money, the donors to the sports programs pays 95% of that. Most University presidents kid themselves that donors would give the same money to academia if sports were shut down.Sadly that is not true and many a president has lost his/her job finding that out.
    If Universities were not so politically correct or liberal, many alumni might be inclined to participate outside of sports. I go to several lectures a year hosted by my alma mater tied to some chair or lecture series, and 90% of the topics are liberal racial ,gender, pollitical screed. Despite there being some big names involved, the auditorium seldom has more than 40 to 50 people in attendance.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Drudge has a link up right now
    “Fiction eBooks outsell hardcover’s…”
    So I don’t think this is just a University Press problem. The problem is in fact much more than just with publishing, it extends to education, news media, retail sales, porn, and everywhere the internet touches. Adapting to an internet on-demand model is shutting down all the “buggy whip makers” no matter how good their “buggy whips” are or how cheaply they produce them, if the consumer can’t get it right now at home in their pajamas, they don’t want it.

  • Corlyss

    I’m reasonably confident that the reason any univeristy established a publishing house was because the profit-driven commercial publishers wouldn’t touch academic products. They didn’t give a fig about the need for academics to “get their research out.” They wanna make money! Too bad the academics didn’t think to themselves, “Well, what makes a readable work the public will pay money for?”

    Smarter people than me observed that after Truman Capote published his In Cold Blood, neither journailsm nor history writing would ever be the same. I can’t say; I don’t have the perspective to make such a claim. What I do know is that over the last 40-50 years, quite a few academics have learned the art of writing about their disciplines, including history, in a readable way to make it a commercial success as well as a credit to the academic and his academy. Maybe there’s a lesson in there for academics facing loss of an enslaved university press.

  • An

    @Felipe Pait

    The cost of education is not that dissimilar between equivalent state universities and private school. (i.e. comparing UCLA to USC, not USC to CSU Northridge) State universities are subsidized by tax payers which lower the end price, but the cost to educate the students are roughly the same in state and private universities of equal caliber. Public school costs have risen as much as Private school costs over the past 30 years.

    For a less distorted view, take a look at the professional schools like Business and Law, the difference between the tuition is not significant.

  • Eurydice

    I think if scholars are going to take up space in an academic institution, whether as degree candidates or professors, they should show some concrete evidence of scholarship. Maybe sometime in the future we’ll be able to scan their brains to read their elevated thoughts, but for now there’s just the written word. Maybe that means severely pruning the definition of “scholar”, which now seems to encompass even the most random vocational interest.

  • Brendan Doran

    “As the blue system implodes, politicians are going to come after universities the way Henry VIII went after the monks.”


    I prefer Cthulhu myself…

  • Walter Sobchak

    Tell them to wake up. It is the 21st century and publishers have joined the monks in the scriptorium.

    You can buy a basic Kindle for $79. “Publish on Amazon Kindle with Kindle Direct Publishing”

    is a free download.

    Academics need to get their heads out of their hind ends. They are next. They got by for the last few years on prestige, mystique, and history. (and on pandering to lazy drunken adolescents and their sentimental clueless parents)

    Now that the hard times are here, people are starting to ask themselves if a college education is really worth financial peonage. Academics better be able to provide services worth the prices they are charging, or their business model will go to the same place that publishing, journalism, music, and other information services are going.

  • Moneyrunner

    Like the realtors and the mortgage lenders ten years ago, the inhabitants of academia are in denial. They may sense that there is something wrong, but they don’t know how to fix it and are in denial about the urgency of the problem. Stuck in a thousand year old time warp, they have as much grasp of why they are in decline as newspaper editors were when they were introduced to the Internet. Last month Leonard Pitts was trying to rally the troops behind the viability and absolute necessity of newspapers. Denial is not a just river in Egypt. The simple fact that you had to watch Fox News or go to the Internet to have heard of the Fast and Furious scandal illustrates why Pitts is wrong.

    At UVA. The faculty staged a coup and won. It how owns the problem and is responsible for the solution. I have zero faith in their ability, indeed in their desire, to address the problem. And when UVA becomes a historical curiosity, reminiscent of Colonial Williamsburg just down the road, we will know who to blame.

  • Art Deco

    1. You have an inflexible labor market.

    2. Even in the absence of online programs, you have an excess of physical plant inflating fixed costs.

    3. Academic programming is padded with distribution requirements and overall credit requirements.

    4. Costs are padded with catering to privileged political interests in the administration and to the maintenance of departmental rotten boroughs.

    It might be better to just cut the tail off the dog. Abolish the current set of degree programs in favor of focused single-subject programs, replace tenure with renewable multi-year contracts, eliminate the public subsidies, put institutions public and private under the governance of trustees elected by locally-resident alumni, and appoint enough bankruptcy judges to handle the excess traffic.

  • anon

    Having departed the commercial world a decade ago for Ivy covered walls, I agree 100% with Professor Mead’s analysis.

    While the external politics of academia is left-leaning, most of the ‘Academics’ and ‘Staff’ members are very conservative in personality and approach to … um … any ‘problems’ with the University.

    It seems to me that sometimes becomes ‘tradition’ and ‘inviolate’ if it has been done for even a single time.

    IMHO the (long term) future of Higher Education will be indepedent on-line courses with credentialing by another independent agency. Yet another case of ‘disintermediation’ by the internet.

    So long most ‘brick and mortar Ivy covered quads’. :-}

  • Mr. G

    There is more serious intellectual work available for free than at any time and it is easily accessed. I have done some serious reading on my Kindle that I would not have done if I had to spend the money and have the inconvenience of carrying the book around while I stole some time to read it. This is actually good for universities. If I am a quality academic and my work can hold up against anyone at any time why wouldn’t I want a cheap way for the academic and general public to access my work? E-publishing will make someone who was an obscure but talented academic into someone recognizable. It will be a way for academia to be producing real ideas to be used by real society rather than the closed degree mill system it has become. Some academics will win under this and the hucksters will lose.

  • srp

    E-books are a red herring here. The costs of running university presses are not concentrated in the printing and distribution of physical books (and they charge sky-high unit prices anyway). The big costs are in locating, screening, editing, and “marketing” these books.

    The reason why self-publishing is not equivalent to being published by a university press is because the latter provides some kind of certification of quality, which feeds into the prestige-and-tenure system of academia. Academics like to assess the quality of other academics without reading or evaluating their work, a pathology also attributable to the unrealistic expectation that everyone should spew out publications.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Vis Meadia IS a university press already. Sure there should be some way of specially publishing the best product of our universities – perhaps even in leather bound, gold embossed editions analogous to the Torah still being hand inscribed on scrolls. But electronic publishing into the intellectual commons is where the material belongs. Outsource the material with specialist only interest to the great indexer Google and the stuff with commercial potential to Amazon.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Correction: Via Meadia of course!

  • teapartydoc

    I’ve been saying that bit about Henry VIII for about a year now. Thar’s munny in them thar foundations! All it takes is a law stating that funds raised for state funded institutions is the property of the state. And when the institutions are weak shells of their former selves, they won’t be able to stand up to it. Better loot those foundations now, university presidents.

  • Barks in the Country

    I believe Rice University at least flirted with the idea of electronic publishing.

  • BB

    “This would involve not merely closing down an expensive university press but rethinking the relationship of scholarship to teaching, and re-examining the relevance of the “publish or perish” system for the large group of disciplines and institutions where it doesn’t really make sense.”

    Amen. Outside the top universities, the quality of what is being published in the “publish or perish” world is usually not worth the cost (in time) to the faculty or their students. And as Meade says, in some fields there is not really anything going on that could be called scholarship. University presses are a side issue; they can be consolidated and the pain will be temporary. Re-structuring the way faculty spend their time and how they are evaluated will be much harder.

  • Kris

    Barks@28: From the original article: “After closing its press in the mid-1990s, Rice University reopened a digital-only operation in 2006, but it shut that down after four years. Rice’s example revealed a difficult truth about digital scholarly publishing: it is still expensive. Most of the cost in producing scholarly writings comes before anything is printed on paper, through expenses like hiring people for peer review.”

    Hmm. Waittaminute. Those people being paid for peer review, would they just happen to be academics? The kind who are altruistically demanding that the university presses continue publishing, costs be damned?

  • Mark

    The cost of 1 editor is fairly negligible. If you want/need peer review from a given department, that’s easy … make it a condition of either getting or retaining tenure. If peer review was as highly thought of/rewarded as publishing, the university would suddenly get more peer review as a result without paying their peer reviewers any more than they are already. The trick would be to reward critical peer review, not just rubber stamp endorsements.

    Flip side, colleges and universities are supposed to be about thought leadership. At least an executive summary of all articles/books written by staff while they are at the school (as well as any major thesis from the students – honors level undergraduate, masters, Ph.D) should probably be available on the web for free (as advertising for the school and to drive debate in the applicable fields) with a downloadable version as well. The trick is to make certain some of the articles (peer reviewed and professionally edited) are citable by creating some kind of in-house reference system, so that even if the docs are pulled off the web, they can be found again at the applicable library of the school. (And if the school scans it, Google would probably be happy to archive the articles and index them too.) Make the full electronic versions also available from the usual suspects at a price (Amazon’s Kindle, B&N’s Nook, etc) if they are not published in a field-specific periodical. (For student-generated thesis, the publication could be in the form of a single year-specific “book” consisting of all the thesis in a particular discipline.) The school then splits any royalties with the in-house author…. (and the students execute a waiver so they don’t get paid anything).

    The result should be a revenue generating press consistent with the mission of the school for under $120K a year in costs.

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