The Last Interesting Cultural Institution: Peter Berkery at AAUP 2013

Good afternoon! And thank you, Peter, for that generous introduction. I'll do my best to live up to it—and not just today.

Happy Solstice, everybody! I can't tell you what a pleasure—and a privilege—it is to be standing before you in this capacity today. Most of you I realize will be unaware of my background, but prior to my 20 years in the wacky world of publishing, I actually had embarked out of law school on a career in association management. ("What?," you say.) I was fortunate enough to have secured a summer clerkship after my first year of law school (clerking gigs usually are the province of 2Ls, but I got lucky); spending a summer working in a Washington, DC law firm quickly taught me how I did NOT want to make my way in the world ... it was every awful thing you imagine it was. But, as I said, I was lucky. Not only was I afforded the opportunity to learn this valuable lesson early, but I also had done so smack-dab in the middle of perhaps the single best city on the planet in which to pursue an alternative legal career. So my 2L summer found me clerking at a trade association, and I stuck with it, taking on advocacy and management roles first at the American Trucking Associations (management, not the drivers!), then the National Paint & Coatings Association (making America safe for latex!), and finally at the National Society of Public Accountants. It was from NSPA that the siren song of publishing called, but one of the many things that excite me about the opportunity to serve as your executive director is the elegant way in which this great work brings my CV full circle.

OK, so a bit more about those 20-odd years in publishing: I was recruited by what is now the tax publishing unit of Thomson Reuters into an editorial role that tracked with the work I was doing for the accountants. From there, I grew into various product development roles, right around the time legal publishers were first struggling to migrate from print to electronic. I must have had a few successes along the way, because Thomson's main tax publishing competitor recruited me to jumpstart its new product development initiatives. (I expect a few of you have passed at least one college summer filing pages upon pages of onion skin updates into CCH's famous black-and-gold binders?) CCH became Wolters Kluwer, I left product development and became overhead, er, management, and spent a happy decade serving our Dutch overlords.

Then something interesting, I might even say life-changing, came along: the opportunity to work for a university press. Oxford brought me on board because of my background in legal publishing, specifically in commercial legal publishing. But a funny thing—well, two funny things—happened along the way. First, the path to the commercial law market was not what we'd hoped it would be, and my division simply never had a path to scale. But, more significantly for me here today, my portfolio responsibility included OUP's law academic monographs ... I had become immersed in the world of scholarly publishing.

Which brings me to the second of the many things that excites me about my new role: I care very deeply about the work that we do.

When my appointment first became official, and I started sharing my good news with friends and family, they could sense that I saw this new role as something different. I tried to assuage the skepticism with which my zeal was met: "I understand ... it's not like we're curing cancer here. But the truth is, we're the ones publishing the research that's going to make that cure happen." Now, I'm a reasonably post-ironic 21st century New Yorker, so, while wonderful and true, that response didn't fully fit.

Then Peter Dougherty shared his last-interesting-cultural-institution story. At first, my inner cynic said, "well, catchy quote, but that's a bit hyperbolical." Then, as the idea marinated, I began to change my mind. Thinking about two other cultural institutions that are important to me—theatre and opera—essential distinctions began to emerge. Now I'm by no means a scholar of either medium; although, if you ask my partner, a CPA, how much time and money we spend in pursuit of the muse—and, let me reiterate, C-P-A—he would tell you if that's the metric I must be the world's foremost authority in either field. I'm actually not sure about any of that but, to paraphrase Thurber, I know what I like.

Alright, so, take theatre: what was the last Broadway success that wasn't either a jukebox musical or "based on the film of the same name"? Worse, when an original voice does appear on the Great White Way, its odds are not good. If you follow Broadway's openings and closings, the recent premature demise of "Hands on a Hardbody" (ironically, based on the film of the same name) is but the latest example in a long and disheartening trend.

But what about off-Broadway or regional theatre? There's no shortage of interesting work occurring there, you argue. And it's true: there's great stuff happening at the Guthrie, and of course Steppenwolf, and lately right here in Boston at A.R.T. But I'd suggest—and this is critical—they're the exceptions that prove the rule. There's simply not enough of it to outweigh the culturally uninteresting commercialization that's come to dominate the medium. While theatre may have its last remaining interesting institutions, theatre as institution is only intermittently culturally interesting.

The situation is even more precarious if one turns to the fabulously-expensive realm of opera. Living in New York, I'm fortunate enough to have a subscription to the Met—arguably the world's premier opera company. And even in that hallowed hall, the future remains uncertain. New productions of the standard repertory receive very mixed notices, and for works composed in the last 100 years even critical acclaim only occasionally translates into box office success. So if the needle is in the yellow zone for the world's greatest, how can companies possibly be faring out in the provinces? Well, again, while there's compelling work being done in say, Santa Fe, and Saint Louis, and Philadelphia, for every culturally interesting regional production there's a parade of ABCs (Aida, Boheme, and Carmen) produced more so that companies can pay bills than because artists have a vision they believe will advance the form. Again, the exceptions and the rule.

But for university presses the story is different. Every single one of us is releasing culturally interesting works on a regular basis. We each employ dozens of talented—and I'll say, interesting—people dedicated to our craft. Turns out it's not hyperbole: we are all exceptions and no rules!

So what if university presses really are the last interesting cultural institution in America? Doesn't that make who we are and what we do all the more worth fighting for?

OK, so that's me—my journey so far and why I'm here. What about you? What do I think AAUP should be doing to advance your interests? In attempting to frame some preliminary answers to that question—and please bear in mind that my 90-day warranty has only just expired! (Which I believe means I'm now non-returnable.)—I'm going to draw on three sources: (1) all of the wonderful things I have learned during my member press visits; (2) my take on the thought and effort that AAUP already has devoted to answering this question; and (3) drawing from both 20 years in publishing and six years in association management, anything applicable I might have picked up along the way. I've already said probably too much about number three, so let me spend some time on the first two.

Let me start by telling you a bit about my road show—my Listening Tour, as my colleague Elliott Shore, the ARL's new Executive Director, refers to his similar series of campus visits. I have visited 20 presses in about two months, and also met with directors from another 20 presses at three hosted lunches. You all were so gracious in welcoming me; so first and foremost: thanks for the wonderful hospitality! Two interesting tidbits: I've hit three of the four mainland time zones—Mountain, I'll tick you off the bucket list this fall!—and, incredibly, I haven't yet coordinated a press visit within my home area code. This I'll rectify over the summer, as I'm really hoping to avoid airplanes for a little while. But I do intend to resume my visits, albeit at a saner pace, in the autumn.

I should hit the pause button here to note something important: it actually was very easy for me to spend as much time as I did on the road because while abroad, I could rest assured that Peter Givler was covering for me back home. In fact, and this will come as no surprise, Peter has been absolutely gracious about facilitating a smooth transition in every conceivable way. Before I even arrived on March 1st, Peter had vacated the corner office and given himself a new title. He introduced me to everyone he could think of in a broad array of organizations—AAP, ARL, AAU, ACLS, ITHAKA, Mellon, SSP. He offered wise counsel when I sought it, refrained when he suspected I wasn't seeking it, and always ended any subjective recommendations with a knowing, "but you might choose to do it differently." I know we heard this many times and in many ways last night, but it deserves to be said once more, and by his successor: Peter Givler leaves big shoes to fill, and not just literally!

So what did I hear on my listening tour? And what do I propose to do with these learnings? Before sharing my experiences, I should offer a disclaimer: for an organization with only 132 members, over two-thirds of whom have the same two words in their names, there is a staggering lack of homogeneity in the work we do. Our activities vary by publishing mix, by organizational relationships, and by campus dynamics, to name but three of the many contributors to our diversity. So, no matter what I say today, tomorrow, at any point in my tenure, there always will be somebody in the back of the room who can justifiably raise her hand and say, "Well, that's not really the case at my press."

This means that generalizations will be inherently risky, but here goes:

First and foremost, there is a near-universal desire amongst our members for greater advocacy on their behalf within the academy. I trust this is a well-known theme. In truth, we all are doing great things at presses all across the country, but we're not getting the word out—at least too often not outside of our own echo chamber. There is no shortage of great stories to tell here:

  • the University of Arizona Press now hosts the nation's fourth-largest book fair; this year, they attracted over 100,000 visitors;
  • the University Press of Florida publishes an Open Access online college textbook series through its Orange Grove Press;
  • the University of Minnesota Press regularly conducts seminars teaching faculty how to engage in the scholarly publishing process, from proposal through manuscript submission to copyediting and publication;
  • Wayne State University Press' staff just wrapped up a three-city bus tour, taking in promotional events and author readings across the state;
  • like several—but I suspect not enough—of us, Georgetown University Press has just issued a high-impact Annual Report;
  • and, of course, there's the disproportionate number of awards our titles win—I'm reminded here of the grouse overheard at a recent PSP annual meeting to the effect that "those damned university presses keep winning all the PROSE Awards!"

With promotional activities like these, clearly I don't mean to suggest that individual presses aren't doing a great job publicizing their good work. I'm endeavoring to extrapolate to the group level, and as a group I believe we have to move beyond telling ourselves how critical what we do is, and focus more on sharing our stories with others in our ecosystem.

And your association can and should play a key role in this: AAUP must do more to advance the understanding of the university press value proposition within the academy. We can do this through things like:

  • expanding University Press Week,
  • increasing our outreach to other organizations, especially our natural campus allies,
  • expanding our social media presence—and here I'm pleased to report that the Central Office soon will be joining the Twittersphere,
  • and continuing the listening tour—including where possible meetings with other members of the campus community. Some of my most instructive conversations have been with provosts and librarians.

But, let me hasten to add, just as AAUP can do more, so, too, do our member presses have a greater role to play. Historically, as publishers, we promote our titles, not ourselves; this is not a strategy which will serve us well in the changed campus environment we all face. And here, too, AAUP can do more to help—by providing toolkits and other resources to make promotion turnkey and by engaging in more frequent communications that share new tactics and success stories.

A final thought before leaving the topic: the success of public relations efforts such as these needs to be gauged through periodic impact analysis. Just as many of you are doing with your individual publishing activities, we will need to establish a baseline and take ongoing measurement of the impact of our advocacy efforts.

Turning from the advocacy theme, the other commonalities I encountered all were a bit more discrete. Second on that list: our journals community feels under-served. More than half our members publish journals, and that figure is growing in two ways: "new" presses are adding journals to their publishing mix, and presses which already publishing journals are adding more titles. In many ways, these changes reflect the influence of technology and other external trends on how scholarly communications are delivered, but ultimately AAUP needs to do more to serve its journals constituency.

Third, our members are struggling to realize the cost efficiencies that come with scale. Our commercial competitors are combining to achieve these results; university presses, of course, don't have the opportunity to engage in the mergers and acquisitions activity that has dominated other sectors of the industry. However, just as we've done in print distribution and online aggregation, there are ways in which mission-based publishers have the potential to work cooperatively in areas such as sales, technology, production, and even exhibits. I believe that, carefully circumscribed, the association can play a role in fostering exploration of these and other collaborative endeavors to help our members lower their costs.

The fourth listening tour theme hit my radar obliquely: communications. More than once during a press visit, I was told that the Central Office had failed to communicate something or other that subsequent investigation revealed had indeed been put out on the wire. As a newcomer to the group, this suggests to me one of two possibilities: either we're not choosing our medium correctly, or our frequency is insufficient. (Or perhaps it's a bit of both.) Whatever the reason(s), if you're not hearing us, as your membership organization it's incumbent upon us to fine-tune our message and our delivery, so we'll work on that.

Finally, the seemingly perennial issue of AAUP's committee structure remains a concern for a number of us. There exists a continued lack of confidence that the association has rationalized its committee structure. Moreover, those of you who've served on our committees not infrequently have expressed frustration that your committee's "charge" was not clear, with the predictable result that you thought your effectiveness sub-optimal. This is something your Board and I mean to resolve—this year.

I will conclude the highlights of my listening tour with two potentially challenging trends—and here I am going to take the analysis back up a level or two, offering more macro-level observations.

Our first challenge is that, for whatever combination of reasons, the academy does not perceive UPs as the locus of electronic publishing. Because of my own background, this confounds me—in legal publishing, the publisher controlled the "P" to "E" migration; university presses, however, are getting pigeon-holed as "P", and left behind in "E". For many of us, the implications here can be existential.

The second potentially challenging observation I'll offer is that library-press collaborations are working in a lot of places! And with multiple potential benefits:

  • the press gains near-immediate improved access to resources,
  • librarians become our advocates:
    • they learn our value-add from the inside-out
    • they gain an increased appreciation of the economics of scholarly publishing
    • they quickly begin to differentiate us from the Evil Empire (if you're not sure who that is, focus on the first letter of each word in "Evil Empire"!)
  • and most significantly, combined we become a more potent force within our individual campus ecosystems.

Now, I'm not implying that all of these benefits have inured to every library-press combination. And I'm not suggesting that library-press integration can or should work everywhere. But it has happened, it will continue to happen, and it's clear that some of us are discovering advantages to the new relationship. In closing on this point, I think it's also worth noting that success can be idiosyncratic—it depends on personalities and communication. It's important therefore to institutionalize the underlying values quickly when presses and libraries do combine.

So those are the highlights of the listening tour—well, some of the highlights; the others you'll have to buy me a drink to hear.

And what do I propose we do with these learnings? As I noted earlier, the organization already has devoted time and effort to thinking about a number of these matters in a variety of contexts in recent years. First, we have a strategic plan. It needs some buffing and polishing—which we'll see to—but it's out there. Next, in Chicago last year, the press directors identified a number of priority action items through which AAUP could begin to tackle some of these challenges. Based on this work and the results of the opening leg of my listening tour, I proposed a series of specific performance goals for the association, covering the next 12 months. Over the past two days, first your Board and then the member press directors reviewed, refined, and validated these goals. The Board and I are still working to synthesize the feedback from yesterday's final session, but I can commit to you today a number of goals:

  • the organization will work to accelerate our advocacy efforts along the lines I outlined earlier:
    • articulating our value proposition within the academy,
    • continuing targeted PR efforts,
    • and improving relationships with organizations who share space in the same ecosystem—libraries, administrators, and learned societies;
  • we will establish a central office research and data gathering capability to support our advocacy and public relations efforts;
  • and we will expand our membership base by increasing international membership and by resolving with finality the question of new membership categories (I haven't touched on this heretofore, but it was a significant take-away from the past two days).

Our efforts will not be without their challenges: technology will continue to disrupt publishing, commerce will continue its intrusions upon the academy, and resource constraints will continue to force AAUP to make consumption choices. But throughout it all, the centrality of who we are and what we do will prevail.

I am reminded here of Prior's valedictory to Belize in Part Two of Tony Kushner's Angels in America: "This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More life." Prior concludes—and so shall I—with the invocation he received as the angel came crashing through his bedroom ceiling in the climax to Part One: "The great work begins."

Thank you very much.

Peter Berkery
Executive Director
, AAUP