Proposed cuts to University Press make closure ‘a very valid fear,’ director says
For Chelsey Harris, working in publishing has been a lifelong goal.
“I remember writing a report about the industry when I was in the seventh grade,” said Harris, a graduate teaching assistant in the English department. “This has always been my plan.”
Harris got her foot in the door one year ago by accepting an internship with SIU’s University Press, which she said has given her experience in all aspects of the publishing process, from marketing and sales to business and acquisition.
The press, which puts out about 30 to 35 books each year, is focused on publishing scholarly and creative works, many of which have heavy research components.
Areas of publication at the press include rhetoric and speech, archaeology, aviation, criminology, English composition and theater studies. About 10 percent of the authors published there each year are affiliated with SIU’s Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses.
The University Press is now at risk of losing all of its state funding. It is one of 15 centers or initiatives SIU’s non-instructional prioritization committee, which was appointed by interim Chancellor Brad Colwell, suggested could become self-supporting with the goal of eliminating state funding by 2022. This is expected to save the university $5.5 million over the course of five years.
The Daily Egyptian is publishing a series of stories to examine the effect those proposed cuts would have on the university community. This is the ninth in the series.
According to the committee’s report, a loss of state funding would amount to $170, 284 for the press. Press director Barb Martin said this could jeopardize its whole mission.
State funding makes up about 17 percent of its $1 million budget, Martin said, while almost all of the remaining money comes from book sales.
If state funding were cut, the press would have to publish more profitable, general interest books and fewer academic books, which Martin said tend to just break even in sales.
Amy Etcheson, the press marketing and sales coordinator, said this would be a disservice to the University Press’s role at SIU.
“Our mission is fulfilling SIU’s role in the dissemination of scholarly material,” Etcheson said. “If we’re going to be a research institution, then that information needs to get out to the world.”
Etcheson, who has been with the press since 2010, said a decrease in academic publications could also affect the publisher’s reputation.
“We are the go-to publisher for rhetoric and composition,” Etcheson said. “It would be a shame to have to cut our publications to the point where that reputation is diminished.”
Every work receives positive peer-reviews from two authorities in the book’s subject area and is approved by the press editorial board before being published, a process Martin said usually takes about one year.
“This tests the validity of scholarship,” Martin said. “It maintains high academic standards and plays a role in academic tenure and promotion as well.”
Martin said in the 20 years she has been at the press, the staff has gone from 22 people to 12 people.
Etcheson is now the last remaining member of the marketing department; due to budget cuts, the press lost three people this fiscal year.
“With this next round of cuts, we don’t know what we’re going to be able to do and what changes we’re going to have to make to make this work.” Martin said. “We’re still exploring our options.”
Cuts to staff have already decreased the number of books the press is able to put out per year, Martin said, which ultimately affects profits.
“It’s a vicious cycle, because the more books you’re able to publish, the higher your sales,” Martin said. “It’s created a lot more work for the people who we do have left.”
Martin said part of the problem is also that the teaching model is changing. Many of the books the press publishes are used in university coursework, but Martin said textbook use in classrooms has been decreasing and teachers have started photocopying books to keep costs down for students.
“Teachers want to help their students since tuition rates … are so high, and the teachers may not realize that it’s illegal,” Martin said.
Since July 2015, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrats who control the state Legislature, including House Speaker Michael Madigan, have failed to come to an agreement on a state spending plan. In light of the state’s historic budget impasse, public universities are considering ways to continue operations with the assumption some funding could be cut permanently.
Two stopgap measures passed in the Legislature in 2016 totaled $83 million of financial support for the SIU system. Those funds, for the most part, were used to pay the bills from the 2016 fiscal year. The university started the 2017 fiscal year “basically back at zero” and is dipping into the reserves once again, SIU President Randy Dunn has said.
On March 29, Dunn said the Carbondale campus should cut at least $30 million in spending and should consider declaring a short-term financial emergency. Interim Chancellor Brad Colwell released a statement in response detailing the cuts at the campus level, which include $1.2 million from partially self-supporting units like the University Press.
SIU spokeswoman Rae Goldsmith said Monday the cuts outlined in Colwell’s statement are for the 2018 fiscal year and are based in part on proposals for long term efficiencies such as those in the non-academic prioritization report. Goldsmith said any additional cuts to these centers in the foreseeable future will depend on the state budget and the university’s priorities.
The 15 institutions or centers identified in the non-instructional prioritization committee’s report suffered a permanent 10 percent reduction in state funding in fiscal year 2016. Others saw additional cuts in fiscal year 2017.
Martin said there are other projects the University Press could be doing if not facing budget cuts.
One of these would be a self-publishing service for people in the area. Martin said she gets many book proposals for accounts of growing up in southern Illinois, but she has turned them down because the market for those books isn’t large enough.
“We’ve had to say no to a lot of books that are pertinent to our region, or that pertain to the other areas we publish in but have such a narrow market that we can’t afford to publish them,” Martin said. “But with all these cuts, I just can’t launch it. We wouldn’t be able to keep up.”
Martin said she often gets calls from authors worried that the University Press might close.
“My answer is ‘Our university wants us. They respect and support us, they just have no money,” Martin said. “But it’s a very valid fear, that question of ‘Is that what it’s going to come to?’”