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Thursday, May 2, 2019

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Stanford Administration to Stanford University Press: Drop Dead! But Not this Year

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.


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