Financial Support of University Presses

Presses need to be sustained.

November 20, 2018

If you go to the website of the University Press of New England, you will see this bleak notice:

UPNE and UPNE Book Partners
are ceasing operations at the end of 2018

Is the closing of UPNE a harbinger of the future or an isolated event? I’m not sure. What I do know is that university presses play an incredibly vital role in our intellectual and political lives, and they need to be sustained. 

The importance of our university presses was reinforced for me this week when I picked up the latest edition of Foreign Affairs magazine. Foreign Affairs periodically publishes a section called “Recent Books,” which provides capsule reviews of new publications most important to the study and practice of international relations. The current list is typical in one very important but rarely acknowledged respect – it is dominated by university presses. Of 54 books reviewed, 35, or 65 percent, are the product of university presses.   

Foreign Affairs is not, I might point out, a journal aimed primarily at scholars or theoreticians.  In my experience, its readership consists primarily of decision-makers and practitioners in government, finance, and international business.  The fact that two thirds of the books relevant to war and peace, international understanding, global prosperity, and human rights are published by university presses suggests how vital these presses are to our world.  Without them, we would live in a smaller and more ignorant world. 

University presses also play a vital but unheralded role in regional civic life. In my home state of Oregon, the best source of information about the state’s geography and political history  is the irreplaceable Oregon State University Press. Many of their books would never be published commercially because they only appeal to citizens of our small (population-wise) state. But for those who care about the state, those books are priceless. As Attorney General of Oregon, I constantly turned to them to better understand the state’s geography, political history, and values.

In the academy, faculty are aware of the contributions university presses make to scholarship. They provide a necessary venue for the publication of new ideas – and at times, controversial ideas -- that would never see light if we relied exclusively on commercial publishers. Without them, where would we publish?  But is that value shared by trustees and administrators? Events at some universities would suggest not. 

How can we sustain this vital part of our work?  For one, university leaders need to accept that university presses will never be self-sustaining. They will always need to be subsidized, like our libraries and sports teams. Yes, it would be great if our presses could pay their own way, but then they would be just like commercial presses, forced to publish only those books that will sell in volume. If we force university presses to act like competitive commercial ventures, thousands of important works – including, as I recalled this week, two thirds of the books relevant to global relations – will be lost and our intellectual lives irreparably compromised.  University presidents need to understand that their presses will always require financial support, and indeed, deserve financial support. 

Second, we need greater emphasis on philanthropy to support our presses.  While many presses accept gifts, endowing the university press is rarely discussed as a major capital campaign priority.  That is a missed opportunity, for donors like to support valuable and tangible endeavors, and what is a more tangible than books?  Philanthropically, we need to begin to treat our presses like our libraries, as major pieces of intellectual infrastructure than need to be endowed. 

If you read Foreign Affairs this month, you may notice that though many of the books are published by powerhouse presses like Oxford and Harvard, many small presses also publish important works. One recent book discussed this month is Greg C. Bruno’s Blessings from Beijing: Inside China’s Soft-Power War on Tibet.  The publisher? University Press of New England. 



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