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


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.

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

  1. George Says:

    Curious. I have several books in the house by John Lukacs, published by Yale University Press though Lukacs spent his teaching years at Chestnut Hill College. Oxford published Ian Ker’s life of Newman, though Ker wrote it while a chaplain at the University of Southampton. Cambridge accepted a couple of instructors at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater as translators for a volume of Schopenhauer. But I suppose that Cambridge, Oxford, and Yale feel comfortable in their reputations. (I’m sure that Chestnut Hill, Southampton, and Wisconsin Whitewater are good schools; still I suspect that the committee’s prestige scale would weigh them as lighter than some.)

    It all sounds as if it should be an entry in “when the great Tao is lost”: universities will judge backlists by the authors’ place of employment.

  2. Jeff S. Says:

    I was going to write a sober comment here, but then I went and read the actual report. The people who wrote it are dead inside. They’re obsessed with trying to quantify status, to micromanaging the particulars of who reports to whom, and to determining how many more administrators (or scholars who already have more than enough to do) are needed to bring the damn thing to a grinding halt. Bureaucrats seeing solutions as entirely bureaucratic? What a surprise!

    The desire for a regularly revised “vision plan” is just plain exhausting. I’m old enough to remember when universities were one of the places in society where at least a few enterprises were free to grow and develop naturally, in unexpected ways, and with the trust of administrators that human knowledge was expanding. What the writers of that report are proposing reminds me of big-box retail, where executives can tell you in an instant how much revenue a square foot of shelf space is generating.

    The report’s creepy emphasis on prestige, including references to “top universities,” reminded me of our current president bragging about the gilded marble archways in his guest bathroom. More seriously, there’s no acknowledgement that Stanford and its press are (and ought to be) conferrers of prestige, not beneficiaries. Stanford isn’t less prestigious because its press publishes too few books by Harvard faculty; its authors are more prestigious because of their affiliation with Stanford. That’s how Stanford should be thinking, because (as the report writers admit on the first page) universities operate as nonprofits because they produce public goods and (ugh) “generate positive spillovers for society.” So why are these sorts of people increasingly running universities as if they were for-profit corporations? I suppose my preferred school of institutional oversight, “genteel anarchy,” no longer rewards the right people in an era of data-driven management.

  3. Greg Britton Says:

    “The report’s creepy emphasis on prestige….” is right, but I found it more sad than creepy. As someone said on Twitter, it isn’t that Stanford’s press is not equal to the university, but that Stanford’s administration was not worthy of its university press.