The Plight of University Presses

Steven Lubet:

The Kentucky General Assembly recently passed a budget that reduces funding for higher education by 6.25 percent, and will require cuts of as much as $24 million at the two major state universities. Numerous programs may have to be shuttered as a consequence, most likely including the University Press of Kentucky (UPK), which stands to lose its entire state subsidy.

That would be a shame, because UPK is widely admired for its publications in regional, Civil War, and Military history. A relatively small press, with only about 60 books per year, UPK has won twelve Frederick Jackson Turner awards, which speaks to the extremely high quality of its work. UPK is also unique in that it is affiliated with multiple in-state universities and colleges, both public and private, rather than exclusively with the University of Kentucky.

UPK is not the first university press to come under fire. In 2012, the new president of the University of Missouri announced plans to close the University of Missouri Press, which is another high-quality regional press – having published important works on Langston Hughes and Mark Twain. A public uproar saved the press and its $400,000 annual subsidy from the university.

The University Press of Kentucky receives a state subsidy of $672,000, which pays seven employee’s salaries. All other expenses are covered through annual book sales, which include important works on Kentucky and Appalachia.

University presses are often attractive targets for budget hawks, as many of their publications are highly specialized, and often quite esoteric. Scholars, of course, recognize the importance of publishing academic work that is often the product of decades of research. While the more prominent university presses – such as Oxford, Harvard, and Chicago – are not in danger, the smaller presses play an equally important role in disseminating new and meaningful scholarship.