The University of Missouri does not rank very high even among US state universities. It is my impression that, unlike Berkeley, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio State, and other land-grant universities, the University of Missouri has never aspired to be a “public Ivy”. Nor has the state government encouraged such aspirations. The University’s history—an increasingly familiar story—is one of chronic underfunding, in recent years made worse by a heavily Republican legislature.
On Thursday last week, buried in the third paragraph of a boringly-titled press release that reiterated the President’s “six priorities for the coming year” (including, of course, “excellence”) was the news that the University of Missouri Press will be “phased out” in the 2013 fiscal year (which starts on 1 July 2012). Ten employees face, on very short notice, an uncertain future.
The Press operates at a loss. Most academic presses do. The cost to the University of supporting the Press in FY 2012 was $397,835. A look at UM salaries shows that this is equivalent to less than two deans… In terms of endowment, $10 million would yield what the Press needs—not a large amount in a world where capital campaigns set their targets in the billions. The issue is not really money, but priorities, just as the President says. Ironically enough, one of them is “Effective Communication of our Value and Importance”. That, however, turns out to mean not scholarship but selling the University to state residents.
The University of Missouri Press was never going to rival California’s or, for that matter, Nebraska’s (a press whose record shows that even a relatively small midwestern operation can achieve national recognition). But that is not the only role a press can play. University presses, even major presses like Chicago and Hopkins, support artists and authors writing in and about their regions. Harvard is not going to publish a history of the Little Rock school system; the University of Arkansas Press did. If you want archeological work on the Native Americans of Arkansas and Missouri, they have it. According to Peter Givler, the director of the American Association of University Presses, the University of Arkansas Press was (and fortunately, still is)
one of the few publishers in the state that had been publishing histories of Arkansas music, folklore, all kinds of things that were of great interest in that community. It was regarded as a very valuable resource. In general, university presses have as part of their mission writing about local history and doing a good job about making it available to the public.
You may not care about the folklore and fishes of Arkansas, but people who live there do. It shouldn’t be that only New York and London—only places already heavily endowed with cultural capital—receive a scholarly treatment of their past. If there is anything to thinking locally, it includes taking seriously the knowledge of where one is, ecologically, culturally, historically. (Not to mention that metropolitan historians need to draw on local histories to write their sweeping synthetic masterpieces…)
It’s true that times are changing. The very name “Press” rings quaintly. Academic publishing faces great upheavals: the present system cannot be sustained for much longer. But I doubt that the best response is to shut down presses. Like libraries and librarians, presses and the people who work for them have accumulated a great deal of expertise; they tend to care strongly about the quality of what they produce. That certain for-profit conglomerates are busily trashing the traditions of scholarly publishing should not blind us to that fact. “New models that could support scholarly communication in new ways that take advantage of changing technology” (to quote the UM Provost Brian Foster) will not spring forth from nothing. Even those that seem to, like the arXiv (originally housed on a single PC), eventually tend to migrate to established institutions (the Cornell University Libraries).
The event is parochial, the issue is not. The view held by people in power of the mission of a public university has changed greatly over the last forty years (dating back to Clark Kerr’s vision of a multiversity). More and more, older models of scholarship and teaching have been supplanted by (i) a consumer model for the classroom (real or virtual), and (ii) a “translational” model for research. Scholarly publication fits badly into that scheme: it has no bearing on the marketability of courses, and insofar as it makes potentially profitable knowledge freely available to everyone it frustrates the financial aim of translational research. It is no surprise, and not at all inconsistent, for the leadership of the University of Missouri to be shutting down the Press while at the same time setting as a priority “effective communication”. Effective communication, in their conception, clearly has little to do with scholarship.