Is Stanford University Press doomed? “This is a reprehensible moment for one of the richest universities.”


Alan Harvey directs Stanford U’s press. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Prof. Peter Stansky opened his annual “A Company of Authors” event on Saturday with a somber comment: “Those in the Stanford community who are interested in books may be interested to know that the provost of the University has decided, it appears, to terminate significant financial support of the Stanford University Press which will result in the downgrading of the press, making it unworthy of this University. In fact the University should increase its support and pursue a search of an endowment for the Press that would make it, as is the university of which it is a part, a press as strong as those at its peer institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.  It is peculiar thinking that the Press, unlike the rest of the University, should be self-supporting.” 

I didn’t realized the story had already appeared the day before in The Chronicle of Higher Education: The article began this way: 

“Stanford has the world’s third-largest university endowment, valued in 2018 at $26.5 billion. Yet it is crying poverty to explain why it can no longer provide yearly $1.7-million subsidies to its acclaimed press. The announced cut, which became public in a Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday, has confounded and outraged faculty members and other press supporters, and is seen by many as a backhanded way of closing the scholarly publisher.

“‘This is a reprehensible moment for one of the richest universities in the world and a diminution of intellectual inquiry. It really boggles the mind,’ said Woody Powell, a Stanford sociology professor, a former member of the press’s editorial board, and a current adviser to it.”

Read the rest here.

Hundreds of signatures have already been collected on a petition (below). Anyone with a Stanford affiliation is urged to sign the online petition here. People not affiliated with Stanford, but support academic presses, sign here.

A University Press is a Vital Part of Stanford’s Identity as a University.

It is Not Meant to Be a Profit-Making Entity.

To President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell:

A letter from members of the Stanford academic community has been circulating in support of Stanford University Press. We are members of the larger academic community who rely on the Press for our own work. We want to add our voices to those of your own scholars at Stanford. The intellectual value of Stanford University Press extends far beyond your campus.

You have announced the elimination of the modest annual subsidy (~$1.7 million) to Stanford University Press, a move that will be severely damaging and likely fatal to the Press. Academic presses are vital to the life of the university and to the world of learning. They are the means by which we communicate the results of our research, and the entire university mission of teaching and scholarship relies upon them. Stanford University Press is the oldest press in the western United States, with a long tradition of publishing major works in many areas of inquiry. It provides a vital public service that Stanford should be proud of.

If we use a purely financial metric to assess the value of academic books, the scholarly mission of the academy will be lost. Presses will publish only profitable books, graduate students will write only profitable dissertations, and tenure will be awarded based on scholarship that is profitable. This will skew research and publication in exactly the wrong direction, away from the mission and purpose of a university, which is pursuit of knowledge and truth, and toward marketability The proposed elimination of Stanford University Press’s subsidy is an attack on academic freedom and free inquiry.

While of course a university needs enough money to continue functioning, no single unit need be “self-sustaining,” much less profitable, when viewed in isolation. We note that, according to Stanford Daily, the “net annual cost [of the athletic department at Stanford] is … around $67 million.” The Stanford Athletic Department thus appears not to be “self-sustaining.” Why have you chosen to single out the University Press for this application of supposed “business models” when other units on campus similarly do not turn a profit? The point of a University Press, or any academic department, is not profit. Nor, obviously, is this the mission of a major (non-profit) research university.

We urge you to rethink your approach to the Press and to recommit Stanford to its long tradition of fostering new knowledge, path-breaking intellectual work, and free inquiry. The Press forms part of the core mission of the great university that Stanford is and that, we hope, it will remain.

3 Responses to “Is Stanford University Press doomed? “This is a reprehensible moment for one of the richest universities.””

  1. steve wasserman Says:

    An old story just got worse. Twenty years ago, Susan Sontag told me when I was editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review the following tale:

    In 1996, she was invited to deliver lectures at the Stanford Humanities Center on “Cruelty and Apathy.” The excellent Grant Barnes was then Director of Stanford University Press. After spending the day meeting with faculty, Susan was seated next to Gerhard Caspar, then President of Stanford, at a dinner in her honor. She told him she had heard there was pressure to shutter the Press because it lost money. She could hardly believe it. After all, Stanford was among the most well-endowed of any American university. Was it true, she asked the President. He said, yes, that it was his obligation to question the existential basis of every department and aspect of the university. Besides, he said, the Press lost lots of money. How much is “a lot,” Susan asked. Caspar said the Press was losing several hundred thousand dollars a year.

    Sontag, not missing a beat, looked at him and said, “Of course it loses money. That’s what scholarly presses are supposed to do. You should be ashamed of yourself. That you are seriously considering putting the Press to the sword is a scandal and a betrayal of the very mission of the university.”

    Caspar, by the way, would later leave Stanford to become, with the help of Henry Kissinger, the president of the American Academy in Berlin. Thus do the mediocre fail upward.

    Stanford’s predicament is enough to make one weep. Better yet, get angry. Still better, organize to defeat the Philistines who are intent on killing or enfeebling the Press.

  2. Steve McKEnna Says:

    The Provost at my former institution, The Catholic University of America, has a Ph.D. in marketing based on a laughably shallow dissertation, a few crappy publications and co-publications, and that’s it. As a former business dean, he once objected to the university revoking the Ph.D. of a business student because the dissertation was discovered (by an undergrad at another university) to have been heavily plagiarized. This is the kind of person no leading a once-great research university–right into a ditch. I was on the Catholic University Press editorial board for six years–it was an incredible experience, the most challenging and rewarding committee work I ever had. The Provost then couldn’t make it through a meeting (he was supposed to attend), as he had no idea what was going on and spent the time on his Blackberry. This is disgraceful for Stanford. Further evidence that the neo-liberal overlords at most universities today have no notion of the enterprise they are trusted to lead, and no interest in being disabused of their ignorance. Perhaps the worst part of this, beyond what it means for Stanford, is that “leaders” of lesser universities like mine will be happy to follow suit, with Stanford as prestigious cover.

  3. George Says:

    A couple of years ago, I found and read The Idea of a University–A Reexamination by Jaroslav Pelikan, based on lecture Pelikan gave at Yale in 1990-1991. I have given the book away, but recall that Pelikan gave some space to the role of the university press in disseminating knowledge. It is a shame to see university presses falling on hard times.