Could a Press End Up on Chopping Block?

Fears of Utah State University's scholarly publishing arm illustrate the vulnerability of academic publishing in a year of massive budget cuts.
January 20, 2009

Last Saturday, Garrison Keillor featured a poetry book published by the Utah State University Press on his public radio show, "The Writer's Almanac." Landing a national audience to listen to poetry -- in this case a selection from Mrs. Ramsay's Knee, by Idris Anderson -- is a coup. But Utah State's press is in a less than celebratory mood these days. Despite an outstanding reputation as a small press that has managed to make significant contributions in composition studies, folklore, poetry, environmental studies, and the history and culture of the West, press officials say they were told last week that the university could eliminate its subsidy for the press's operations if legislators go ahead with planned budget cuts over the next few months.

No final decision has been made, and the university's provost -- while acknowledging discussion about ending support for the press or merging it with another university press -- says that it would be speculative to assume that the press is in danger. But there is no doubt that the press could not survive without the funds it receives from the university.

The economic downturn has hit the publishing industry hard, and academic publishing is no exception. Many presses are reporting disappointing sales and are trimming expenses. The State University of New York Press had layoffs last month. But the Utah State University Press may be the first to have its existence threatened during this recession. There are only 125 university presses nationally, and many -- like Utah State's -- operate on relatively small budgets and publish only a few dozen books a year (Utah State releases 20 to 25).

The situation at Utah State, however, illustrates the delicate balance in the ecosystem of academic publishing. Press officials estimate that about 1,000 current faculty members nationwide were promoted or granted tenure based in part on a book published by Utah State. When a publisher in an area of your scholarly interest might disappear, it matters -- and any loss or shrinking of the Utah State press could thus have as much of an immediate impact on a professor anywhere in the country as at Utah State. That's why, when university presses are in danger, many take note. A decade ago, the University of Arkansas Press was slated for elimination and survived only after an intense nationwide campaign.

What is not in dispute is that Utah's higher education system is facing huge cuts as the state deals with an economic mess. Currently there are two budget plans being debated in the state and the one that is more favorable to higher education would cut public universities' budgets by about 11 percent. The more severe plan -- involving a 19 percent cut -- is favored by legislative leaders, while the governor has been pushing for smaller reductions. Either plan could involve hundreds of jobs being eliminated at Utah State and throughout the university system.

If either plan is adopted, many Utah State programs may be threatened. Supporters of the press say, however, that they were told last week that if the legislative leaders' plan is enacted, the press could lose its entire university budget.

Michael Spooner, director of the press, confirmed the reports that the operation could be shut if the larger budget cut is adopted. Spooner stressed his view that the university as a whole is in a terrible situation, adding "I sympathize with their need to identify cuts."

The problem for the university press at Utah State (and perhaps those elsewhere) is the way cuts are identified. Spooner said university officials told him that the press was vulnerable because it does not grant degrees or directly help students earn degrees. "We are told that we are a 'non-essential unit' because we are not a degree granting unit," he said. "But our mandate is an off-campus one. We are charged with promoting scholarship and enhancing the university's reputation for excellence."

Utah State provides the press with about $165,000 annually, which covers about 3.75 positions on the 4.75-position staff. All other costs (about half of the total budget) are paid by the press itself, with the funds it receives from sales and donations. "We've bootstrapped ourselves into a small university press that has a national reputation for excellence in the fields in which we publish," he said.

Raymond T. Coward, executive vice president and provost at Utah State, said via e-mail that he did meet with the faculty advisory committee of the university press last week to brief members "in the spirit of open communication between colleagues" about the "magnitude of the possible cuts and their timing." He noted that the university press has been spared some past budget cuts, but also said that the potential cuts being discussed "could impact our ability to continue to support the press at the level that we have done in the past."

Still, he said it was "premature" to be talking about scenarios in which the press might lose university support, and Coward noted that legislators have yet to agree on a plan for cuts so the university doesn't know the extent of them.

Pressed on whether he had in fact discussed the possibility of ending university support for the press, he said that "such a possibility was discussed," but he added that other possibilities were also discussed, such as reducing the number of books published, reducing the press staff, or merging operations with another press. Coward added that this was still "unfounded ... speculation," pending a true sense of the budget cut.

Spooner said he hopes the state comes up with more money. But he takes the threat to the press seriously, based on what the provost told the board last week. The problem, he said, is that if the university looks to cut entities that don't directly serve students and that can't bring in serious money, the press will be a target. And if it stops publishing many books, it won't be able to contribute to scholarship, "and that is why research universities support university presses."

Peter Givler, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, said he was concerned about the possibility of Utah State's press losing university support. Givler said he realized that the university faced "very painful choices," but said that, for a modest sum, the press provides great benefits to the university. "If it does close the press, it loses one of the most inexpensive, cost-effective tools Utah State has right now for promoting its scholarly and research strengths, for bringing a better understanding of their own history and culture to the people who live in Utah and the Intermountain West, and for presenting the best face of the university to the rest of the country, and internationally."

Givler said that the university could save a little money by cutting back on the press, "but the basic question for every university isn't how do we save some money, but what kind of university do we want to have when we come out the other side of this mess?"


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