AAUP President's Talk

2005 Inaugural Address

Lynne Withey, Director, University of California Press

Withey, 2005-2006 AAUP President, delivered her inaugural speech to the AAUP in Philadelphia on Saturday, June 18, 2005.

As Peter [Milroy] noted, I'm a historian by training. I also studied anthropology in graduate school and at one point contemplated making a change of field; and so, in thinking about my remarks today, and my experience with the AAUP, I couldn't help but start by thinking about the organization's history and its culture, and how that culture has changed. My experience with the AAUP began 19 years ago—it seems hardly possible—at the annual meeting in Toronto, when my mentor and predecessor as Director at California, Jim Clark, was inaugurated as President, and I was brand new in university press publishing, just four months into my tenure at the UC Press. I didn't know anyone, save my California colleagues (and a couple of history editors I had known in my former life as an academic); I knew next to nothing then about university press publishing; and I felt like a complete outsider. It seemed as if everyone in this friendly, gregarious association knew everyone else, and I was the wallflower at the party.

I will confess that, for some years after that first meeting, the AAUP continued to seem a very inward-looking, cliquish organization—and the annual meetings a three-day cocktail party. This was both its strength and its weakness. The hallmark of this organization has been its supportiveness, the willingness of its members to share information and ideas—both in very specific, practical ways, like the annual statistics, and in more informal ways, like the ease with which one picks up the phone to call a colleague in another city or state to talk over a problem or, yes, just for a little professional gossip. But this rather clubby quality was also a source of frustration to me, because I worried that it kept us as an association from facing larger issues in the publishing industry and the major changes taking place in our profession.

In recent years, however, the AAUP has changed enormously (and it's not just that we drink less), as has the scholarly publishing business in general. When I agreed to accept the nomination as President Elect, it was with the realization of just how much has changed in this organization, in no small measure because of the work of Peter Givler, his excellent staff, and the recent presidents and board members. I realized that not only is it a great honor to be chosen as President, but that there is the real possibility for this association to make a difference in the publishing world and in the academic world, in ways that I think were not possible—or at least not envisioned—a decade and more ago.

What I would like to do today is, first, highlight three recent projects of the AAUP as an association—projects that are important in their own right but also, for my purposes here, exemplify the best work of this organization and the kinds of changes that have occurred in recent years. And then I would like to speak very briefly about initiatives for the coming year.

Let me list the three projects and then come back to each.

The first I know you're all familiar with: Books for Understanding, the online resource established in the wake of September 11, thanks to Brenna McLaughlin, our Communications Manager. That initial list was so successful that it has continued, with bibliographies on 28 topics now available on the AAUP website.

Second, the OFAC case, in which the AAUP took on the federal government, in collaboration with the Professional and Scholarly Publishers division of the AAP and the PEN American Center. For those of you not familiar with this case, OFAC stands for the Office of Foreign Assets Control. It is a federal agency within the Department of the Treasury, charged with ensuring that US businesses do not engage in trade with nations considered to be our enemies. In an absurd ruling, OFAC prohibited publishers, not from publishing, exactly, but from adding any value to publications emanating from Cuba, Iran, and the Sudan. "Adding value" was interpreted to mean copyediting, designing, marketing—in short, publishing. This case is now in settlement negotiations, so I can't say much more about it; but suffice it to say that the AAUP forced the federal government to pay attention and reconsider actions that compromised the freedom of the press; and, in the process, gained national publicity for what is clearly an important first amendment issue.

And third, there is the Google affair, which began when Peter Givler sent a letter to Google objecting to the company's plan for wholesale digitizing of books in five libraries, regardless of copyright status, without securing publishers' permission for books still in copyright. What should have been a quiet, internal matter became public when the letter was leaked to the press—not by anyone in AAUP—and generated a remarkable amount of publicity, with the result that the underlying issue about protection of copyright has been highlighted more dramatically than any of us intended.

Each of these cases stands as an example of the different ways that AAUP supports our work as publishers:

  • promoting our publication of high-quality, serious books on issues of importance to the public;
  • defending freedom of the press; and
  • defending intellectual property.

Every recent AAUP president has spoken about the importance of placing quality above profit in choosing the books we publish—publishing work of intrinsic importance and lasting value rather than attempting to follow the trends of the moment. Books for Understanding exemplifies this kind of publishing. Last year, Doug Armato pointed out that, immediately after 9/11, "nearly all the relevant scholarship guiding public debate and policy had been published by scholarly presses." Two years earlier, Peter Milroy, in his presidential address, observed that AAUP presses had "already published that extraordinary body of rich complex interpretive books—without even a hint of opportunistic intent." What started in the wake of disaster has continued, with topics ranging from political hot spots like Iraq, Israel, the Sudan and North Korea to Enron and corporate governance to race relations and civil liberties. Most recently, when the new Pope was named, AAUP presses were able to pull together an impressive list of recommended reading on a few days' notice.

My point here is not merely to repeat what others have said so well—that Books for Understanding is a wonderful resource. No question about that. It also stands as a symbol of the best kind of work we do: taking the research and ideas of scholars, artists, intellectuals, and getting that work out to a broad audience. Not that this is all that we do, or should do; I don't wish to ignore our crucial role in publishing basic scholarship and serving our more specialist audiences. But I will argue that we have an obligation to help disseminate scholarship more broadly. Moreover, our universities are displaying a growing interest in publicizing the research of their faculties; and we, as publishers, have the expertise to play an important role in helping our universities accomplish this goal. I think for too long we have tended to justify our trade book publishing as a means to an end, in a world where we all are increasingly dependent on sales revenue to support our organizations. We need to recognize that it is a good thing for scholars to reach beyond the academy, and that we, as publishers, are uniquely well suited to help them do it.

The OFAC case highlights a particular type of publishing within that larger body of high-quality books directed to general audiences—books on serious political issues, often unpopular issues, which challenge the status quo. The OFAC case itself, of course, speaks to quite a narrow band of work—that originating in the proscribed countries, or written by authors who are citizens of those countries—but the principles represented by this case are much broader. University presses have a long and proud history of publishing controversial books on politically charged topics—not for the sake of mere controversy, or to sell more books, but to help frame public debate and support informed, dissenting points of view. We heard some eloquent commentary on this subject in yesterday's plenary session. The very act of publishing such books, however, is in itself often seen as controversial; how many times have we all heard, from politicians, faculty, board members, that we should stick to publishing scholarship and not venture into "politics"? My own press, which admittedly ventures into controversy more often than many publishers, has often been on the receiving end of such criticism. We have been struggling this spring with our most politically controversial book ever. As a result, I've been thinking even more intensively than usual about the limits of publishing on politically and socially charged issues, and have come more and more to believe that we have an obligation to present critical points of view—especially now, in a political culture that seems bent on suppressing information and spinning the news to fit its political agenda, and when the mass media favors sound bite journalism over thorough coverage of serious issues.

We are not alone as publishers in this concern about threats to the open exchange of ideas about controversial subjects. Within our universities, we are seeing challenges to academic freedom, for example in the so-called "academic bill of rights" promoted by David Horowitz and debated by legislatures in 20-odd states—which is of course not at all a bill of rights but an effort to control scholarly debate on our campuses. Perhaps even more seriously, we are seeing efforts to intimidate faculty who teach about controversial issues, especially on the Middle East—most famously at Columbia, but not only at Columbia. About a month ago, I attended the annual meeting of the American Council of Learned Societies, and was very much struck by the fact that the two overriding themes of that meeting were perceived threats to academic freedom and the obligation of scholars to engage more effectively with the public. On both of those fronts—by promoting debate on controversial subjects and providing a medium for scholars to engage with the public—we as publishers can make significant contributions.

And finally, the Google case. Let me say at the outset that I recognize that the AAUP's decision to confront Google about its library program is controversial. Many of us participate in the Google Print and Google Scholar programs, and welcome those initiatives. I think most of us would also agree that digitizing works in the public domain is a valuable service. The specific issue at stake here is the decision to digitize copyrighted material without permission. The issue had been raised without success by other publishers with presumably more clout than we have—certainly more clout than any of us have as individual publishers. Because of the inadvertent publicity surrounding our letter, the AAUP letter has had the effect of surfacing the issue and opening a dialogue.

My real point in bringing up this issue is not to belabor our debate with Google. Just as Books for Understanding represents our achievement in publishing work of great public significance, and OFAC represents our publishing on important political and social issues, the Google case is symbolic of the complex issues we face concerning intellectual property in an increasingly digital world. Monitoring and analyzing changes in intellectual property issues and reporting back to the membership—and serving as a public voice representing our collective interests—are among the most important things the AAUP does.

Most of this work is done not in the form of letters to attorneys, but quietly, in the day-to-day work of the Central Office and the Copyright Committee. The Copyright Committee keeps track of changes in the law and the interpretation of the law and prepares reports two to three times a year, which are given to the Board and posted on the AAUP website. Sandy Thatcher chaired this committee for many years and has become legendary for his encyclopedic knowledge of copyright; last year, Daphne Ireland took over the chair, although Sandy remains on the committee. Their work is an important resource for all of us. Complementing the committee's work, Peter Givler has made it a priority in his role as Executive Director to monitor copyright issues, as well as other business issues of concern to us, and communicate regularly with other publishing and educational organizations, particularly the AAP, the Association of Research Libraries, and the Association of American Universities. This is arguably the single most important thing the AAUP does—not simply because the intellectual property issues are intrinsically important, but also because we need to join forces with other professional associations to make our voices heard more effectively.

In concluding my remarks, let me turn to plans for the coming year. The Board, with help from many of you, will create a new strategic plan for the Association over the next several months. Our last plan (which was in fact the first strategic plan ever done by the AAUP) was written six years ago, under the direction of Bob Faherty. It has served us well, as these last several years have been very productive; but it is definitely time for a new plan. In thinking about how to go about this project, and about my own goals for my term as President, I want first to articulate what I see as the two major roles of the AAUP. The first, the more public side of the association's work, is what I have been emphasizing in my comments today. The second, perhaps more familiar, and equally important role is service to the membership —including marketing services, the annual statistics, professional development workshops, and the annual meeting. In addition to re-thinking our work in these two areas, I think it is very important that we take a close look at our membership and ways of expanding it. One of the lesser known accomplishments of the AAUP in the last two or three years has been expanding our membership beyond the traditional North American university presses to include more international university presses and nonprofit, scholarly publishers not based in universities. This work has been done primarily by the Admissions and Standards Committee, chaired by Eric Halpern, and staffed by Susan Patton, our Membership Manager.

Broadening the membership is important not just for the financial health of the AAUP (membership dues are one of the association's major revenue sources), but also because traditional university presses obviously do not have a monopoly on serious intellectual publishing. This is even more true now than at any other point in the AAUP's history. University presses run the risk of marginalizing ourselves if we do not make common cause with other scholarly publishers and organizations concerned with the broad dissemination of knowledge. One important way to do this is to look to our own organization, expanding our membership to include a wider range of like-minded publishers. Another important way is to join forces with other professional associations on issues of common concern.

So our strategic plan needs to do at least three things:

  • review our membership categories, requirements, and opportunities for expansion, a project already begun by a task force appointed last year by Doug Armato and chaired by Bob Faherty;
  • evaluate the current services we provide to the membership and determine what new services are needed, especially related to digital publishing and marketing; and
  • assess the appropriate public role for the AAUP and ways of strengthening it.

In considering the AAUP's service to its members, we need to pay serious attention to the perennial issue of differing needs of different kinds of presses. Operating at one end of the size spectrum, I am acutely aware in talking to my friends at small presses just how different are the problems we face, even while we have much in common. I think it is naive to try to force all of us into a similar mold. Expanding membership to include more international members, scholarly societies, research institutions and other nonprofits will make it even more important to understand our differences as well as our common ground and tailor the association's work accordingly.

Finally, in considering the AAUP's public role, it will be important to continue collaborating with other organizations dedicated to serious publishing and to the dissemination of knowledge more broadly. I want to acknowledge that this will involve us in some contradictions and differences of opinion. The free and open dissemination of knowledge, on the one hand, and the protection of intellectual property, on the other, are sometimes at odds, as the Google case clearly demonstrates. The organizations that stand with us on free speech and academic freedom issues—libraries, the faculty of our universities—do not always see eye to eye with us on intellectual property rights. And yet, we're all part of the same institutions; we're all after the same ends in the broadest sense. We, as scholarly publishers, walk a fine line between protecting our business interests and achieving our mission to disseminate knowledge as broadly as possible. In a discussion about strategic planning Thursday afternoon, Sheila Leary noted that it has been said of the railroad companies that they thought they were in the railroad business and forgot that they were also in the transportation business. I've also heard comments here about napster and the need to avoid the mistakes made by the music industry. I certainly agree with that opinion, but I also hope we never forget that we're in the knowledge business—not just the publishing business.

I don't have the answers to this conundrum, but I am encouraged by the extent to which I see us acknowledging and talking about these issues here at this meeting, with sessions on working with libraries, for example; and I want to focus much of my time on these issues in the coming year. I believe that, in a rapidly changing publishing environment, we must be careful not to be perceived as fighting a rearguard action, not simply to circle the wagons and try to preserve business as usual. The AAUP has come a long way from being a small, clubby association to being a strong force for thoughtful, serious intellectual publishing on a variety of topics and in a variety of forms. We should build on these strengths, as demonstrated in our recent history, to seek solutions to the challenges we face in a dramatically changed and constantly changing industry.