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Friday, May 31, 2019

Friday, May 31, 2019
UCSF and UCSF Medical Center have announced that they are suspending negotiations to expand their existing relationships with four Catholic hospitals.  The reversal--highly unusual for the UC medical system--came after a public and a faculty outcry against more entanglement of the University with the private Dignity medical system that declines reproductive health services, gender-affirming surgery, and other procedures that conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church.  This decision is a big deal: after providing some background, I'll argue that it's an example of the power of faculty effort when it stands on principle and in alignment with social movements--with help from sophisticated press coverage that higher ed too often has to do without.

Michael entitled his first draft of this post, "Does UCSF Care about Womens' and LGTBQ Health?" It was a good question, since UCSF Health's senior management seemed to be denying the restrictive reality that would be imposed on UCSF personnel operating in Dignity facilities. According to reporting by Nanette Asimov (April 26, 2019),
Dignity spokesman Chad Burns has said the Catholic hospitals require UCSF doctors to sign God-affirming agreements that prohibit medical care that violate the hospitals’ religious beliefs. He said these include the “Statement of Common Values” or the more restrictive “Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services,” which characterizes certain procedures, including sterilization, as “intrinsically evil.” Depending on the hospital, prohibited care can include abortions, tubal ligations, hysterectomies, sterilizations, miscarriage care, gender surgery and contraceptive counseling.
Under the terms of the former, Dignity must deny abortions, along with in-vitro fertilization (which would disproportionately harm the gay and lesbian couples that depend on that procedure).  Under the latter, Dignity presumes that marriage is between a man and a woman, forbids the prescribing of contraception as well as abortion, and allows the morning after pill in cases of rape but not abortion (paragraph 36). 

Meanwhile, UCSF was assuring its personnel that it would not have to sign any such agreements or do anything that violated their professional ethics or secular standards of care. Asimov also reported,
UCSF spokeswoman Jennifer O’Brien said the medical center’s physicians are not required to sign those precise documents. “But they do commit to provide care consistent with those value statements as part of their credentialing and privilege application to practice in Dignity Health’s hospitals. This does not impede our physicians’ ability to prescribe contraception medications at any Dignity Health hospital, regardless of its Catholic sponsorship.”
The statement doesn't exactly make sense, reading from one sentence to the next, and is in any case flatly contradicted by the Dignity spokesperson.  The tacit deal seemed to have been that UCSF personnel could mention or even advocate procedures that they could not provide at a Dignity facility but that the patient could get elsewhere--though such counseling also contravenes Catholic directives.  UCSF seems to have carved out wiggle room in prexisiting clinical affiliations, whose complicated policies were the subject of a September 2017 Academic Senate report.

This was a long way from UCSF Health's original August 2017 announcement that it was formalizing an affiliation with Dignity.  This press release represented the new stage as a done deal that merely deepened existing affiliations between two essentially identical titans of clinical quality, one of which, Dignity, was exemplary for its charitable medical work for low-income patients.  The announcement didn't mention that Dignity restricted access to some kinds of health care or even that it was Catholic.  So the open debate in 2019 may well have forced the parties, Dignity and UCSF Health, finally to reckon with the fact that they had contradictory ideas about the alliance, which would make it unworkable in practice.

How did the debate come to the surface? Several factors came together.

First, advocates for reproductive and LGTBQ rights critiqued the UCSF plan and publicized the critique.  The ACLU of Northern California, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and the National Health Law Program wrote a joint memorandum detailing the various ways in which the alliance would require discriminatory treatment of transgender patients, women, and people seeking palliative care, among others. The ACLU collected 6700 signatures on a petition demanding that UC reject the alliance in the name of protecting health care free of discrimination.  Word circulated about the case of Evan Minton, a transgender man, who had sued a Dignity hospital for canceling his hysterectomy after discovering that its purpose was gender affirmation.  The ACLU organized a protest for May 15th, calling on people to hold UC accountable to its values of non-discrimination, equity, and inclusion. Trans, feminist, reproductive, and other health care movements played an important role.

Second, UCSF faculty got directly involved. 1500 staff signed a petition opposing the alliance.  They also found a channel to express individual opinions en masse.  The main agent was the Faculty Association, which decided to poll its members to confirm or deny assertions of general support.  Results ran 2 to 1 against the affiliation.  When the UCSF administration declared the results unrepresentative of the overall faculty, the FA polled the entire faculty.  They got more or less exactly the same results: 2 to 1 against, with about 1/4th in favor.

The FA also collected over 300 comments.  Many were quite moving, both in favor (see #1, on experience of no restrictions in practicing at St. Marys and reciprocal influence in caring for uninsured patients from vulnerable populations); and against (#8, 48, and 64, for example).   The chair of the divisional Academic Senate favored the affiliation (see his co-authored op-ed), as apparently did much of campus Senate leadership.

But the FA persisted, which is important in itself; generated empirical evidence, which is equally important as a check on spin; and gathered a large set of individual comments, which allows personal experience and care to be expressed in a way that helps collective thinking, and that serves as a displaced form of democratic deliberation.  The faculty, so often inexpressive on university policy, were brought on line.

On the systemwide level, Academic Council chair Robert May opposed the affiliation on principle.  Although he sees the business logic, he told some of us in April, the alliance would compromise the fundamental values of the university, not unlike the McCarthy-era loyalty oath of 1949.  We can debate what UC's fundamental values really are, but May articulated a support for absolutely equal access to health care regardless of any aspect of personal identity, one that allowed for no splitting the difference between UCSF and Dignity.  I think it made a difference to see a faculty member in May's position stating quite clearly what the university is for, and standing up for that.

Third, press coverage rendered the alliance as a public concern. In addition to Asimov's reporting, Michael Hiltzik wrote a pair of columns in April (here and here) describing how the details were not public, the Regents were confused, the defenses were not convincing, and the ethics were disastrous.  The first column said early on:
Dignity’s adherence to Catholic Church directives affecting medical care, including a near-total ban on abortion, is hopelessly at odds with the values of a public institution such as UCSF. What’s worse, UCSF, by implicitly accepting Dignity’s model discriminating against women and LGBTQ patients, would empower that model’s expansion.
and built up from there.  For the LA Times's business columnist --and author of a history of UC science--to deliver to UC a set of cogent criticisms helped stop the train that has always already left the station so that people could think again about where the train was going.

There are at least two issues to keep analyzing and pushing, given the possibility that UCSF and Dignity will come back later with a restructured deal.  The first is now widely discussed--how to develop fundamentally egalitarian health care in our Handmaid moment of coordinated assaults on Roe v. Wade, and more muted but pervasive opposition to transgender rights. UCSF's position was the kind of moderation that has made reproductive healthcare vulnerable (see Rebecca Traister on Democrat triangulation with abortion).

The second is the UC medical center business model.  UCSF argued that it needed Dignity to solve a capacity crisis.  But why does it have one after it spent 10 years building a whole second campus at Mission Bay? We've commented before on the planning problems there.  After all that building, where are the beds to handle projected growth? Were too many new buildings devoted to targeted projects of interest to donors?  I don't know the answers to these questions, but somebody should answer them.  It seems like something has gone very wrong with planning when two entire UCSFs, one brand-new, can't handle the clinical load.  

There is also another possibility, which is that UCSF doesn't have a capacity crisis, but a monopoly crisis.  There isn't actually an overall shortage of hospital beds in the Bay Area (Dignity has many empty ones), but only a shortage of beds controlled by UCSF.  This raises the thorny question of whether the UC medical enterprise is financially viable without a quasi-monopoly share of the local market that, among other things, would make it easier to raise prices on patients.  The question should be of burning interest to the UC system, since the US health care system is in a state of turbulent uncertainty and UC it is on the hook for its medical center losses.

But for the moment, we should see the suspended Dignity deal as a real success for faculty-staff engagement in tandem with social movements and an intellectually active press.

ADDENDUM, JUNE 1ST (from Ed Yelin, Professor of Medicine, UCSF)

Re: the UCSF capacity issue: the Mission Bay hospital provides different services than the Parnassus one, by design.  Mission Bay covers oncology, Ob/Gyn,  and pediatrics while Parnassus does the rest.  That may make sense from a faculty perspective, so a pediatrician doesn’t have to schlep across the city to see patients in two places, but it means any errors of prediction in demand bump up against the lack of flexibility and lack of redundancy.  If the Ob wards are full at Mission Bay, Parnassus can’t help.

Another issue is that they may have overbuilt lab space (this gets to the issue of who among the donors gets to have their names on buildings) and under-built clinical capacity at Mission Bay.  Just guessing based on rumors about the lab and clinical buildings.  The predictions about how much lab space would be supported by indirect cost returns from NIH grants were probably off when the Mission Bay campus was planned; they were projecting increases in real value based on the Clinton years.  The rest is history, even though from some perspectives NIH has fared better than much of the Federal government. Better to say things got bad at a slower pace!

Oh, one last thing, about the Faculty Association role.  Like to take credit for some part in this movement, but we were late to the game.  We may be more than the straw, but definitively weren’t the anvil that broke the camel’s back.  Maybe a mid-weight rider on the camel.  Faculty in Ob/Gyn and reproductive health were ahead on this.  Glad that we contributed a lot at the end.  As to the survey: we made the call to extend it to the entire faculty to head off the accusation about not being fully representative rather than reacting ex post facto to the administration’s claim about that.

ADDENDUM 2, JUNE 7

Here is a link to the Interim Report of the Academic Senate Task Force on Non-Discrimination in Health Care. It recommends what has happened, which is the suspension of the affiliation pending an reconciliation of fundamental principles, which is unlikely to say the least.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Wednesday, May 15, 2019
This is the first section of the talk I'll give at Disquantified: Higher Education in the Age of MetricsMay 16th, 1 pm, Loma Peloma at UCSB.  We're headed towards conceptual and policy fixes for the widespread misuse of metrics and for the sidelining of qualitative knowledge.

There’s no intrinsic conflict between language and the numerical. But we do have a profoundly embedded cultural misinterpretation of their relation.

This year brings the 60th anniversary of CP Snow’s famous Two Cultures lecture.  Unfortunately, it still reflects the public understanding of the divisions of human knowledge.  Speaking in 1959, Sir Charles classed scientists as people with the future in their bones, and “literary intellectuals” as “natural Luddites,” people who are too focused on the price of progress to make any progress themselves.  This idea of literary intellectuals as critics rather than creatives carries on today.  Some of us have tried to get rid of the label – via the critique of critique for example—but so far this has reinforced it. 

In higher education, it would seem that we would have solved this two-culture division long ago. Liberal arts education is all about general learning and creating competencies in multiple domains.  Literacy and numeracy would seem naturally to go together. Every humanities major would, in a normal world, graduate with the ability to use basic numerical techniques.  French majors would know Stata or r for statistics, or the basics of Python or Java. Why not, since the world isn’t divided into two cultures such that we live in only in one of them?  Similarly, every science major could interpret complex language and have competency in at least one foreign language.   In many European countries, a version of these “two culture” competences are assumed to be the outcome of a high school diploma.  In the US, the full term has always been “liberal arts and sciences.”

There’s another Sputnik-era assumption to remember.  Liberal arts education was to be available at every type of college or university across the country.  This is a basic principle of Morrill Act land-grant legislation.  Full arts, sciences, and applied curricula  would not be limited to flagships: if you lived in central Wisconsin and couldn’t afford to move to Madison—or didn’t want to—you could get a generally equivalent  quality of liberal education at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.  You could study biology in order to apply to medical school like your Madison counterparts. And you could at the same time become proficient in German or Spanish or Arabic, depending on your interests.  You could flip it around and study Arabic to join the foreign service while learning biology to better understand how the world fits together.  Having linguistic mobility and scientific competency were to be hallmarks of the educated person in the modern post-war world. And that is to say nothing of the many practical but nonmonetary benefits of having, say, physicians who speak a second language, and negotiators who understand ecology.  There was a powerful egalitarian assumption in the US university system—education quality would be spread widely in the student population, to reflect the wide distribution of human intelligence, and society’s complex needs.

This egalitarian assumption was largely honoured in the breach. That began to change through social and political pressures that came from outside universities and inspired students and some faculty within them.  I’m referring to the Black civil rights movement, the feminist movement, the anti-war movement, for starters. Liberal arts and sciences learned that they either connect to and study sociocultural and political movements or they do not correctly prepare students to live in their world as it actually is.  Isolated liberal arts, including historical study,  also produce flawed research.  So public universities were to avoid two false dualisms: the false dualism between numerical and language/ image-based forms of knowledge, and the false dualism between academic and social knowledge (or between “validated” and “standpoint” knowledge).  If universities couldn’t (or shouldn’t) integrate social groups, they could (and should) integrate heterogeneous knowledges across their multiplicity.

Two-cultures university education isn’t a luxury. It’s more like the base model of a degree to which people devote an entire four years of their lives – or five or six.  If a country wants to be a leading knowledge society, as the US claims it is, it needs in principle to create mass quantities of creative workers, people who also have intellectual autonomy and are capable of both conceptual and political movement.  I think of these as the elements that allow a graduate of any liberal arts or science major to start, pursue, and successfully complete a knowledge project.  My basic list has 14 steps.  (Slide mercifully omitted)

I’d propose this as a non-numerical framework for analyzing college educational quality.

A country that is serious about language and the numerical, would identify monetary but especially the nonmonetary or intellectual benefits that it wants from its colleges and universities, and then funds and structure those colleges accordingly.

So how are we doing with this?  Right now, not well . . . .

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Tuesday, May 7, 2019
by Eva Cherniavsky, Andrew R. Hilen Professor of American Literature and Culture, University of Washington at Seattle

Earlier this year, the Seattle Times ran an excellent piece on the decline of the humanities at the University of Washington (UW) and nationwide. Katherine Long, a veteran education reporter, got crucial elements of this topic absolutely right. Her piece began, “You won’t find a single expert on the history of the American Revolution or the Civil War at the University of Washington anymore.”  She goes on to make an unusual connection: cutting the humanities hurts student learning and the university’s budget.

To its credit, Long’s article carefully observes both the intellectual and economic consequences of shrinking humanities departments. She notes that, historically, the humanities have effectively taught large numbers of students at relatively low cost, generating credit hours and revenue that was used to subsidize teaching and research in the high-cost STEM fields.  (There, as we know, faculty routinely require not only higher salaries, but laboratories, professional staff to run them, and students to work in them.  Thus a single STEM faculty hire can easily run into the millions.)  Shrinking humanities enrollments (indeed, more broadly, the shrinkage in what is now openly referred to at UW as the “non-STEM” fields) thus seriously exacerbates the budgetary crisis produced by the decades-long withdrawal of public funding.

On the other hand, Long frames the humanities’ intellectual contributions in highly conventional terms: “Academics worry that the nation would be impoverished—both culturally and intellectually—if only an elite few understand the arc of American history, know how to find meaning in poetry, or can discuss the ideas of the great philosophers.”  This kind of formulation narrowly aligns the humanities with cultural tradition, and thereby, no doubt unwittingly, reproduces precisely the argument for its irrelevance as a relatively arcane body of knowledge that should perhaps be archived but that does not require ongoing forms of study and engagement. 

Instead, we might readily substitute a more robust and informed articulation of the value of culture-focused fields. We could talk, for example, about the importance of fields that think power, identity, and rhetoric at a moment of simmering civil war, or we might emphasize that an understanding of modernity and the historical emergence of modern democratic forms is vital at a moment where democratic governance appears in crisis.  The absence of this deeper understanding of humanities knowledge has contributed to the humanities apparent decline. 

The day of its publication, Long’s article circulated on the UW-AAUP list server.  The discussion that ensued moved between posts that asserted the regrettable inevitability of humanities decline, given plummeting student demand, and others that sought to make the case for the non-STEM fields, though largely based on asserting the value of non-STEM knowledge to technological and scientific endeavors (e.g. how the insights of anthropology are important to the development of artificial intelligence). 

It’s worth noting that this was a relatively short-lived, low-energy discussion, especially when compared, for example, to the bounty of thoughtful posts on another recent topic, ownership of on-line course content.  But there is a relatively straightforward institutional/legal fix to the latter problem (demand faculty ownership of course content), which, moreover, also affects faculty in high-value STEM fields.   The fate of the non-STEM fields, by contrast, appears already given – a ‘fact’ to be explicated, rather than a policy to be contested.

The debate reproduced one of the major shortcomings of the Seattle Times article: discussing “student demand” as a cause, rather than effect. It assumed, in other words, that students’ choice of majors is based on their autonomous determination of their best interest, and thus sits outside the purview of what the institution directs and regulates.   This conviction resurfaced a few weeks later in another UW-AAUP list server thread, this time in response to a faculty member reporting that several of her non-STEM students were asking for references so they could transfer to other universities, an aspiration which (she noted) they all attributed to the oppressively STEM-focused culture of UW.  The discussion which followed this post consisted largely of testimonials; faculty cited conversations with students to suggest how deeply they appreciated both the humanities curriculum and a humanities pedagogy historically centered on smaller, intensive, discussion-focused classes. Someone needs to gather these stories and convey them to the administration, several posters suggested – as though, confronted with the documentary evidence of actual student preference, the university would rethink its distribution of resources.

Seriously?  It seems to me that anyone who considers this for more than ten minutes has to recognize that “student demand” is a construct: it is the product of a pervasive, cross-institutional pedagogy in social and educational value in which students are immersed from (at least) primary school onward.  If students are demanding STEM in record numbers, this is a because they have been systematically invited to embrace a number of interlocking beliefs: that

  1. STEM fields matter to the welfare and future of human societies more than other fields -- that social problems respond best to technocratic solutions; 
  2. college is a course of career training; 
  3. college is an investment that ought to be maximized in order to yield the highest possible return in the form of lifelong higher income;
  4. STEM fields represent areas of continuing high-growth, recession-proof employment. 

“Student demand” is a fact insofar as it reproduces these assumptions, which are already endemic to the privatized, market-driven university.  Other forms of “student demand” (for example, demands for a more racially and ethnically diverse faculty that better reflects regional and national demographics) are routinely ignored. 

The university is by no means the only social institution to promulgate these neoliberal assumptions, but it is among the most important.  Certainly, the notion that the university is merely changing to “respond” to STEM-focused student demand is absurd, since the university, increasingly beholden to private philanthropy (vastly skewed toward STEM initiatives) and increasingly reliant on tuition dollars (and the model of education as investment that normalizes rising tuition costs)  has been a key purveyor of these views. 

The absurdity of the “student demand” rationale becomes apparent, as well, as soon as we recall that the starving of the humanities (and other non-STEM fields) began long before the number of majors began to plummet. The humanities, but also many of the social sciences, have been bleeding tenure lines, compelled to rely on lecturers (who are not defined as researchers) and, worse still, part-time lecturers for decades, since long before the 2008 recession or the rise in STEM enrollments.  The story of the humanities begins with the rule of austerity, not with declining demand. 

I would also argue that the withdrawal of resources from humanities fields has hampered to a greater or lesser extent the ability of their faculty to build the kind of cutting edge programs and curricula that can most successfully compete for student interest.  This has certainly been true in my own English department, where retirements have vastly outpaced hires.  Several years of an outright hiring freeze, followed by the acquisition of a single line when we made a compelling curricular case for three or four, have made it virtually impossible to reflect at the curricular level many of the most important and compelling developments in the field. And again, this is happening during years when majors were at an all-time high. 

In short, the humanities and allied fields are not “dying” a “natural” (market-determined) death, but have been systematically murdered – starved of resources and plundered of the credit hours they generate.

Here we come to the final missing piece in this “decline of the humanities” story:  the relatively lower earnings of non-STEM majors.  This is invoked as one of the reasons for shifting “student demand.” But as Chris Newfield has shown, it is not that the skills these graduates bring are not valued in the marketplace, but rather that their possessors are perceived as interchangeable and thus easily replaceable. There is no need for higher pay when there is always someone else to fill the job (Unmaking the Public University, chapter 8). 

But what happens when years of downsizing non-STEM graduates means that the glut vanishes – when employers have to compete for workers proficient in, say, critical analysis, writing, or multi-cultural literacy?  It will not be possible simply to reboot the myriad departments that are now being cut to the bone – and beyond.  The damage being done is irreversible.  PhDs in the field are increasingly moving into community college positions or alt-ac careers, even as humanities graduate programs across the country are slashing ever further the number of students admitted. There will be no way back from this devastation when market demand picks up. 

The idea of a university organized around market (mislabeled “student”) demand is radically unsustainable.  It is unsustainable because, in shrinking the humanities, the university cannibalizes its own budgetary life support (as Long's article makes vivid).  But it is, unsustainable, too, because one cannot simply eviscerate and then resurrect departments and programs according to the inevitably shifting and fundamentally short-term calculations of the market.

In this moment, the resistance to the increasing privatization of the public university has taken the form of the demand for free tuition. This demand is fundamental to any effort at reclaiming public higher education.  But it is not a sufficient demand.  It must be linked to a broader recognition that market forces cannot organize the university – and that if this model becomes fully and finally entrenched, what we will have is not a university at all, but a high-priced career training center for the elite. 

If this is permitted to occur, I predict we will lose both the battle for free tuition and the battle for the “non-STEM” fields.  The fate of the humanities is profoundly linked to the fate of public higher education.


Thursday, May 2, 2019

Thursday, May 2, 2019
Stanford University Provost Persis Drell has stayed the execution of Stanford University Press for one year.  The very existence of the issue and its non-resolution is a comment both on the state of the academic humanities and of academic governance.

On April 25th, Stanford's Provost Persis Drell announced that the University will not continue to provide its annual subsidy to Stanford University Press.  Apparently because the University could only manage about a 6% increase on its over $26 billion endowment, the Provost had decided the University could not afford a $1.7 million dollar subsidy to the prestigious press.  The announcement produced instant, widespread opposition at Stanford as well as a national outcry for which the provost was clearly unprepared.

Some comments pointed out that Stanford University Press has been in existence almost as long as has Stanford University, was established by the explicit desire of Stanford's first president, has long published path breaking and prize-winning works in history, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, business, and law, and nurtured young and innovative scholars across the humanities and social sciences.  But according to several faculty members, Provost Drell had declared the Press "second rate" and decided not to renew the campus contribution to its overall budget. The press spends $6.5 million a year and gets $5 million in revenues, mostly from book publications.  Academic titles produce knowledge greatly in excess of their sales.   Commercial sales depend on mass audiences that advanced research, by its nature, can never expect.  A glance at library periodical budgets proves that all research publication loses money.  Commentators pointed out that Stanford UP's operating loss was normal. No one agreed with Drell's alleged dismissal of the press's quality.

The provost's proposal can't really be about the money:  As Cathy Davidson has pointed out, Stanford could secure the funds needed to provide the $1.7 million subsidy to the Press --for example, by drawing 5.01% rather than 5% off of its endowment each year.  I won't even mention the $1.1 billion that the University raised in 2017-2018.  What is lacking here is a university leadership with broad intellectual vision and a commitment to a complete array of scholarship.  This is an intellectual more than a financial crisis.  As a physicist, Provost Drell should also be familiar with universities offering funds to cover costs beyond external revenues; after all in 2017, by its own accounting, Stanford spent over $100 million in institutional support of research (spoiler alert, with little going to the humanities).

Governance problems are all over this issue.  The decision was made without an open and meaningful consultation with Stanford's Faculty Senate.  The provost did not get prior input on her idea from the people most affected by it--scholars in the non-STEM disciplines in which the press publishes.  That is the only reason that she could have been so surprised:

Drell wrote that she wanted to thank those who explained how the decision had been interpreted as a “marginalization of the humanities at Stanford,” which, she wrote, “is deeply regrettable and certainly not what was intended. 
I did not anticipate it would touch such a deep nerve in the community of our humanities and social sciences colleagues,” Drell wrote.

A provost of a general campus should already have enough understanding of fields not her own to guess how they'd respond to the closure of a major research outlet.  UC has several provosts from the humanities, and they would know that if they canceled all Springer journals to save money ($8.6 M for cancelling these), there would be a faculty outcry.  In case a provost doesn't know anything about a university press, she should talk to those affected first.  Neither the Press' Executive Board nor the Faculty Senate's Library Committee were consulted. Much university admin exists in a filter bubble that makes normal disagreements much worse.

As the Library Committee put it in a letter written to the President and the Provost:

In particular, we would like to express our strong belief that any decision about drastic restructuring at the Press should be made only after full consultation and well-prepared discussion in the academic senate, with a chance for all members of the university community to be heard. Moreover, we urge that any decision be based on a careful  examination of the Press’s operations by an external committee of experts with experience in academic publishing who can offer an assessment of the Stanford University Press and suggestions for improvement.

That the Stanford Administration would effectively kill an institution of such long-term importance without such consultation is remarkable and disturbing. Secrecy keeps the filter bubble in place.

Instead, Drell seems to have presented the decision to a group of humanities and social sciences department chairs and asked them to choose between the Press subvention and money spent on graduate fellowships.  It is not clear why administrators think putting two desirable goods into competition will sweeten a deal, but this kind of forced choice is a familiar strategy.  In any case, some chair(s) leaked the news and faculty had a chance to prepare for the springing of the announcement in the Faculty Senate at its April 25th meeting.

Two further features are worth noting:  Prof. David Palumbo-Liu put questions to the provost in the Senate meeting:

  • Why weren’t the faculty consulted before you made your decision—you did not consult with either Editorial Board of the Press (which is a Presidentially appointed committee) or the Faculty Senate?  You recognize that this is not simply a fiscal decision, and that a university press is an intrinsic part of any great university’s intellectual identity.
  • It is reported that you said to a gathering of chairs that SUP is a “second-rate press.”  Did you say that, and if you did, upon what empirical evidence or studies, besides sales figures, did you base that judgment?
  • I understand that the only information you requested from the Press were its financial figures.  If this true, why did you not also ask for their list of authors, the list of prizes they have won, or the lists of their reviews and media appearances?  That is, information that would have given you a sense of the impact and value of the press, not just its cost?
  • No university press in the country is "solvent," unless it has a major endowment. Stanford has not allowed SUP to raise an endowment—it is not a fundraising priority.  What are your thoughts on this?

Palumbo-Liu reports that the provost did not answer any of these questions.  One reason may be that the decision was neither empirically based nor thought through.

The second issue is that Drell is giving the press a year's reprieve--rather than a renewal of the multi-year subvention.  She wrote,

“My goal was, and continues to be, to find a financial model for the Press that is sustainable, builds upon the strengths of the Press and ensures its success for years to come. . . . Numerous years of one-time funding bridges do not make for a compelling path for the Press.”
Drell said she intends to make the funds available to help ensure a “smooth transition to a sustainable future.” She added that once it has a sustainable model, the Press “may request incremental general funds in the FY21 budget process.” Drell noted that philanthropy may be an additional avenue for funding as the Press “focuses on its considerable strengths.”

She points out the problem with her own idea, which is that one-year bridges do not mean sustainability. Sustainability would be most easily achieved by committing to an indefinite subvention of a specific amount, with regular reviews so that all sides can discuss problems and stay satisfied. But her wording suggests that she defines "sustainability" as "profitable," which suggests continuing confusion about the economics of scholarly publication.

It's not clear why Drell doesn't just fix her tiny $1.7 million problem by offering an indefinite subvention with annual or bi-annual review.  The reason may be the theory--really a cultural assumption in contemporary management--that if you don't impose pressure up to the extinction threshold then people won't perform. The framework is that the press (like all things run by and for academics) somehow did something wrong, and won't do right unless the "adults" threaten it.

Since the issue is not resolved, it's not too late to sign letters of protest from the Stanford community (here) as well as from outside Stanford (sign here).  You can also mediate on the deeper meanings of universities in society for President Tessier-Lavigne at president@stanford.edu and Provost Drell at provost@stanford.edu.