Wednesday, July 18, 2012

When is a university not a university?

It has been some time now since the University of Missouri Press first faced threats of closure from Timothy Wolfe, the president of the university. This week a new scheme has been announced to keep the press running, but the whole idea sounds pretty convoluted... current staff are being fired and positions transferred to overlap with English department faculty, and graduate students will apparently be doing the editing work. This doesn't sound so much like a "solution" as it does an exploitation of scholars and students who are already acclimated to desperation and so, it seems to be assumed, will take the reins of a publishing institution that the administration doesn't want around. And then there are the actual publishers and editors who had been doing a great job all along until the administration decided to shift their budget elsewhere.

One of the most frustrating things about this whole situation is that the future of the press depended upon a mere $400,000 annual subsidy. As has been pointed out by many, this is dwarfed by the salary of Missouri's football coach, Gary Pinkel, who makes over $2 million a year. A local newspaper puts it best... UM has "changed its core mission", and I think the same could be said for many other colleges and universities who dump all of their money into sports and then shrug their shoulders when they can't put together an academic structure that is even remotely functional. Would that all college sports were intramural! I want to be careful not to entirely dismiss the benefits of extracurricular investments by universities... I know, especially from my experiences over the past year living and working with undergraduates, that a broadly enriching residential life is a great contribution to the university community, and that this isn't cheap. But it certainly doesn't require multi-million dollar stadiums, or even varsity sports.

When university presses are made to grovel for paltry subsidies while good space and resources are being wasted on games and merchandise, we've lost the point of what we're doing here. Contrary to the extremely unhelpful (though apparently well-intentioned?) piece by Marshall Poe in IHE, this is not a problem of publishers not knowing how to use the internet effectively, or not being efficient enough, or relevant enough, or cheap enough. That's all bullcrap. Find a university press with atrocious business sense and a catalogue of the most opaque research tomes that are completely uninteresting to the wider reading public, and the press will still be a better justified investment than most anywhere else that their subsidy money could have gone is going.

Living up to utilitarian excuses for why we might lose our funding next year is a distraction from our work as scholars. Education and research are expensive commitments, and those who have an interest in competent governance of them need to get used to that fact. In the realm of the wider public, where people can vote with their wallets by funding other things than our schools and libraries, it makes sense that we will need to offer some account of the value of critical research and liberal studies. We need to instill in future donors, future parents of students, and voters a realization of the importance of university work for their lives and the betterment of the community. We should not, however, need to make this case within the university itself. An administration operating under this level of incompetence should simply be replaced.



4 comments:

  1. I'm not familiar with how the Missouri system operates but, according the USA Today article, the athletic programs received $2,681,641 in "subsidy" on total revenues of +$64 million (about 4.2%).

    Perhaps you can shed some light on how and where that $2.7 million is generated and disbursed but it seems to indicate that there is a bit of a false dichotomy. It appears that, for the most part, the ahtletic department is self funded and is receiving little support from the university; money not going to the Press isn't being used to improve athletic facilities.

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  2. This has been brought up elsewhere, and I agree... the comparison with football makes for a particularly vivid illustration, but it's not as if the political cartoon above should be taken literally. If the university were to cut $400,000 from the football budget today, it's not like they'd decide to pencil it in under the "university press" column once they have the money.

    But in a more basic sense, I think this is the very problem, and this is why I don't think bringing up football is a red herring. That there must be such tortured logic surrounding the future of something as basic to an educational institution as a publisher seems absurd, especially when generous support, a commitment to pushing and expanding the program, and no questions of its relevance for university life are raised when it comes to a sports team. This, I think, is the important contrast that should be drawn. But no, I agree that it's not as if Gary Pinkel has stolen the money from the editors.

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  3. "Find a university press with atrocious business sense and a catalogue of the most opaque research tomes that are completely uninteresting to the wider reading public, and the press will still be a better justified investment than most anywhere else that their subsidy money could have gone is going."

    Why? There is way too much junk published today: if half of it disappeared, who would even notice except the authors?

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  4. I agree that there is a lot of junk published today, and that much of it should not be published. In addition, its absence probably wouldn't be noticed by the wider public. Setting aside the "junk", though, the set of "the most opaque research tomes that are completely uninteresting to the wider reading public" is still quite large, and still a target for university administrations that are seeking to cut good research publications.

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