University Presses in Tough Times

In these economically troubled times, people are hungry for information and knowledge. The news media is essential for the first of those—details on the latest wrangling over the U.S. economic stimulus plan, the latest employment numbers, and a global view of the world-wide effects of the economic crisis. University presses, however, are key to the second: knowledge.

For economists' comprehensive understanding of the roots of the crisis, for historical analysis of how New Deal policies worked to end the Great Depression, and for detailed study of the effects of infrastructure projects on recovery and development, the public can turn to books published by members of the AAUP.

Despite this value of university press output to communities both local and global, we are no more protected from the economic downturn than other sectors of the U.S. economy and culture. The pain has been widely shared. A new survey from AAUP indicates that sales, in both units and dollars, are down 10% across the association.

The survey compared the figures for the six-month period of July to December 2008 to those of the same period in 2007 from sixty-two participating presses. Designed to quickly solicit a general picture of the business climate, the data is a useful tool as individual presses face difficult budget decisions. The association is now looking at rolling together the particular data collected here with the quarterly sales and returns survey that has been conducted since 2003.

That difficult budgetary times are ahead, and in many cases already with us, is unquestionable. Widespread reports of slashed travel budgets forced the cancellation of the 2009 financial managers and production managers meetings. Staff lay-offs at SUNY Press and the U.S. offices of Oxford University Press were an even more sobering sign of the strain felt by university presses from market realities and looming state budget cuts. These last affect not only the presses at public universities, but also the state-affiliated college and research libraries that remain key purchasers of scholarly material.

Perhaps the most shocking news has been the possibility that drastic cuts to the higher education budget of Utah might lead to the shuttering of the press at Utah State University. While a small press on an industry-wide scale, with 5 employees and an output of approximately 20 books a year, within its fields of publication Utah State University Press is an institution of central importance. Numerous award-winning books in rhetoric and composition, folklore, Mormon studies, and Utah history have garnered lasting national and international respect for both the press and Utah State. Despite this reputation, the press has been warned that if the worst case scenario of a 19% cut in state funds comes to pass, the press is on a list of non-essential units that may be eliminated.

The press director, Michael Spooner, has told the Chronicle of Higher Education that he understands the financial pressures that the administration is facing, but that the press is "operationally sound, financially stable, and over-achieving its given mission." As was pointed out by Peter Givler, executive director of AAUP, while the move may save the university 3.5 salaries in the short run, in the long term they may never be able to afford to rebuild a press of such value or buy back the prestige that will be lost. University presses are not alone in being targeted as non-essential despite serving a core scholarly function. Recent news of the proposed closure of the Brandeis University Rose Art Museum (and sale of its esteemed collection of contemporary art) and the University of Pennsylvania's move to shut down the research arm of their Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology are equally disturbing signs of the devaluation of a university's work outside of teaching departments.

Despite these warning signs of potential university press casualties during the coming economic distress, the important work of AAUP members goes on. There are even things to celebrate: Mrs. Ramsay's Knee, a work of poetry by Iris Anderson published by the Utah State University Press caught the national attention on Garrison Keillor's "Writer's Almanac" on January 10; SUNY Press announced the publication of Go, Tell Michelle: African American Women Write to the New First Lady in time for the inauguration of Barack Obama. Looking to history provides some promise as well. After all, as the late L.E. Phillabaum and Sheldon Meyer wrote in "What is a University Press?," the Great Depression saw one of the greatest booms in university publishing.

As the members of AAUP face the fear of a second such depression, the association and its community of colleagues will work together to manage continued technological and economic change creatively and successfully. In addition to the data provided by such efforts as the six-month sales survey, the AAUP Board recently requested the revision and distribution of "Tips for Hard Times" originally put together in 2001. AAUP will continue to develop collaborative services for members, and act as an advocate for members' work to the wider world. And when the AAUP Annual Meeting gathers in Salt Lake City in June 2010, we very much hope to be returning to a two-press state.

Brenna McLaughlin
Electronic & Strategic Initiatives Director, AAUP