When a University Press Is Deemed 'Nonessential'

Supporters of academic publishing worry about what Northern Illinois U may decide about a small press that punches above its weight in scholarship.

May 23, 2016
Books from NIU Press that have won awards in recent years

This is a terrible year to be part of public higher education in Illinois. The state is approaching the one-year mark of operating without a budget. Despite a small stop-gap appropriation that was approved, public colleges and universities are being forced into layoffs and program cuts. And in this environment, academic publishing may be particular vulnerable.

Northern Illinois University -- with more than 5,000 graduate students and 22 doctoral programs -- is classified by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as a "high research activity university," and it's not unusual for such institutions to operate a university press. But when NIU committees recently identified some programs as "nonessential" and thus targets for elimination, one of the programs that ended up on the list was the Northern Illinois University Press. Today is the last day for people to comment on the various targets for cuts.

Supporters of the press have been trying to rally support. But when university presses land in the situation of trying to justify their existence, they face challenges. There has been more local press coverage of the threat to the cheerleading squad than to the university press. And at some level, that's not surprising. Other academic or student programs that could be eliminated directly serve people on the campus in DeKalb, about 65 miles west of Chicago.

But if you look at the catalog for the current publishing season at NIU Press, you'll find books by academics at Illinois State, Marquette, Mercer and Yale Universities. Again, that's not surprising, because university presses aim to publish the best scholarship in their fields of expertise, not just to serve the campus. A university press supports the academic ecosystem of disseminating scholarship and (not a small matter) helping faculty members who are up for tenure or promotion demonstrate the value of their work. Northern Illinois professors benefit from a network of university presses across the country and the world, and the university contributes through its press to that system of publishing.

But when state support evaporates, that becomes difficult. The Southern Illinois University Press, for example, has lost 12 percent of its budget this year and 50 percent over five years. Only 17 percent of the funds for its press (which is larger than that of Northern Illinois) are from the state.

Northern Illinois University is not directly answering questions about why the press is on the endangered list, but the university has been sending out email messages to those who are expressing concern stating that all contracts will be honored, and that the press will continue normal operations during the next academic year.

To many, those reassurances do not go far enough. Two historians at Northern Illinois -- Andy Bruno and Christine Worobec -- have in the last week been circulating a letter to colleagues in fields where the NIU Press has been particularly strong. Many smaller presses focus on local area, and NIU Press publishes a lot of Illinois scholarship, but the press has also become a force in Slavic and Russian studies.

"Located at a regional public university, NIU Press has distinguished itself as a high quality producer of first-rate and cutting-edge scholarship," the letter says. "Especially in the fields of Russian and Slavic studies, it has published some of the most important works of the past several decades by many acclaimed scholars. Its relatively new Orthodox Christian series is top-notch. Since 2000, NIU Press books have won 48 book prizes and four honorable mentions."

Given that the press publishes only 20-25 books a year, the awards numbers are impressive, supporters argue.

One measure the university is considering when evaluating programs to kill is whether they could be self-supporting without university support. That could be difficult for NIU Press, as university funding is about $320,000 of the $750,000 total budget for the press.

Peter Berkery, executive director of the Association of American University Presses, said via email that association members were concerned about the situation at NIU, and that the press there shows the importance of smaller academic publishing outlets.

"AAUP appreciates the exceptional pressure the state of Illinois’s ongoing fiscal crisis is placing on its public universities," he said. "But to discount the relevance and impact of NIU's press because of its size seems incongruous. Indeed, NIUP’s pre-eminence in the field of Slavic studies serves as an outstanding example of the disproportionate contribution a small university press can make to both scholarly communications and an institution's reputation."


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