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University Presses Under Fire | The Nation

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University Presses Under Fire

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(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

On May 24, 2012, the University of Missouri System announced that it would close the University of Missouri Press so that it might focus more efficiently on “strategic priorities.” Admirers of the press mobilized rapidly to save it. “By abrupt fiat,” the author William Least Heat-Moon wrote in a local newspaper, the university “wants to eradicate a half-century of dedicated work in fostering, developing and publishing more than 2,000 books.” During a concert in Columbia, Missouri, Lucinda Williams lamented the closing of the press and defended its beleaguered staff. The New York Times and NPR covered the controversy, and 5,200 people signed a petition supporting the press. Four months later, the university reversed its decision. “Without question, the best news from the University of Missouri Press,” its editor in chief, Clair Willcox, recently wrote, “is that there is a University of Missouri Press.”

The Missouri case starkly illustrates a dual reality about the world of university press publishing—many university presses exist on the edge, and a large number of people want them to survive and flourish. Says Peter Berkery, the executive director of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP): “University presses are experiencing new, acute and, in some ways, existential pressures, largely from changes occurring in the academy and the technology juggernaut. Random House can see the technology threat and they can throw some substantial resources at it. The press at a small land-grant university doesn’t have the same ability to respond.”

“It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge, and to diffuse it not merely among those who can attend the daily lectures—but far and wide.” So wrote Daniel Coit Gilman, the founder of Johns Hopkins University and its university press, which, established in 1878, is the oldest in the country. Gilman’s words appear in a 2002 essay about the history of university presses by Peter Givler, a former director of the AAUP. Givler notes that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many American university presidents had an enlightened understanding of the limits of commercial publishing: “To leave the publication of scholarly, highly specialized research to the workings of a commercial marketplace would be, in effect, to condemn it to languish unseen.”

In the intervening 136 years, the network of university presses has become a vibrant part of the publishing ecosystem. It encompasses giants such as Oxford University Press, which has fifty-two offices around the world, as well as Duquesne University Press, which specializes in medieval and Renaissance studies. University presses publish a vast range of scholarship, but they also publish a dizzying array of books that are unlikely to find a home at Manhattan’s large commercial publishers. Consider some recent offerings: Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen’s An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions (Princeton); Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker’s Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (California); Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark (Texas), edited by Chad Hammett; and Warren Hoffman’s The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical (Rutgers). University presses don’t just publish books: they keep books in print and rescue out-of-print books from obscurity. Thanks to the University of Minnesota Press, there is an attractive new edition of Gary Giddins’s Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (1986). “People sometimes dismiss university press publications as low-selling, but that underestimates their cultural importance and influence,” says Doug Armato, director of the University of Minnesota Press. “When you look at the endnotes of bestselling serious books—Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson are a good example—you see how much they are built on work published by university presses.” And occasionally there is a runaway success: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is published by Harvard University Press.

But the digital age complicates and threatens the mission of the country’s approximately 100 university presses. Ellen Faran, who has an MBA from Harvard and is the director of MIT Press, recently told Harvard Magazine: “I like doing things that are impossible, and there’s nothing more impossible than university-press publishing.”

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