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Dr. Samuel Cohen’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “Scholarly Publishing’s Last Stand”, speaks in response to recent news of university presses in financial peril such as the University Press of Kentucky and University Press of New England. Dr. Cohen graciously answered some questions that came to mind after reading his article.


Interview

You suggest that public higher education is “increasingly about the bottom line”…how much of this friction do you attribute to the ideological divide in the public’s perception of colleges and universities? What role do UPs have in demonstrating the value of institutional goals of advancing and disseminating knowledge to the public?

There has long been a tension between support of higher education in the US, both as the place where expertise is earned and economic and social advancement can begin, and criticism of it on anti-intellectual and not unrelated political grounds. I think it’s gotten worse in recent years, as expertise has been attacked as elitism and the public has been provided a less balanced view of what actually happens on campus.

University presses, especially at public universities, can play an important role in showing why universities are important—why expertise isn’t “elitist” but is a crucial part of serving the citizens of the state. Books of regional interest are one way to do that. If state politicians run on their anti-university stances, however, it makes it harder for people to see it.

You write, “the relationship between the public university press and the public university is like that between the frog and the pond — if the frog gets sick, the pond is probably toxic.” I agree with the idea of a commercial agenda eroding the capacities of UPs,  but doesn’t the frog also have to fend for itself? What solutions—open access publishing, more institutional collaboration, etc.—do you believe UPs should consider to stay financially solvent and in-line with their primary missions of advancing knowledge?

It’s not just or primarily the commercial agenda within the press that concerns me and many others—it’s the insistence that any subsidy from the university and the state that helps fund it (to some shrinking degree) is a waste of money. Public university presses have always been subsidized. While the size of the outlay may have been negotiated in the past, presses now find themselves fighting against administrators from corporate backgrounds who don’t understand the value of things that don’t make money. I’m all for different strategies in the face of shrinking funding if they don’t make it impossible for presses to fulfill their primary mission, but I don’t think we should accept that the frog has to fend for itself. It’s our job to take care of the frog.

What is the value of “esoteric” knowledge in a commodified higher education environment?

In a commodified higher education environment, esoteric knowledge has no value. That’s the problem with a commodified higher education environment. “Useless” knowledge is a value in itself. A culture that doesn’t value knowledge for its own sake, that only values that which can be bought and sold, is in big trouble. We’re seeing that in the news every day.

I’m all for different strategies in the face of shrinking funding if they don’t make it impossible for presses to fulfill their primary mission, but I don’t think we should accept that the frog has to fend for itself. It’s our job to take care of the frog.

You mention being asked as an editor to acquire “crossover” books—titles which appeal to both academic and general audiences. There is a place for these type of works, but could there be impact from UPs trying to publish more “crossover” titles that could trickle down and influence the research and writing goals of young scholars looking to publish?

“Knowledge Sharing”, by Ansonlobo. Via Wikipedia Commons

At this point, young scholars trying to get tenure are in many fields having a hard time finding people to publish their work, especially the book that will get them tenure. If they pitch their work to a wider audience and give it a catchy one word title with a fifteen-word sub-title, I can’t blame them. I don’t know if that happens much though; I just think worthwhile scholarship, written to other scholars in the field, deserves not to be crowded out. I don’t have evidence that this is happening either; I hope it’s not. Also, I see the value of books that bring intellectual work to wider audiences outside the field and discipline, both as a public good in itself and as a way for university presses to demonstrate their value. My concern is simply that the people who work at presses sometimes feel forced to chase them.

If “careerism” or “worldly success” are yardsticks too often used to quantify the value of universities, what yardsticks do you consider worthwhile in measuring universities, particularly UPs?

Public universities exist for many reasons, have many uses. But as they privatize in the face of decreased state funding (and by doing so inadvertently worsen that problem, as Chris Newfield has shown in The Great Mistake), they render themselves unable to fulfill many of these missions. Despite what your state legislator says, state universities don’t exist only to bring corporate research dollars, to provide educated workers to state employers, or to field winning football teams in order to draw alumni to fund further winning football teams.

They also exist to educate the people of the state in all of the ways they ought to be educated, if they want to be. I don’t know how you measure this, and am suspicious of the need to measure everything in this way. But public universities and their presses are also meant to further knowledge, whether it’s useful knowledge or useless knowledge, knowledge that will prepare you to someday serve in your state legislature or to question it. Knowledge is a public good and should be supported as such.

Samuel Cohen

Samuel Cohen

Associate Professor of English at the University of Missouri

Dr. Cohen is an associate professor of English at the University of Missouri. He is the author of After the End of History: American Fiction in the 1990s and editor of the University of Iowa Press series The New American Canon.