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Faculty Senate calls for ad hoc committee to explore academic role of SU Press


In light of funding concerns, the role of the Stanford University Press (SU Press) in academia will be explored by an ad hoc committee charged by the Faculty Senate’s Committee on Committees, senators decided in a motion passed at a crowded final meeting of the 51st Faculty Senate on Thursday.

The motion follows Provost Persis Drell’s decision in April to appoint a separate ad hoc committee exploring SU Press’ finances. More than 4,000 faculty members, students and community members demanded continued funding for the Press after Drell rejected the Press’s application for $1.7 million in funding per year for five years — a decision she attributed to poor performance from Stanford’s endowment — at the April 25 Senate meeting.

Though Drell walked back partly on April 30, notifying faculty that as much as $1.7 million in “one-time funds” will be made available to the Stanford University Press in fiscal year 2020, the uncertainty of the Press’ financial situation in future years has led to concerns among many in the Stanford community.

Those concerns translated to unusually high community attendance at Thursday’s meeting, which was held in Hewlett 200, a large lecture hall accommodating an audience packed with student, staff and faculty stakeholders gathered to witness an update on the future of the Press.

The newly approved committee will act separately but simultaneously with the committee appointed by Drell. Though there was debate over the purpose of having two committees rather than one, the Senate settled on the idea that Drell’s committee would focus on budgetary concerns, while the other would focus on the academic value of the Press, including its interactions with Stanford faculty.

Comparative literature and German Studies professor Adrian Daub, who introduced the motion for a second committee, said a two-committee approach may not be the most efficient but that “the very worst outcome if we have two committees is that they will agree.”

Building on this point, history professor and Faculty Senate Committee on Libraries (C-LIB) representative Thomas Mullaney expressed concern with the organization of the provost’s committee.

“The administration intentionally chose individuals to staff this committee that understand the tradeoffs involved when resources are limited,” Mullaney said. “And so the idea of tradeoffs is baked into the DNA of the committee.”

“The [provost’s committee] charge makes reference to right-sizing, which is, everyone knows, code for downsizing,” he added.

Mullaney said he has “never seen the kind of anger and resentment” that has been sparked by recent actions related to SU Press. The goal of the motion for a second committee, he said, is “to calm things back down and get back on the solid foundation of transparency, rigor, analysis and commitment to faculty consultation.” Supplementing the provost’s committee on budget concerns with a committee focusing on academics can “reset the terms of this discussion” about SU Press, he added.

Daub said the increased risks of wasted time are well worth it in return for “a more robust and thoughtful approach to a decision that if we make it in a rush frankly could seriously damage the reputation and ecology of this University.”

Under Daub’s original proposal, the charge of the faculty committee was to be drawn by C-LIB and the editorial board of the SU Press, but a friendly amendment — one that can be approved directly by the resolution’s sponsor — to have the Faculty Senate Committee on Committees draw the charge of the second ad hoc committee was successfully incorporated into the resolution by civil and environmental engineering professor Jeffrey Koseff.

Prior to the amendment, philosophy professor Kenneth Taylor had expressed concern over C-LIB and the editorial board of the SU Press drawing the charge. He said the group’s stated interest in objectivity may be jeopardized by a charge devised by groups known to be in favor of the Press.

“I really haven’t heard any justification for an additional committee other than, ‘We don’t trust the first committee, and we don’t trust the provost and we don’t trust our colleagues,’ and I don’t feel that way,” Taylor said.

SU Press Director Alan Harvey stressed that, regardless of each committee’s findings, the Press and its prospects have been damaged by recent events threatening its financial future. He noted that many authors are more hesitant to publish their books with the Press, fearing that it may soon be shut down.

“Morale-wise it’s been really challenging … When the message that’s being publicly broadcast is lack of faith, then people are going to hold back,” Harvey said.

He later said that, had Drell gone through with rejecting the Press’ funding request, he would have laid off half of the staff, leading to efforts in less disciplines and likely further downsizing.

When asked why SU Press does not publish in computer science, a subject commonly associated with Stanford’s brilliance, Harvey said it would be “incredibly expensive.”

“The overhead of a science program — that I know well from running one at Cambridge — is very high, and you offset it by having a large program … working from the ground up it would cost a lot of money,” Harvey said. “If someone was to give us a lot of money to start a computer science program I’d happily do it. But we’ve never had that money.”

Later, Harvey highlighted that some disciplines where success was not immediately expected were allowed to grow into powerhouses at Stanford. The Middle Eastern studies portion of the Press, he said, started 15 years ago with a questionable future but became the “absolute pinnacle for publishing in that field.”

Drell repeatedly said she never intended to shut down the Press, adding that “assumptions were made” about her actions.

“There are areas where the Stanford press is making a decisive impact on particular academic fields,” Drell said. “We [University administrators] absolutely want to continue to support that.”

But Taylor questioned whether the Press is working in fields where it is “competitive.”

“If I were a young professor in philosophy … the Stanford University Press would not be on my radar,” Taylor said.

Harvey agreed that philosophy is not SU Press’ strong suit, but said the Press’ efforts allow it to “punch well above [its] weight” in almost every other discipline.

He also pointed out the interconnected nature of the disciplines and why removing efforts in one discipline could jeopardize the Press’ efficacy in others.

A representative of graduate students in the humanities and social sciences at Thursday’s meeting said that Drell’s original decision to reject the Press’ one-term funding request made students in related fields feel less secure about their place at Stanford, as well as their academic futures.

“It is established fact that dismissive, ungrounded and critical statements were made about the press by our administration, not just once, but more than once and that these statements when coupled with that initial rejection of the budgetary request set off a chain reaction of criticism of Stanford’s administration and support for SUP in equal measure,” Mullaney said.

Vice Provost and Dean of Research Kathryn Moler noted that the majority of students who are rejected after requesting University research funds are STEM students. Computer science professor Mehran Sahami Ph.D. ’99, who abstained from the final vote on the motion to form a second committee, said it is important to consider the Press budget in the context of overall University spending.

“I believe the Press has value, but if someone were to come and tell me you cut that 1.7 million out of financial aid for first-generation students, I’m going to feel differently,” Sahami said.

Comparative literature professor David Palumbo-Liu pointed out that the Press’ originally rejected one-term funding request is equivalent to approximately 0.027 percent of Stanford’s endowment. Mullaney echoed this, saying the Press overperforms given its University support, which he akinned to “a drop in the bucket” by Stanford.

Though numerous Faculty Senate members, including Taylor, voted against it, the motion was passed. With a goal for a decision to be made before the Office of the Provost’s next budget cycle, the work of both committees is expected to last through the summer. A report will be presented to Drell by November, and a recommendation to the budget committee will be made by next January, said political science department chair Judith Goldstein, who was tasked by Drell to lead the provost’s committee.

The longer its funding questions go unresolved, Harvey said, the bigger the risks will become for SU Press.

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Holden Foreman '21 was the Vol. 258-59 chief technology officer. Holden was president and editor-in-chief in Vol. 257, executive editor (vice president) in Vol. 256, managing editor of news in Vol. 254 and student business director in Vol. 255.