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.