Publishers Perish: Ending Unjustified Subsidies for the University Press

College professors have long been told that they must publish or perish. The universities that print their books are facing a different ultimatum: stop wasting money on ancillary activities, like publishing, or perish.

While universities around the world operate presses devoted to scholarly work, only the University of Chicago, Oxford and Cambridge University presses are generally believed to be profitable. The rest rely upon their university to fund them through the tuition, endowments, and, in some cases, state subsidies that finance general campus operations.

This practice is beginning to fade. Facing rising costs, about half a dozen schools have closed or suspended their presses within the past three years. The University of Missouri is the most recent example of school officials confronting their problematic press. The school’s new president, Timothy M. Wolfe, has announced that the university will no longer continue to shelter its unprofitable publishing arm. The University of Missouri Press now must operate without the $400,000 annual subsidy it previously received. To make ends meet, some paid employees will be replaced with students.

Predictably, professors are horrified. Without amply funded university presses, many fear that the dissemination of knowledge will cease and academia will fall into a Dark Age. Arguing that a university is intended to both educate students and provide faculty an opportunity to engage in important intellectual discourse, college professors claim that this sort of intellectual discourse cannot be sustained by an unsubsidized or commercial publishing house.

I am not arguing that research unsuited to commercial publishing has no value, nor am I arguing that professors should slavishly grade papers into the night without a spare minute to advance their specialized fields of knowledge. I have one simple objection to the current system: It is unconscionable for universities to subsidize their faculty’s publications while students are racking up ever-higher debt to pay skyrocketing tuition.

Professors would likely argue that students benefit indirectly from the money they involuntarily contribute to university presses, with better-informed and better-known faculty to teach them. In reality, however, the professors who spend the most time on research and publishing are often the ones who spend the least time teaching undergraduates. Those undergrads help fund the tenured faculty’s research while being taught by graduate assistants and non-tenure-track adjuncts.

Fortunately, there are many ways professors can share their knowledge without financially burdening their students. One way is to rely on private and government grants to finance the publication of scholarly works.

Alternatively, professors might consider making their work more accessible to a larger audience in order to attract commercial publishers. Clear, understandable writing can make even a technical topic interesting to a non-technical reader. And as self-publishing becomes easier, academics themselves could pay for the cost of publishing. They can then recoup their investment if their books sell. At the very least, such self-publication should count for tenure or promotion.

Also, if what truly matters is academic exchange, not nicely printed book jackets with flattering author photos, professors can find cheaper ways to communicate. Progress does not require printed books. Electronic publishing is cheaper, though not always cheap enough. Rice University replaced its traditional press with a digital-only one, was forced to shutter its virtual doors after four years due to costs that were still too high.

Regardless of how professors publish their work, it should not be done at students’ expense. The University of Missouri administration has wisely taken away its press’s subsidy. That this is such a rare and newsworthy event says a lot about what’s wrong with the way American universities are managed.

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About Larry M. Elkin 564 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

Visit: Palisades Hudson

1 Comment on Publishers Perish: Ending Unjustified Subsidies for the University Press

  1. One problem (among many) with professors self-publishing for tenure is that the function of an academic publishing house is to provide anonymous peer reviews. There’s no quality control of any kind in the world of self-publishing. And cutting-edge, technical research is never going to be commercially viable. We should be investing in the future of our nation through education rather than paying exorbitant amounts to maintain a military capable of policing the world indefinitely.

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