Ronald Reagan vs. the University Press

The late president's legacy left an unfortunate legacy for academic publishing -- one that needs to be challenged, writes James F. Reische.

September 14, 2007

The ghost of Ronald Reagan haunts the American university. College campuses are widely supposed to be the bastions of shaggy liberalism, but the good people managing our higher education system have sometimes behaved as if they were possessed by the spirit of Reaganomics rather than the enlightened principles of humanism. Perhaps the most telling evidence of this vexation is their treatment of university presses.

As the gatekeepers of the peer review process in the humanities and many of the social sciences, university presses (along with equivalent journals in the biological and physical sciences) are supposed to ensure that only high-quality scholarship is published -- or at least that flawed research never sees the light of day. They are the foundation of the entire scholarly edifice. Yet, over the last three decades, American universities have frequently undermined their presses, displacing their dedication to scholarly values in favor of an incoherent amalgam of free-market ideas about competition and profit. Scholarly publishing in 2007 is a hollow shell of its former self. We now seem to be witnessing a merciful reversal of this trend at the 11th hour; but unless the reversal is made permanent, our system of scholarly communication will remain in terrible peril.


Those of us who work in books tend to see the early years of scholarly publishing as a kind of intellectual utopia. Universities subsidized not only the research and writing of books, but their publication, marketing, and -- through library budgets -- their purchase. Indeed, the viability of most university press books was largely assured on the basis of their library sales alone. It was an almost perfectly closed economic circle.

This benign socialist cycle functioned more or less unhindered from the creation of university presses around the turn of the 20th century until it was eroded by the flood of federal education dollars loosed by World War II. The influx of wartime cash accelerated the growth of existing fields and sparked the equally swift development of new ones. The cumulative result was the mega-university, with its sprawling campuses, big-budget research projects, and close ties to government agencies and corporate R&D units. Meanwhile, the G.I. Bill fueled enormous increases in student enrollments.

This convergence of forces taxed the capacity of the higher-education system as a whole, and the publication system in particular: Although presses flourished during the 1950s and ‘60s, the effort required to accommodate such rapid growth was quietly taking its toll. The strain of publishing the system’s vastly-increased output was compounded by a variety of wider social stresses: campus integration; anti-war protests; the emergence of new constituencies and consequent calls for curricular relevance. The 1970s piled on rising oil prices, historic rates of inflation, and growing unemployment. By the mid-1970s, the edifice was collapsing under its own weight. The volume of published output had increased beyond the absorptive capacity of publishers’ scholarly readership; while at the same time the market itself was shrinking, the result of severe cuts to university library budgets -- historically a significant consumer of academic books.


And then there was Reagan. With his election to the White House in 1980, Ronald Reagan -- who as governor of California had led the charge against his own state university system -- ushered in an ideology of tax cuts, reductions to government programs and private-sector gimmes that proved absolutely toxic to public universities. Some of the programmatic cuts came at the federal level: the research budgets of NOAA, NIST and the Department of Energy were slashed during his administration, for example, But these were hardly the main sources of government spending on higher education. The worse damage resulted from Reagan’s “federalist” devolution of spending burdens onto the states, the universities’ primary source of support. Program cuts and tuition increases became the norm -- and continue to be so to this day.

The erosion of public support was particularly devastating to the humanities and scholarly publishing, areas that did not benefit from Reagan’s increased defense spending and trickle-down tax cuts for the wealthy. Arriving at a large state university in the early 1980s, as I did, was like showing up at a house party after the last guests had staggered home. The streets were littered with burnt-out hippies and faded dreams.

And yet, for all this change -- seven decades of sweeping, perhaps even revolutionary transformation in American higher education -- university publishing in 1984 was almost indistinguishable from what it had been in 1920. Research methodologies had changed; cover art had become a bit more modish; but technical monographs were still very much the rule. Times had changed; but time had not changed the university press. Instead, presses’ once-admirable dedication to scholarship now appeared, against this shifting economic and cultural background, as an almost fatal resistance to evolutionary pressures.

By 1980, those pressures were finally becoming irresistible. Press revenues were sinking, while expenses were increasing. Many universities, alarmed by the collapse, were perhaps too quick to see the problem as something that could be solved on the open market.


Ten years passed. The Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Like the now-stilled Soviet factories, university presses had once benefited from a system of public subsidies that allowed them to produce their goods without regard for demand. Once the subsidies were eliminated, the rate of production quickly became unsustainable. It was shock therapy time, not just in Moscow and Magnitogorsk, but in the People’s Republics of Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and Madison. Reagan had triumphed at home, as he supposedly had abroad. But both may have been Pyrrhic victories, as we are only now discovering.

At first glance, the defunding of presses seemed like a legitimate market correction: After all, if consumer demand for university press books was insufficient to support their publication, why should the presses be allowed to continue producing them at the same rate? To the onlooker unfamiliar with the history and inner workings of academic publishing, a university press looked a great deal like a New York trade house in miniature. Therefore, logic dictated, they should be just as capable of surviving on the open market. If Alfred Knopf could make money selling his titles, why couldn’t university presses do the same? Campus administrators found it very hard to defend what appeared, in this light, to be underperforming revenue centers. Over time, they began urging their presses to attend more closely to the bottom line.

Unfortunately, this way of thinking incorporated two critical fallacies:

1. A book is not a book is not a book. University presses were established out of a recognition that academic monographs were never going to be profitable. They were too technical, their audiences too small to support mass-market publication. Instead, the closed cycle (scholar as author, university as publisher, library as consumer) was supposed to subsidize work that was of significant intellectual and scientific value to a small but influential cadre of experts. In other words, university presses were specifically designed to produce a public good, exempt from market forces. The decision to defund presses was made without sufficient attention to this history, or the effect that disregarding it would have on the scholarly production of knowledge.

2. Even if all other things were equal -- which they weren’t -- commercial publishing faced serious problems of its own. Sales of individual titles were declining, fueling intense competition for readers. New market-research techniques were defining ever-narrower audiences and creating a Balkan nightmare of microgenres, from historical romance to religious self-help. Corporate media conglomerates were buying up old-line brands like Random House, Doubleday, and Simon & Schuster with an eye toward discarding their unprofitable divisions and extracting core value. High-prestige, low-revenue genres like literary fiction and serious non-fiction were often seconded in this process, or discarded altogether.

In short, university administrators were pushing their presses into the deep end of an empty pool. Monographs, once the pride of the industry, were now derided as money-losers (to this day university press editors disqualify commercially unpromising manuscripts on the grounds that they’re “too monographic”). Provosts and vice presidents for finance, dismayed by steadily shrinking revenues, imposed further cutbacks, slowly strangling their already-weakened charges. Embattled press directors were busy just trying to keep their organizations afloat.

Reagan had won a crucial battle in the culture wars, without ever firing a shot -- or even realizing that battle had been engaged. His unwitting campus allies had overlooked the relationship between the two basic contributions of university presses: their stewardship of peer review, which ensured the quality of new scholarly research; and their production of high-cost, low-sales technical monographs, which advanced the knowledge of small but influential fields of experts. These were public goods that no one could generate, absent a subsidy. But university leaders, instead of recognizing the inability of the market to properly value scholarly books, saddled their presses with a pair of contradictory missions: to produce the most advanced research for a small audience, while simultaneously earning their own way with at best a minimal subsidy. University administrators would be loath to admit as much, but somewhere the Gipper was probably smiling.

The market was, and still is, allowed to determine the relative publishability of many university press books. This has not worked out well, of course, and many host universities have quietly forgiven their presses’ debts over the years -- a tacit acknowledgment, perhaps, of the underlying paradox. But even this partial exposure to market forces has quietly, radically transformed the way the presses do business.


Press directors have, until recently, had relatively few options for resisting these pressures. Although they chafed at the suggestion that their presses should be self-sustaining, their arguments mostly fell on deaf ears. Many of them relented, embracing various plans to achieve financial independence. One of the most popular of these “solutions” was the generation of revenues from the publication of supposedly profitable genres (trade, regional, nature, cookbooks, fiction, or special-interest titles, such as the books about universities’ football and hockey teams that have done so well recently). These funds would then be used to subvene the publication of unprofitable monographs, thus reinstating some version of the closed cycle and allowing university presses to uphold their mission. But in a business where every new title, no matter how carefully crafted and market-tested, is an almost pure embodiment of risk, and where presses are still beholden to unrealistic financial expectations, university publishers have understandably continued to shun less-profitable scholarly texts.

The presses carry their share of the blame for this impasse. Few industry sectors in America are so antiquated in their practices, or so ill-informed about the market for their products, although this is now rapidly changing in the face of extreme pressure. Publishers are fond of reminding whoever will listen that books are not widgets: When you are rolling out 50 or 100 or 500 new titles a year, each appealing to a unique community of readers, it’s simply not possible, they claim, to conduct market research the way that Ford does for cars or Microsoft for software. Books are one of our most idiosyncratic goods: walk into a bookstore sometime, and try to figure out what makes you pick up one volume over another. Or log onto your favorite online bookseller’s site, and try to understand what makes you choose one of the almost 200,000 titles published every year. You will quickly appreciate that publishing books is like using the world’s largest shotgun to bag the world’s smallest songbird.

The presses are further hampered by chronic undercapitalization, and at least privately many directors blame their host institutions for their woes. I am fortunate, in that the University of Michigan (at whose press I was until recently employed) has been foresightful enough to invest in certain of its press’s key initiatives. But this is the exception that proves the rule. By subjecting presses to the whims of the market, while simultaneously insisting that they continue to publish their inherently unprofitable scholarly books, most American universities have forced their publishers into an untenable position. It is equally true that the directors of many of those presses have so far failed to creatively resist these expectations.

If the real value of university presses is their role as the stewards of peer review -- the rigorous scrutiny of research by qualified experts, and the publication of high-level scholarship for a specialized readership -- then profits, no matter what the preferred strategy to achieve them, should never be a presumptive goal. University presses are valuable when they make the very best research available to scholars and the world at large. Anything else they try to do will just leave them a pale imitation of the trade houses. HarperCollins will always outdo Cambridge in volume; Princeton can never match Random House in sales dollars; Norton’s social impact will inevitably transcend Chicago’s. Perhaps the simple answer is that we publish too much. But the stream of new books can’t stop as long as society and the tenure system demand new ideas and expertise. Reaganomics delivered a crippling blow to the socialist ideal of scholarly publishing, but the demand for human knowledge forces us to limp on.


Deus ex digita: The advent of digital technologies has made possible both process economies and more sophisticated and flexible publications, incorporating everything from blogs and wikis to streaming audio and video to user-driven GIS applications. But despite the enormous value that these new technologies offer to scholarly researchers, university presses have been exceptionally slow to adopt them. Although most presses now have reasonably functional, if not always terribly sophisticated, Web sites, very few offer their readers digital publications with capabilities much beyond the basic scrolling, search and print functions -- and this despite the fact that their host institutions are the acknowledged fonts of technological innovation. The recent Ithaka report laments this state of affairs, noting the rather haphazard nature of universities’ investments in their presses, and pressing for more aggressive -- and strategic investment in digital publication.

Why are we having this conversation now, so many years after the commercial media began moving into new-media ventures? Put simply, the presses’ struggle to survive on an open market to which their products were ill-adapted left them cash- and resource-poor. With the exception of a few of the wealthiest operations (e.g., Oxford), university presses have no venture capital, no institutionalized means for investing in next-generation media. This lack of resources is compounded by the current insufficiency of demand for digital publications. The presses have found themselves temporarily stranded: clinging with one hand to a raft of print books whose market value is steadily sinking, while grasping with the other hand for new technologies that bob, tantalizingly, just out of reach.

A number of savvy administrators and press directors have decided to reach for the digital lifeboat, despite the considerable risks involved. MIT Press is perhaps the best-known, but many others, including Michigan, are propounding coherent visions of the digital future. Sadly, even at the prototype stage some of these efforts have been hampered by the host institutions’ continued insistence on the presses’ self-sustenance. After all, a digital book is no more likely to make money than its print analog. Indeed, because of high opportunity costs and the difficulty of establishing the intellectual and professional legitimacy of digital publications, most early-stage efforts will be lucky to break even. The result is an odd paradox: despite the fact that everyone agrees in principle on the promise of digital media, university presses are not on the whole being equipped to move decisively into the digital domain. This was perhaps the main finding of the Ithaka report, and one of the reasons why press directors and university administrators have damned the report with faint praise, by lauding its clear assessment of the problem while, by implication, lamenting its failure to propose a practical solution.

If nothing is done, and soon, unrealistic financial requirements will distort our efforts to distribute scholarly information in digital media, much as they have long hampered our work in the ink-and-paper era. With intelligence and foresight, new technologies could enable university publishers to more effectively fulfill their core mission of vetting and publishing the best research. This effective use of new technologies requires an understanding that presses are not revenue centers, but an irreplaceable service to science and society. Conscientious university administrators are already recognizing this public good as being well worth the price. Hopefully their peers will follow suit. It’s time, in 2007, to lay Reagan’s ghost to rest.



James F. Reische is a development writer at the University of Michigan; he was until recently senior executive editor at the University of Michigan Press.


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