Louisiana State U. Press Fights to Preserve Its Essential Value

May 28, 2009

When word got out in early May that Louisiana State University might slash its press's subsidy as a result of the state's budget contraction, Michael V. Martin, chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus, issued a brief written statement. For those who admire the press, it was not very reassuring:

"We hope the governor and our legislature will provide sufficient funding to maintain support of LSU Press, as it is a very valuable asset to this university, the people of the state, and many beyond," Mr. Martin said. "We face, however, extraordinary economic conditions, and we must protect the academic core of LSU first and foremost."

Anyone who cares about university presses should pay close attention to Mr. Martin's choice of words. His statement makes it plain that being a "valuable asset" no longer guarantees a press a secure place in the "academic core" of its parent institution. These days, that can be a fatal degree of separation.

It's lovely to have several Pulitzer Prize-winning authors and a bushel of literary prizes to your credit, as LSU Press does. It earns you the respect of readers inside and outside academe; the press has multitudes of admirers who point to its illustrious history of publishing some of the finest writers on and from the South. Such a track record has inspired spirited public defenses like that published by Ted Genoways, the editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review, on his magazine's blog on May 9. "Surely," Mr. Genoways said, "publishing such essential Southern historians as Stephen E. Ambrose, John Hope Franklin, and C. Vann Woodward lies at the heart of encouraging academic inquiry. Surely," he argued, publishing John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces "does not run counter to the university's mission."

There is no "surely" any more. Mr. Genoways called his defense of LSU Press a manifesto. It was more of a cri de coeur. If "one of the nation's most revered university presses" could get the ax, those everywhere are at risk, no matter how prize-strewn their publishing records. The nonprofit group Ithaka pointed this out two years ago, before the downturn, in its 2007 report "University Publishing in a Digital Age." Note the absence of the word "press" from the report's title.

"Over time, and in pursuit of the largest public service to the global academic community, presses have tended to grow disconnected from the administrations at their host institutions," the report observed. "Not surprisingly, provosts put limited resources and attention toward what they perceive to be a service to the broader community." It makes sense that presses have shied away from being seen as vanity publishers for home-campus scholarship; they want to publish the best work they can get, no matter where it's from. The Ithaka researchers found that "local authors" contributed less than 10 percent of the publications of most of the presses they talked to. That has sometimes had the unintended effect of making presses seem removed from what goes on in their own academic neighborhoods.

A certain degree of removal is necessary, if academe really means what it says about serving the greater good and disseminating research as broadly as possible. But at this historical moment, too great a remove from what LSU's chancellor called the "academic core" can be dangerous.

Kate Wittenberg, project director of client and partnership development at Ithaka, sees that as "the current critical question" confronting scholarly publishers. Ms. Wittenberg used to direct the Electronic Publishing Initiative at Columbia University, a joint venture between the university's press and the Columbia University Libraries.

"The greatest risk facing university presses these days is that their universities may not perceive them as a valuable, in fact an indispensable, part of the organization," she told me in an e-mail message. "That is, is it clear what the 'value proposition' of a particular press is for its university?" Value can be defined in many ways — prestige, for instance, or a "reputation for innovation" in the ways and means of scholarly communication — but that value must be crystal clear to the folks who hold the purse strings. That issue "sometimes gets lost in debates about monograph sales, budget reforecasts, and production costs," she said.

If the record of a press like Louisiana's does not speak for itself, what can? Can an old-fashioned appeal to higher principles still carry the day? In late May, the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association sent letters to Louisiana's governor, Bobby Jindal, that link the fate of the press to the scholarly enterprise writ large. The historians' organization called LSU Press "one of the most significant publishers in the fields of Southern history" and said that its loss "would be a severe blow to our understanding of the past." The MLA went as far as calling the press "an indispensable national institution."

"University presses are crucial to the scholarly communication system in the humanities, and each develops its own areas of coverage. As the only such press in Louisiana, LSU Press is the major publisher of scholarship on your state," the MLA told the governor, putting a regional spin on the argument. "Teachers and scholars want continued access to new publications about Louisiana, and we need a vital LSU Press to provide them for us."

It remains to be seen how badly the university feels that need.