Archive for November 9th, 2019

Director at JHU Press: “Stanford has a great university press. It’s not clear the Stanford committee believes this.”

Saturday, November 9th, 2019
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Britton on Twitter. Call him “His Dudeness.”

Last June, the Book Haven reported on some remarkable developments at Stanford University Press. We wrote about it here:

Passions ran high and emotions were raw at yesterday’s Stanford Faculty Senate meeting, which had to be moved to a larger venue to accommodate the crowd. One faculty said that the fury around this issue was unlike anything he’d seen at Stanford in more than a decade.

A recap: The university decided to terminate its support of Stanford University Press, which had been given $1.7 million supplements for several years. The amount, as many pointed out at the meeting, is chump change, about .027% of Stanford’s annual operating budget. The move, seeking to make the press “sustainable,” spurred national and international outcry and letters from thirteen Stanford departments, schools, and programs and sixteen letters from national and international learned societies, as well as extensive press coverage (including The Chronicle of Higher Education here). The controversy has been discussed on the Book Haven here and here and here.

Now the report from Stanford’s Office of the Provost is in. You can read it here. The reaction from Greg Britton, editorial director of Johns Hopkins University Press over at “Slouching Toward Palo Alto” at Inside Higher EducationAn excerpt:

200+ attended last June’s meeting. (Photo: Ge Wang)

What is clear from the report is that the administration does not think the press has achieved the same excellence as the university: “While the relationship between Stanford and its Press has some elements of the most successful presses, both the University and the Press have failed systematically to aspire to, and reach, this standard” (emphasis my own). Or later: “Yet, reaching the goal of a press that is equal to the status of Stanford University has been difficult.”

He continues:

Most remarkable about the report, however, is the committee’s preoccupation with the press’s status compared with its elite peers. The committee relied on a research assistant to search webpages of other academic presses to calculate the percentage of authors from elite institutions, although the exact methodology of this research isn’t described. They assumed that faculty at “the top 10 or 20 universities” must write better books, which presumably would sell better. The committee also admonishes the press to publish more senior faculty and fewer books by new scholars. The assumption, again, is that these will sell better, and, if not, at least bring luster to the operation. This ignores a core mission of a university – to foster, assess and support the work of junior scholars. Further, it ignores a truth that every editor knows: that that excellent work comes from scholars in every corner of higher education regardless of faculty rank or institutional ranking.

High passions at last June’s meeting. (Photo: Ge Wang)

This status obsession runs throughout higher education. In one sense, universities and their diplomas are Veblen goods – luxury products whose demand increases as their prices go up. (How else does one understand the Varsity Blues admissions scandal?) Because of this, universities are fiercely protective of their place in the rankings. Anything that detracts from that perceived status must be dealt with, including a university press.

In conclusion,

Lost in the recommendations for how to fix the Stanford situation is any recognition that university presses have continued to innovate their way out of this. University presses publish books that extend the reach of scholars beyond the gates of their universities. Yes, they produce field-specific monographs, but they also publish deeply thoughtful books that inform the human condition, solve problems and extend knowledge far and wide. Stanford University Press is no exception.

Stanford has a great university press. It’s not clear the Stanford committee believes this.

Read the whole thing here.