Ahead of Faculty Senate, graduate students reflect on impact of SU Press on their academic careers

Nov. 21, 2019, 1:23 a.m.

Until last April, Jason Beckman, a fourth year Ph.D. student in Japanese literature, knew hardly anything about the Stanford University Press (SU Press). Even still, he had always admired the quality of the books published by the Press, which he often reviewed for his research. 

“[When I opened it] the first thing I always thought was, ‘This is a really nice book … I hope that I can make a book like that someday,’” he said. 

However, Beckman’s relationship with the Press has changed completely since last April, when he heard Provost Persis Drell’s initial decision to turn down the Press’ five-year funding application.

“There was kind of an immediate outrage but also resentment,” he said.

For Beckman, the decision seemed as if the administration was sealing off his future career as a humanities scholar. 

In response to the nationwide backlash against her decision in April, Drell announced that her intention was not to marginalize the humanities at Stanford, but “to find a financial model for the Press that is sustainable, builds upon the strengths of the Press and ensures its success for years to come.”

“While I expected that this decision would be a difficult one for some of you to hear, I did not anticipate it would touch such a deep nerve in the community of our humanities and social sciences colleagues,” Drell wrote in her letter to Stanford faculty.

Since then, not only has Beckman learned more about the Press, but he has also been actively involved in the issue, both as a vocal advocate of the Press and as a member of one of two ad-hoc committees formed by the Faculty Senate to review the Press’s financial sustainability and consider its future moving forward. 

Both ad-hoc committees will report on their investigation and recommendations at the Faculty Senate meeting on Thursday. University leadership, including President Marc-Tessier Lavigne and Provost Drell, will be present to hear the Senate’s decision.

‘Real ramifications’

For aspiring scholars like Beckman, turning a Ph.D. dissertation into a successful book is an important initial step toward getting a coveted tenure track position, which requires publishing a book through a prestigious academic press.

“A lot of great titles have come out of the Press,” Beckman said. “So [publishing through the Press] would be a target of mine if I am able to get that far.”

But some junior scholars like Elena-Adriana Dancu were worried over what the Provost’s SU Press decision would mean for their academic careers. A Ph.D. in comparative literature who graduated in 2019, Elena is currently working on a proposal to publish her dissertation. She was one of the graduate students who organized their visit to Drell’s office last May and co-authored a Daily op-ed in which they specified the impact of Drell’s decision on young scholars and nationwide academic presses.

“I am questioning whether it is possible for me to be a scholar in the first place,” Dancu wrote in an email to The Daily. “You cannot claim this title if you do not produce scholarship. In my field, that means writing books.” 

Fifth-year history Ph.D. student Justine Modica further underscored the importance of academic presses for budding scholars. 

“Academic presses are so critical for publishing the work with junior scholars,” she said. “Your first book establishes your reputation as a scholar, the types of issues that are important to you, the way that you approach questions, the angles and perspectives that you consider, the methods you use.” 

Publishing one’s first book can also be a grueling and complicated process, which requires oversight from experienced editorial staff at university presses.

Rebecca Wall, a seventh-year Ph.D. student in history, explained the importance of academic presses in every stage of publishing.

“A misconception might be that you just have your dissertation done and then you send it to a press and then it is press-formed into a book,” Wall said. “But actually it is a process of very detailed and sustained revision that happens in tandem with editorial staff at presses like the Stanford University Press.”

Because the process requires close collaboration between scholars and editorial staff, it is important for scholars to have full trust in the commitment of academic presses that handle their manuscripts.

Drell’s initial announcement may have already damaged nationwide scholars’ confidence with the Press’ operation, according to multiple sources. A number of scholars have withdrawn their manuscripts out of fear that the Press would not be able to publish books without stable financial support from the administration, these sources alleged.

“This is a decision that has real ramifications for people’s academic careers,” Beckman said.

‘Realm of ideas’

Annually, the Press publishes about 130 books across the humanities, social sciences, art, law, education and business. According to the advocacy website save-sup.org, run by a coalition of SU Press supporters, the Press generates roughly $5 million a year in revenue. The difference between its revenue and operating costs ranges from $1.5 to 1.7 million every year, which has been previously subsidized by the University. Drell’s initial decision in April was to reject a five-year funding request from the press, but she walked back this decision partly — making up to $1.7 million available to the Press in 2020 — after community backlash.

In a report submitted to Drell in October, the provostial committee recommended that the administration provide financial support to the Press for at least another five years. In addition, it also advised the Press to devise a “strategic plan” to increase its revenue by expanding its business to new fields and areas that can attract more readership.

In their advocacy efforts for the Press, Ph.D. students have voiced the importance of the Press’ independence from market forces. While profitability is not a negligible criteria, they claim it should not be the sole factor in streamlining the Press’ operation.

In early debates over the future of the Press, Beckman was troubled by the discourse that reduced the value of academic presses to the profit they generate.

“Part of the grad students’ outpouring and support of the Press has been a reaction to that sort of fiscal discussion … there is an undervaluation of the scholarship it produces,” he said.

Modica also stressed a clear difference between the role of academic presses and that of commercial presses. 

“We all want our work to reach a broad audience,” Modica said. “All research needs to move into public spaces, but not all research is going to excite a broad readership.”

If academic presses act like commercial presses, market logic could easily compromise the higher intellectual purpose of academic research, Modica continued.

“The nature of an academic press is that it can make decisions about what to publish that consider more factors than the size of the purchasing readership,” she added. “It can publish things that are riskier, smaller, and where the value is not in revenues but in contribution to the realm of ideas.”

“I love the idea of one day in my career publishing a popular history book,” Wall added.

But she argued that those books can only grow from the soil of rigorous and specialized academic research.

“That is the type of conversation that’s very appropriate for a university press,” Wall said. 

‘Healthy ecosystem’

Looking at the recent developments regarding the Press, many young scholars expressed concerns and hopes about the potential impact of Stanford’s decision.

University presses like Stanford’s are often known for their strength in “verticals,” or specific fields of studies. The SU Press, for instance, is renowned for its verticals in Middle East studies, Jewish studies and literary theories.

While her research focus is not directly related to those fields, Wall maintained it is important to have multiple presses with diverse specializations.

“It’s important to have a healthy ecosystem where many different presses exist with many different specializations because that allows people to find niches and different presses,” Wall said. 

The administration’s decision thus may have an impact beyond Stanford.

“I would just be concerned about chain reaction [caused by the debate], especially because Stanford is a leader [in academia] nationally and globally,” Wall continued. 

Over the past few months, scholars and administrators of outside academic presses have voiced their support for the Press. Last April, the Association of University Presses wrote a letter recommending the university leadership to reconsider its decision to discontinue institutional financial support. 

From them, Beckman said he regained his confidence as a junior humanities scholar. 

“The very wide outpouring of support from faculty and the strong response that happened at the Faculty Senate meeting and across faculty … restored a little faith [for me],” he said. 

According to the internal newsletter of the advocate group #Support SUP, more than 80 individuals had signed up to attend the Faculty Senate meeting as of last Monday.

“I think there is a responsiveness to what scholars at the institution think and want for the Press,” Beckman said. “I don’t think that’s going to be ignored.” 

Contact Won Gi Jung at jwongi ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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