Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Our Disappearing University Presses

University of Missouri, Columbia MO
Some of my very favorite books were published by university presses.  What other publishers produce as many books about minor historical figures, obscure Civil War battles, literary criticism, quirky memoirs, minority studies, women's studies, poetry, regional histories, and the like?  I've learned that when looking for a book about any relatively obscure subject or person, it is always most efficient to start the search by browsing a few university catalogs and websites.

But in the last few years, those catalogs have become harder and harder to come by.  Now, I understand why.  According to this June 19 article by Jeffrey R. Di Leo in Inside Higher Ed, university presses are rapidly disappearing.  That bothers me as much as what is happening to bookstores around the country. Times are changing, for sure, and not for the better - absolutely not for the better.
One of the measures of a great university is the strength of its press. Press strength is determined by its catalogue, and its catalogue by the choices of its editors and the impact of its authors. 
University presses are nonprofit enterprises. Though these presses may reach a level of financial self-sufficiency in their operation, they are by and large underwritten by their host universities. This is part of the investment of higher education.

Most of the monographs produced by scholars have a limited audience — and very few make their publishers any money. However, their publication is still an important aspect of scholarly activity and knowledge dissemination.
How does one compare a football season to a publishing season? Is an 8-5 season more valuable than 30 books published? Is running a press worth losing an assistant coach or two?
The reason Mr. Di Leo throws out the question just above is because it seems to take about $400,000 per year to subsidize a good-sized university press.  The latest university to announce a looming shutdown of its press is the University of Missouri, one that was founded in 1958 and enjoys a reputation as one of the best university presses in this country.  According to Di Leo, $400,000 is just a little more than what the University of Missouri pays to the men filling the roles of assistant head coach and defensive co-ordinator.

But we know which program is a profit center for the school, a recruiting tool that keeps all that money flowing into the school coffers to pay all those so "critically needed" university administrators, don't we?  It is a sad day (and the Houston area school I'm proudest of, Rice University, is among those having made the same decision) when our best universities forget what their purpose really is and decide to place a higher value on athletics than on the prestige to be gained from running a successful university press.

Read the rest of this article for all the disheartening details.  The dumbing down of America is preceding at an ever accelerating pace, friends.

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