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Monday, February 26, 2018

Should Government Publish Books?

The Tea Party wing of the Republican Party currently controls the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Many state programs anxiously await their fates as they are paraded across the chopping block in the name of budgetary reform. The legislature will vote thumbs up or down on whether to eliminate seventy low-budget programs in April.

In addition to the seventy programs Kentucky Governor Bevin proposes to cut, many of which affect education and children, Governor Bevin has proposed a 6% cut to public higher education and most other state functions. I see the cuts as part of larger efforts nationwide to under-fund public education and other public services at all levels. We in public higher education will need to keep learning to do more with less, just as grade school teachers have done for so many years.

One institution unsure about its future is University Press of Kentucky, an innovator in publishing for seventy-five years. Instead of individual universities in the Commonwealth launching their own presses, we have one serving most of them—all of the public universities and most of the private ones. University Press of Kentucky focuses on local writers and regional stories. The press does an excellent job producing a bit over fifty books per year, many to great acclaim. Its books have won twelve Frederick Jackson Turner awards for the best first book by an author in American history.

The University Press of Kentucky has maintained its editorial independence. The Director, Leila Salisbury, is savvy, smart and thoughtful. Somewhere I read that the Press’ small staff of sixteen produced and sold $4 million worth of books last year. It needs a state subsidy of $672,000 to do what it does. Presses like these insure that charming and educational books that probably would not get looked at or picked up by the big national and international presses still see the light of day. 

The Tea Party is shrinking the category of services considered worthy of any public support. As someone formerly sympathetic to Libertarian thought and still concerned with insuring free inquiry of current and historical events, I understand a healthy mistrust of government. But, the reality is that our society is too complex to hope that for-profit and not-for-profit private initiatives will fulfill society’s great needs. And, I feel a need for society to be more than just functional. I believe there is an almost universal human need for exploring ideas, science, art, music and more.

Do we need university presses? Is the preservation and dissemination of information produced at a state’s universities worth the cost? Of course, I think so, but in a climate obsessed with educational assessment and valuing all things in terms of financial impact, university presses in red states have reason to worry. University of Missouri Press just fought off an attempt to shutter it to eliminate its $400,000 annual subsidy. For the Tea Party, publishing books simply isn’t the role of government. 

Those wanting to shrink government and eliminate university presses will point to how easy self-publishing is today. The impact of writing, however, is in the dissemination of the ideas expressed to an audience—now or in the future. It is the rare self-published book that finds a significant audience. Shutting university presses stymies the impact of research and undermines the purpose of scholarship in public institutions. 

To someone viewing universities solely as institutions to train students efficiently for jobs in the private sector, public funding of scholarship has no appeal. I think that is short-sighted and preordains that a full-time professor’s knowledge will be outdated in a short amount of time. Perhaps in the long run, many public four-year institutions will become more like junior colleges. Professors (or, more realistically—adjuncts) teach the nuts and bolts without producing scholarship--and try to magically keep up what's happening out in the "real world." As someone who loves to both teach and write, such a model does not much appeal to me personally. I’d probably re-enter the private sector to litigate, which I also love (and miss doing at the level I used to), rather than become that sort of professor. (Please understand that I'm not trying to disparage junior college professors or grade school teachers here, who play an incredibly important role in society.) 

Of course, political winds shift, and these Tea Party developments could be reversed in the next administration. But, I’m feeling a bit depressed as I worry about whether the publisher I chose for my book will be around next year. I'm sticking with it to the (possible) end, because I believe in its mission and its people. I'm simply wallowing here for a few minutes, before I create more videos to help my students understand Recording Acts. I love helping them do it. I also love helping them become critically thinking public citizens, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. 

Now, I shall wrap up my wallowing and invite you to pick up the torch. Are we leaving a Renaissance for another Dark Age? What will higher ed will look like for the crop of students currently in school districts banning To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? Will they ever be encouraged to read Fahrenheit 451? Will they be conditioned to believe that education is about nothing more than job training? Where do you think we’re headed in twenty or fifty years? Will government starve higher education to the point that membership in various accrediting agencies requiring scholarship will no longer be a priority? Will the scholarship function shrivel and die except at the most prestigious institutions for whom the market will pay for their brand name? Do you think that's the way it should be? Alternatively, do you think that level of centralization and potential uniformity of trained, critical thought is a sad development or perhaps even dangerous? 

I'd love to hear your thoughts, thought experiments and even wallowing in the comments.

Posted by Jen Kreder on February 26, 2018 at 09:45 AM | Permalink


Maybe the "geniuses" who are devastating education and learning in Kentucky should look at what happened when teabaggers did the same in Kansas. States that institute supply-side ideology generally end up losing jobs, have a shrinking economy and then as their policies fail, do more of the same. Trickle-down economics doesn't work; it has NEVER worked, and it will never work. All it does is make a small minority even richer at the expense of everyone else. But since those ultra rich fund political campaigns, they get whatever they want, no matter how harmful to the public interest. See: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-great-kansas-tea-party-disaster-20141023
and more recently: https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/economy/reports/2017/11/02/441822/kansas-real-live-experiment-trickle-tax-cuts/
So, if they continue to follow the Kansas model--which is an utter failure--what Kentucky has to look forward is a crashing economy, a spiraling deficit and more ideological doublespeak instead of real change.

Posted by: Christopher K. Coleman | Feb 27, 2018 1:02:41 PM

We just learned NKU is facing a $17.5 million shortfall next year, after having endured years of cuts. It is such a shame, because NKU, the only public four-year university in the Commonwealth's most populated region, had achieved so much wonderful progress in the thirteen years I've been working here.

I am writing about a small issue, but it is symbolic of the Tea Party's implementation of its vision in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Yes, I fear Kentucky is heading for a Dark Age. I'm not sure anyone would describe this state as "thriving" right now. Its people were just duped into believing coal jobs would return.

Education should balance job preparedness with critical thinking. An overworked, underpaid adjunct simply can't do that. Engaging in scholarship does help a professor understand his or her field deeply, and I will continue to do it until I can't balance it any more with the need to support my family.

I don't intend to get into the debate about what type of scholarship should be supported, but my work is practical and cited by practitioners and courts and has been discussed in the State Department and ICE. I am proud of it and think it has value. Nonetheless, I know what ails Kentucky is much greater than my insignificant place in the cosmos, my little book and one particular press.

Incidentally, my marketing plan is to use the book for public lectures that raise funds for non-profits related to my field. All the professors in Kentucky can't raise enough to save UPK. It needs a public subsidy or a really wealthy donor.

Finally, please don't read this post as meaning I am ungrateful for my position. I truly am and "pay it forward" regularly. I helped three students land three jobs on Friday by not just teaching them, but also by forwarding their resumes to alums and following up with those alums. While I am perhaps waxing a bit poetic in this post as I am saddened by what I see around me, I am at heart a pragmatist and not aspiring to be a martyr.

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Feb 26, 2018 5:43:24 PM

I realize this post was written more out of sadness than as an intellectual argument. But, since you asked for it, here are my two cents. There seems to be a common attitude among posters on this forum that the work they are engaged in is somehow really, really important to society: If we force the taxpayer to give less money to law schools, we will have fewer of us elite minds toiling to produce scholarship which is really important to society (although not so important that we will continue to do it without being handsomely rewarded), there will be a dearth of new scholarship, and then the Dark Ages will return!!

My advice: get over yourselves. Society survived without public funding of law professors and legal scholarship. Society will continue to thrive without it. Be grateful for the sinecures you have.

To the point of the University Press of Kentucky: maybe every professor in Kentucky should donate a few hundred dollars a year to keep it going.

Posted by: Biff | Feb 26, 2018 3:39:13 PM

Jen , Sorry if I have offended you even slightly . But , if you claim that I am a Troll ( it seems that you don't understand with all due respect , what is a Troll ) and moreover , I have twisted something , then :

Surly , with such level of confidence illustrated in your comment , you would be able to illustrate , how and where exactly ?? Please , show us !! And if you deserve an apology , I shall ….


Posted by: El roam | Feb 26, 2018 12:39:53 PM

Good grief. Trolls take everything in the worst possible way and twist it, don't they?

Posted by: Jen Kreder | Feb 26, 2018 12:24:32 PM

Interesting post (generally speaking ) yet , I am bit confused I must admit with all due respect :

For the respectable author of the post , is someone who is sympathetic to Libertarian thought and moreover :

understand a healthy mistrust of government , while on the other hand :

All along the way , complaining of course , for reducing and cutting funding of the University press of Kentucky and others . Well , one may assume reasonably that :

Either you are not at all a sympathizer of them , or , maybe you consider more the publishing of books , over : deep poverty , being unable to afford health insurance , dying out of lack of medicines and ten thousands others maladies.

I know very well that phenomenon , many Libertarians are naturally unhappy with the government interfering with flow of life , until it does touch a personal issue or sensitivity :

Then the government all of a sudden , should fight air pollution or other environmental issues , but not other things , or beef up security , but not boost the economy or boost growth .

Finally , even job training is integral part of education . When you poorly train student , he does loose also his Universal curiosity . Both are attached one to each other . We simply lack the practicality and capability in teaching and educating generally speaking , but as a matter of objective finding , you are right !!


Posted by: El roam | Feb 26, 2018 12:22:04 PM

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