May 26, 2016

Multiple-award-winning press deemed “nonessential” by financially strapped university


Altgeld_Hall-1st_bldg_on_campus_everNorthern Illinois University Press has received an astonishing forty-eight book prizes since the year 2000. It has published academics based at prominent institutions, including Yale, Marquette, and Mercer Universities, and also operates Switchgrass Books, a Midwest-themed literary imprint. It is operated by Northern Illinois University, home to 15,000 undergrads and 500 graduate students in eighty programs. And now, after fifty years of operation, it has been deemed “nonessential” by the university’s Powers That Be, reports Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed.

What does this mean?

It means that, barring sudden and dramatic changes in Illinois’s public education situation, which is bleak (the state has been operating without a budget for nearly a year now), the press will be forced to find its own private funding; if it can’t, it will have to close its doors. This poses a threat to the future publications—and by extension, careers—of many scholars. More existentially, the matter represents a misunderstanding of the true value of university presses, not to mention universities themselves, and seems part of an unfortunate trend that views educational institutions as being more and more analogous to businesses.

As for the possibility of the press’s closure, the university has offered some reassurance: all standing contracts will be honored, and the press will continue operating as usual throughout the next academic year.

As for the larger, arguably more pressing question—why do university presses matter?—well, the university has been less forthcoming, withholding details as to what factors specifically have landed the press on its endangered list. This opacity notwithstanding, defenders of the press are doing their best to detail the opposing argument.

Jaschik argues for the practical, local good of the press:

[U]niversity presses aim to publish the best scholarship in their fields of expertise, not just to serve the campus. A university press supports the academic ecosystem of disseminating scholarship and (not a small matter) helping faculty members who are up for tenure or promotion demonstrate the value of their work. Northern Illinois professors benefit from a network of university presses across the country and the world, and the university contributes through its press to that system of publishing.

In a letter they have recently circulated to colleagues in disciplines where the press has been especially relevant, NIU historians Andy Bruno and Christine Worobec write:

NIU Press has distinguished itself as a high quality producer of first-rate and cutting-edge scholarship. Especially in the fields of Russian and Slavic studies, it has published some of the most important works of the past several decades by many acclaimed scholars. Its relatively new Orthodox Christian series is top-notch.

Peter Berkery, the executive director of the Association of American University Presses, offered a statement on the publisher’s plight:

AAUP appreciates the exceptional pressure the state of Illinois’s ongoing fiscal crisis is placing on its public universities. But to discount the relevance and impact of NIU’s press because of its size seems incongruous. Indeed, NIUP’s pre-eminence in the field of Slavic studies serves as an outstanding example of the disproportionate contribution a small university press can make to both scholarly communications and an institution’s reputation.

“Top-notch.” “Outstanding.” “Important.” These are strong words that speak to the high esteem in which NIU Press is held by academics and publishing professionals. But they are, ultimately, subjective. These pleas lack numbers — concrete, un-misundertandable numbers that might prove the press is pulling its financial weight (which… it probably isn’t). Will they be enough?



Chad Felix is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House, and a former bookseller.