Dark Days for University Presses and Journals

| 5/18/2009 4:00:47 PM

stanfordDifficult economic times have caused universities across the country to turn their budget pruning knives on some of the most prestigious journals and presses in history, all in the name of preserving “core” academics. But as Ted Genoways asks for Virginia Quarterly Review, “What—or where—exactly is a university’s academic core?”

His manifesto on the future of university presses and journals laments the short-sightedness of administrators like Michael Martin, Louisiana State University’s (LSU) new chancellor, who recently announced that he may shut down both LSU Press and Southern Review. Together these two venerable institutions boast an impressive dossier of published writers, including historians Stephen E. Ambrose and C. Vann Woodward, poets T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, and authors Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. Yet, Martin has placed the press and journal on his chopping block, stating the need to “protect the academic core of LSU first and foremost.”

So, what defines a university’s academic core? Enrollment and marketability? The New York Times recently reported that enrollment in the humanities—that blanket term for history, religion, philosophy, and English—is down, and that humanities departments need to justify their existence. In a society increasingly focused on business, science, and technology, an English degree may feel more like a luxury than a necessity. Yet these days an MBA isn’t necessarily going to land you a job, either. In light of the recent economic instability, it’s a wonder that universities would let the market determine anything.

When it comes to determining a university’s academic core, cultural and historical relevance should play a factor. The work produced by LSU Press and Southern Review has undoubtedly shaped America’s cultural landscape and identity. Genoways praises the foresight of former LSU President James Monroe Smith, who first proposed both the press and the journal back in 1935:

“Today, James Monroe Smith looks like a genius for recognizing that great universities extend well beyond the edges of their campuses. They reach out to the larger world, they challenge and engage the public, and the most effective and enduring way of doing so remains the written word. How will history judge today’s university presidents if they fail to protect these legacies of publishing excellence their forebears have entrusted to their care?”

Sources: Virginia Quarterly Review, The New York Times, Business Week

5/22/2009 2:51:33 PM

As a shirt-tail employee of several academic presses, I think it bears noting that publishing is embedded in the academic core. Academic presses exist, in part, to sustain a specific culture where production and exchange of information is central. Publish or perish. It's not a joke; it's a reality. Publishing is as important to Physics as it is to Philosophy--maybe more. That said, the presses I work for are moving forward in pace with e-publishing etc. Academic presses were pretty lean and mean operations. I have confidence that most will survive.

Kit Kellison
5/21/2009 2:44:16 PM

Digital media has made an impact on writing in general that both expands the reach of the written word and severely limits the reach of the printing press. Without understanding how we're going to pay for copy in this new market, it's impossible to say how the chips are going to fall. I actually pay for the privilege to access what I feel is the best online site for cooking (Cook's illustrated, costs me $35 a year, they accept no advertising and have honest reviews of products and extensively test their recipes). When print fails, as I'm sure it will, time will tell whether enough people will recognize and pay to support good writing online. At this point, I don't think the general public is taught to appreciate writing at near the level we are capable. I blame poor public education standards for poor online usage. Also, the rise of Twitter proves it isn't cool to post anything longer than a sound-bite, which is unfortunate.

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