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School’s in Recession

For seventy-five years Louisiana State University (LSU), in Baton Rouge, has been home to two of the country's most storied literary institutions, LSU Press and the Southern Review. Books published by the press—including, most famously, John Kennedy Toole's posthumous best-seller, A Confederacy of Dunces—have won four Pulitzer Prizes, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the American Book Award, and the Man Booker Prize, among others; the press's poetry list has long been among the strongest in the nation. The Southern Review, which was cofounded by Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and others in 1935, has since nurtured—and often launched—the careers of several generations of important writers.

But prestige was not enough to save both LSU Press and the Southern Review from a 20 percent cut in university subsidy in July. They were among several "ancillary" (nonacademic) university programs affected by a fifty-two-million-dollar shortfall in state funding for the LSU system. The good news is that despite fears that the budget cuts might force one or both institutions to close, the press and the journal have survived mostly intact. The press, which publishes about eighty books a year, has no plans to reduce that number. And the magazine will continue to publish quarterly.

"In the end, we're fine," Southern Review editor Jeanne Leiby says. "People are understandably worried about us, but we're not going anywhere."

The bad news is that both institutions are now in full-scale retrenchment mode. LSU Press, which lost one hundred thousand dollars from its normal university allocation of half a million dollars, was forced to lay off some employees; director MaryKatherine Callaway declined to say how many. Future issues of the Southern Review will have an average page count of 180 rather than the customary 200 to 220.

In addition, LSU Press and the Southern Review must now divert much of their attention and staff resources away from editorial matters to seek and/or create new revenue streams. "We will supplement our budget through grants, donations, and other funds," Callaway wrote in an e-mail. "We plan to add a development director this year to aid those fund-raising efforts." The press also plans to expand its e-book program, and to continue to explore ways to reduce expenses by using new technologies to print books in smaller print runs, which helps lower initial manufacturing costs and reduce warehousing fees.

Belt-tightening measures at the Southern Review include reducing or eliminating outlays for travel, advertising, and office supplies. And a number of readings and other events planned to commemorate the seventy-fifth anniversary of the magazine next year have been canceled; others have been converted from free events open to the public into fund-raising opportunities. "Everything except the bare bones is being cut," Leiby says. "We'd like to do a mail campaign to raise money, but we can't because it's too expensive."

Perhaps most poignant of all, the annual editor's awards for the best poetry, nonfiction, and fiction published in the magazine each year—named for Warren, Brooks, and Eudora Welty, respectively—are being discontinued in their present form because the magazine can't afford the fifteen-hundred-dollar prize each of the winners usually receives. Instead, Leiby is considering turning the awards into a contest with a twenty-dollar entry fee. "I don't know if I'm going to do that, but I feel like I have to consider it," she says. "If you have a thousand entries at twenty bucks, you're talking real money. But that's also another thousand manuscripts coming into this office, which is a burden on an already stressed staff. Can we actually take a thousand more manuscripts to consider? Can we process, through a state system, a thousand twenty-dollar checks? I have to say that quietly, because my business manager might pass out."

One option Leiby is not considering is a change in the content of the magazine, which has a circulation of about three thousand. "I will not make changes to the magazine that I think would cheapen it," she says. "By that I mean I'm not going to all of a sudden start publishing things that would be considered mass market or may have a larger reading audience but not necessarily an audience that is interested in the best literary fiction and poetry. I could go out and try to find short pieces by the next J. K. Rowling, but that's not our audience."

The budget cuts have alarmed and dismayed friends of the press and the magazine. "It's tremendously disturbing that they're cutting into these institutions that have done so much for LSU," says poet David Kirby, an LSU alumnus and author of the National Book Award finalist The House on Boulevard St.: New and Selected Poems, which was published as part of LSU Press's Southern Messenger Poets series in 2007. "It's a big, football-loving state school like many others, but the press and the magazine really make it stand out in the crowd. They are irreplaceable ambassadors to a larger world of culture, and I hate to see them crippled in any way."

George Singleton, a South Carolina–based novelist who has published short stories in the Southern Review, agrees. "These budget cuts are ticking me off, and I think it's myopic on the part of the university," he says. "For the most part, big New York City publishers are getting scared and publishing the same old homogenized stuff. The university presses are doing more cutting-edge work that's different and that needs to be published. To cut LSU Press's budget, and the Southern Review's budget, is just cutting out literature. You know, I doubt they're cutting the football program's budget 20 percent. I love college football more than most people, but I'm going to remember a poem by Rodney Jones or a short story by Ron Rash that's in the Southern Review in twenty years. I'm not going to remember what the LSU football team's record was in any particular year."

The cuts in Baton Rouge are part of a general scaling back of subsidies for academic presses and literary magazines as university administrations around the country grapple with the economic downturn. This year, presses at Utah State University, Eastern Washington University, and the State University of New York have been affected. So have university-supported magazines such as the New England Review at Vermont's Middlebury College, whose president, Ron Liebowitz, recently cut the magazine's budget and gave it until late 2011 to eliminate its deficit with new fund-raising. (The college's budget oversight committee had proposed to eliminate all financial support for the magazine.) "I find asking families who are paying fifty thousand dollars a year in comprehensive fees to, in effect, subsidize a literary magazine that serves a very small slice of the general population and is known only to a handful of Middlebury students, a very hard sell," Liebowitz wrote on his official blog in June.

The posting drew lively and often sharp responses from supporters and detractors—the latter including poet Peter Campion, editor of Literary Imagination: The Review of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics (Oxford University Press), who echoed Singleton's remarks about the seeming imbalance of support for athletic and literary programs. "This statement, from the president of one of the best liberal arts colleges in the nation, borders on shocking," he wrote. "I mean, what if you replaced ‘literary magazine' with ‘Division III men's and women's golf and squash teams' or ‘Rikert Skiing Center.' Surely the literary magazine is much closer to the mission of a liberal arts college. That it may have less day-to-day involvement with the Middlebury experience is not the fault of the magazine or its editors but rather of the administration, which has evidently failed to incorporate it into curriculum and extracurricular activities." (To read the thread, visit blogs.middlebury.edu/
rononmiddlebury/2009/06/02/budget-cuts-and-the-new-england-review
.)

At LSU, Leiby declines to bite the hand that still feeds her magazine, albeit more meagerly than before. "I fully believe that LSU did not want to do this," she says. "We have incredible support from the administration. They understand that both the press and the journal are important; it's just that higher education is getting slammed. What are they going to do, cut freshman composition?"

Kevin Nance is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine.

“LSU Press, which lost one hundred thousand dollars from its normal university allocation of half a million dollars, was forced to lay off some employees.”

Reader Comments

  • Michael Davenport says...

    It seems to be difficult for some sectors to understand budget cuts. No one likes it, no one wants it. However, it usually comes down to survival of the business (running a university is also a business). Gut wrenching cuts do happen and it's very distasteful. It's either these difficult cuts or the business does not survive. I would also suggest not complaining about sports budgets for two reasons. First, alumni and fans relate to the school's various athletic teams as common interest fun. Second, sports programs make money (not a cost to the school).

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