College professors have long been told that they must publish or perish. The universities that print their books are facing a different ultimatum: stop wasting money on ancillary activities, like publishing, or perish.
While universities around the world operate presses devoted to scholarly work, only the University of Chicago, Oxford and Cambridge University presses are generally believed to be profitable. The rest rely upon their university to fund them through the tuition, endowments, and, in some cases, state subsidies that finance general campus operations.
This practice is beginning to fade. Facing rising costs, about half a dozen schools have closed or suspended their presses within the past three years. The University of Missouri is the most recent example of school officials confronting their problematic press. The school’s new president, Timothy M. Wolfe, has announced that the university will no longer continue to shelter its unprofitable publishing arm. The University of Missouri Press now must operate without the $400,000 annual subsidy it previously received. To make ends meet, some paid employees will be replaced with students.
Predictably, professors are horrified. Without amply funded university presses, many fear that the dissemination of knowledge will cease and academia will fall into a Dark Age. Arguing that a university is intended to both educate students and provide faculty an opportunity to engage in important intellectual discourse, college professors claim that this sort of intellectual discourse cannot be sustained by an unsubsidized or commercial publishing house.
I am not arguing that research unsuited to commercial publishing has no value, nor am I arguing that professors should slavishly grade papers into the night without a spare minute to advance their specialized fields of knowledge. I have one simple objection to the current system: It is unconscionable for universities to subsidize their faculty’s publications while students are racking up ever-higher debt to pay skyrocketing tuition.
Professors would likely argue that students benefit indirectly from the money they involuntarily contribute to university presses, with better-informed and better-known faculty to teach them. In reality, however, the professors who spend the most time on research and publishing are often the ones who spend the least time teaching undergraduates. Those undergrads help fund the tenured faculty's research while being taught by graduate assistants and non-tenure-track adjuncts.
Fortunately, there are many ways professors can share their knowledge without financially burdening their students. One way is to rely on private and government grants to finance the publication of scholarly works.
Alternatively, professors might consider making their work more accessible to a larger audience in order to attract commercial publishers. Clear, understandable writing can make even a technical topic interesting to a non-technical reader. And as self-publishing becomes easier, academics themselves could pay for the cost of publishing. They can then recoup their investment if their books sell. At the very least, such self-publication should count for tenure or promotion.
Also, if what truly matters is academic exchange, not nicely printed book jackets with flattering author photos, professors can find cheaper ways to communicate. Progress does not require printed books. Electronic publishing is cheaper, though not always cheap enough. Rice University replaced its traditional press with a digital-only one, but was forced to shutter its virtual doors after four years due to costs that were still too high.
Regardless of how professors publish their work, it should not be done at students’ expense. The University of Missouri administration has wisely taken away its press’s subsidy. That this is such a rare and newsworthy event says a lot about what's wrong with the way American universities are managed.