University Presses Feeling the Pinch

Kevin Nance
From the November/December 2012 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

As financial woes have continued to plague higher education in recent years, university presses are becoming increasingly vulnerable to the budget ax. Although many presses receive relatively small subsidies—in part because they recover an average of 80 percent of their costs through sales—they’re often among the first programs to go, or be downsized, as part of institutional belt tightening throughout the academic world. Athletic programs, by contrast, are often heavily subsidized but much less targeted for cuts because of the perceived prestige they bring to the university.

Academic presses also bring prestige to their host institutions, of course, but that is often not enough. In 2009, for example, Louisiana State University announced that it would drastically cut its subsidy to its storied LSU Press, whose books had won four Pulitzer Prizes. In 2010, Southern Methodist University suspended the operations of its press, which was known for the quality of its literary fiction list. Last year, the University of California Press suspended its well-regarded poetry series, New California Poetry, in anticipation of state budget cuts. And earlier this year, the University of New Orleans (UNO) put its small but scrappy press “on hiatus” pending a review of its financial feasibility, and eliminated its director’s position.

In some cases, however, universities have found that shutting down a press is more complicated, and certainly riskier from a public-relations perspective, than anticipated. More than a decade ago, the University of Arkansas tried to shut down its press, only to face a sustained and impassioned outcry from the press’s supporters; the university reversed itself, and the press survived. Over the past few months, a similar scenario has played out at the University of Missouri, where officials announced a shutdown of its press—occasioned by what the university system’s new president, Timothy M. Wolfe, called a reevaluation of university activities that are “not central to our core mission”—only to backtrack after an avalanche of angry calls and letters, newspaper editorials deploring the move, and a Facebook campaign to save the press. Perhaps most effective was the determined response of more than fifty of the press’s authors, who demanded the return of their publishing rights, which would have cost the university substantial revenue. Now the university plans to retain the press in something close to its original form, as a publisher of scholarly books in hardcover and paperback, albeit with a somewhat greater emphasis on digital publishing.

“It was really rather surprising to us just how many people were upset about the fact that the press was being shut down,” university spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken concedes. “Maybe the university underestimated the support the press had. But universities are led by groups of people, and people can change their minds based on reaction.”

Two university press directors who followed the Missouri situation closely—James McCoy of the University of Iowa and Douglas Armato of the University of Minnesota—say it illustrates how academic presses, which historically have kept a low profile on college campuses, need to do a better job of explaining their contributions and relevance to the overall goals of their host institutions. “We tend to be marginalized within universities, but that’s largely due to ourselves,” McCoy says. “It’s the duty of a press to make your administration aware of who you are and what you’re doing, and in Missouri, it seems, the university really wasn’t aware of the purpose of the press. It’s difficult for administrators to understand, but a good university press is about more than the bottom line. We talk a lot about money at universities these days because there’s less to go around, but it’s important to understand the concept of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. The tenure system is based on book publication, and, by and large, academic presses are the ones who are going to publish those books. It’s also true that if there’s increased interest in publishing that’s digitized, we have to remember that that form of publishing still has its cost. Research has its cost, and it doesn’t happen cheaply.”

Armato, a former president of the American Association of University Presses, agrees. “Missouri was a special situation in that there was a new president of the university system, and I think he didn’t get very good advice,” he says. “Part of the problem is that universities don’t quite know how to fit presses into their accounting system. Presses generate revenue, which most other university departments don’t, and in fact the Missouri press was almost in the black. But of course academic presses are businesses, and almost all businesses at some point or other are going to have cash-flow issues. A private business in that situation goes to the bank; with a university press, the university is the bank, and the administration doesn’t always know how to handle that.”

Sometimes the closure of university presses may be motivated by factors that transcend money. In the case of the University of New Orleans Press, its former director, Bill Lavender, claims that the reasons for his ouster were more complicated than mere budget cutting. “It was a completely political move,” says Lavender, who was also forced out as the popular head of UNO’s low-residency MFA program, several of whose students circulated an online petition supporting him. He said his fate at UNO was the result of long-simmering conflicts among Fredrick Barton, director of the university’s full-residency MFA program; Peter Schock, chairman of the English department; Susan Krantz, dean of the college of liberal arts; and himself. “I was eliminated not because of budgetary reasons, because that could easily have been dealt with in a variety of other ways,” Lavender says. “The budget cuts provided a convenient way for them to do what they had been wanting to do for quite a while.”

UNO spokesman Adam M. Norris denies Lavender’s allegations. “This was a decision based on budget cuts,” Norris insists, “not on any alleged conflict with administrators.”

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

[Editor's Note: Shortly after the November/December 2012 issue went to press, the University of Missouri announced that Clair Wilcox, the longtime editor of the University of Missouri Press whose position had been terminated with the initial shutdown of the press, would be rehired as editor.]


English Depts. Missed an Opportunity

Even my own alma mater missed an opportunity to request help in funding their literary magazine. I was never directly solicited by my former English department to help ensure the publication of new, high quality literary efforts. Multiple travel brochures, alumni association solicitations, scholarship requests arrive all the time, but not a single request came from the creative department on which I focused my attention for four years. I wonder if the presses you mention ever went directly to alumni for help.

It is true that universities are being pressured to produce more qualified scienctists, engineers and math graduates to fill the thousands of empty positions in our struggling economy. Technical education requires labs and well equipped engineering departments. If the university literary press is not self-supporting and appealing to a large audience, it's an easy target for elimination in this environment. Political or not, financial sustainability is a criteria by which campus expenditures are justified. The demise of the campus press fortunately does not preclude the online publication of any school's literary magazine.

Perhaps it is not a tragedy that unprofitable academic presses are being closed. They may find new opportunities by adopting a different model, assisting academics, managing their final editing and overseeing the publication of their efforts on ebook outlets. Recovering funds by closing a printing division on campus is a financial decision.  It defers publication to a new model that offers off campus production. The upside:  Academic books bearing the university's imprinteur get distributed globally to wider acclaim.