Sheldon Pollock on the Importance of University Presses and the Role of Universities

University Press Week

For university post week, we offer two posts on the importance of university presses and their possible futures. The first is by Sheldon Pollock, who is the Arvind Raghunathan Professor of South Asian Studies at Columbia University. Pollock calls upon the university and its faculty to become more involved with university presses. The second from Jennifer Crewe, editorial director and associate director at Columbia University Press, describes university presses’ willingness and ability to innovate to meet new intellectual and economic challenges. (Click here for the post by Jennifer Crewe)

Next up on the tour is the University of North Carolina Press.

The series South Asia across the Disciplines was founded four years ago with a $500,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation by Jennifer Crewe (Columbia U. Press), Alan Thomas (U. of Chicago Press), Lynne Whithey (then U. of California Press), and myself as general editor. We conceived of SAAD not just as a series to publish the most vulnerable of all academic publications–monographs (strike one) that are also first books (strike two) concerning the non-West (strike three)–but as an experiment in an alternative economic model for a university press.

I was convinced then and remain no less convinced today that university presses deserve vastly more support than they are receiving from their universities. Few university presses receive support from their universities, and even that has in many cases been steadily declining. But although it is easy to forget in the era of mass corporatization, the purpose of the university is to create and transmit knowledge, and transmission must include publication. Publication is the hemoglobin of scholarly life, and academic publishers are and will remain central to scholarly publication even as we supplement print with electronic books. The presses and their faculty boards endeavor to provide serious peer review and editing, and thus ensure that we make available to the public readable, responsible scholarship and not the mere piles of data that most dissertations represent.

In the absence of central administration support, bottom-line thinking can sometime overwhelm editorial decision-making, though in such cases editors are only enacting the role that their economic precariousness dictates. The option of becoming more and more like a trade publisher is seductive but the risks to scholarship and the distinctiveness of university press publishing are great. The fundamental differences in aspiration and obligation between academic and trade publishing need to be very carefully registered. And that difference should carry with it a difference in economic logic. University presses must insulate themselves from the vagaries of the market, and universities must help provide this insulation. Unlike trade publishing, the decisions of university presses must be guided by other forces beyond competition and profit.

So how are universities to support their presses? For one thing they can write more checks, understanding again that they fail in their purpose if they fail to disseminate the knowledge they produce. If however, as some believe, the days when presses can expect a consistent flow of financial support and check-writing are past, there are still many other things the university can do to help presses and many ways in which the two can and should work together.

Although it seems to many observers less and less the case, “the university” is more than administrators with their spreadsheets. Most important for university presses, the university is also the professors, and these are the people who can and must be called upon to play a more active role. Currently, faculty publication committees help to ensure that publications fit with the mission of the press and the intellectual standards of the university. This is an important, indeed integral, function, but presses should seek out new opportunities to work with professors both to provide both intellectual rigor and financial stability. The professors who are editors of SAAD, for example, work for free; outside readers work for free; author royalties are plowed back into the series. We developed an economy of scale whereby the three major university presses publishing on South Asia, Berkeley, Chicago, and Columbia, would develop a joint list (sharing advertising, website, some staff). The academic programs in South Asia at these three institutions annually contribute $5000 each in support of the series (this contribution has since been built into the National Resource Center Title VI grants from those universities). And editorial board members continue to try to raise an endowment for the series, to make it live in perpetuity. The University of California Press imitated this initiative with an endowment drive for a first-books series, which has proven very successful. I assume other authors reacted like me and committed their royalties to it—and this is as it should be: senior scholars have a moral obligation to ensure that their junior colleagues’ publishing opportunities are increased and not diminished.

Supporting university presses thus means not just universities giving more money to presses—which they should—but developing a different economic philosophy about scholarly publishing. Above all, faculty should be offering more of their time and energy and money, whether in terms of advances or royalties or fundraising. For the last, the presses themselves need to lead the way, with innovative initiatives for which they solicit faculty support. Wherever possible university press support should be built into larger capital campaigns.

In sum, universities need very seriously to rethink their commitment to their presses and to increase it. Presses need very seriously to rethink and increase their commitment to themselves, by developing new fundraising initiatives and new models of faculty participation. And faculty need to be far more engaged in and creative about supporting their university presses: it is part of their core professional obligation.

5 Responses

  1. I appreciate some of the inhouse talk about cooperation between presses in the area, (advertising, book lists, etc) as well as contributions of knowledge creators, faculty,independent scholars, and writing CHECKS TO SAME, but wonder if publishing is hemoglobin of scholarship, it can also be the hobgoblin of it. For example, Mary King’s Ghandhi and King, which explains why Obama is headed to ‘Berma’ is printed in India, by an Indian house – why not more books on the non-violent world revolution, started in America, and modeled on Ghandhi and Jesus’ innovations.

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