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Stanford faculty, other college press directors talk wider implications of SU Press funding controversy

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Controversy surrounding the funding of the Stanford University Press (SU Press) has been in the news for months, highlighting tension between what many perceive to be a STEM-focused institution and its humanities-based, nonprofit operation. A provostial committee tasked with evaluating the financial structure of the press released recommendations at the tail end of October. These recommendations will be discussed at Thursday’s Faculty Senate meeting. 

But what exactly do these structural recommendations — and the controversy surrounding SU Press — mean in regards to publishing? And what do these changes signal to university presses nationwide?

For professors, choosing which press to publish with is primarily based off the reputation of a press: whether that press is skilled in a specific field, for example, or the quality of its editors. A key difference between university and commercial publishers is that first-time authors, many of whom need to publish in order to qualify for tenure, can get much more editing help than if they were to try to publish with a commercial publisher. 

American history professor Gordon Chang published six books with SU Press, but decided to publish elsewhere for his others. 

“There are different considerations,” he said. “One is that I just wanted to publish with someone else. It was not so much the case that I was unhappy but just wanted a new experience. Presses do have different audiences. And they do have different levels of reputation.” 

Chang added that presses function as disseminators of knowledge and mainly serve scholars and researchers through training, teaching and publishing — a purpose synonymous to that of universities.

According to SU Press Director Emeritus Grant Barnes, Stanford faculty in humanities fields were the ones that most valued SU Press’ work during his tenure, and were willing to send their doctoral and graduate students to the Press for help with editing. 

Barnes added that the controversy surrounding SU Press may, over time, make it more difficult for students to publish purely based off of a weakened perception of their home press, which has historically been a resource for graduate students looking to publish for the first time. 

The controversy regarding SU Press has gained attention from presses across the country. 

“It seems surprising from a far distance that a university with the stature, assets and wealth of Stanford can’t find money to support a noble institution like the press,” said John Sherer, director of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Press.

In explaining her rejection of a funding request from the Press in spring — a rejection she partly walked back after community outrage — Drell said the University was faced with difficult decisions due to increased budgetary constraints and poor performance from the endowment. 

Sherer pointed out structural differences between UNC Press and SU Press. Unlike SU Press, the UNC Press relies heavily on fundraising and outsourcing of publishing services, like editors and readers, to other programs within the university. 

The UNC Press is also a founding member of Longleaf Services, a non-profit which fosters collaboration among 18 different university presses — bringing in more revenue through outsourcing of services, while still preserving the independence of each individual press. SU Press is among several presses that did not join this conglomerate, choosing to work less collaboratively with other presses.

In its report, the provostial committee recommended other, broader changes, such as incorporation of new fields like medicine, law and business in order to better compete in the marketplace. The committee also suggested that the Press publish works from other, more well-known authors to increase sales.

Ultimately, there are a variety of ways for university presses to try and maximize their profit. But a university press, Sherer said, is not necessarily supposed to function as a normal business.

“The economics of a press don’t lend itself to full cost recovery,” he said. “Presses exist to publish the books the marketplace doesn’t.”

Therefore, he added, looking to authors outside of academia is somewhat counterintuitive to the purpose of the press.

Tim Sullivan, executive director of the University of California Press, said incorporating new fields is like “starting from scratch; it’s a big investment … it’s not easy to switch to new disciplines.” 

The process “usually takes three to five years,” he added, and involves hiring new people and developing editing workflow. Stanford, according to Sullivan, is “strongest in the Humanities because [experts in the Humanities] need book publication — there’s less of a stream of books coming out of science fields.”

Sherer expressed concern over what the controversy surrounding the press could mean for other presses whose home institutions don’t have the resources like Stanford.

“There are a lot of universities with less money than Stanford and yet they have good presses or at least value them,” Sherer said. “What does this say to other presses if an institution like Stanford doesn’t value theirs?”

The University is still considering the best approach in addressing concerns over its Press. Though the Provost’s committee has already released its recommendations, the Faculty Senate committee charged with exploring the academic role of the Press will be submitting its own report later this year.

A previous version of this article incorrectly spelled John Sherer’s last name “Scherer.” The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Ella Booker at ebooker ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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