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AFTER SIXTY-SIX YEARS of publishing prize- winning titles in areas such as aviation and veterinary science, Iowa State University Press announced in late July that it would shed its nonprofit status and merge its operations with a commercial publishing giant, the U.K.-based Blackwell Science. The deal has left the scholarly publishing community perplexed -- and concerned. Has ISU Press found a bold and idiosyncratic blueprint for financial health? Or has it set a dangerous new precedent for academic publishers looking to gain a competitive edge on their nonprofit peers?
For ISU Press, the merger with Blackwell Science put a quick, if controversial, end to months of speculation surrounding the fate of the Press and its twenty-four employees. Despite a pattern of growth that included record earnings in fiscal year 1999 -- more than $4 million -- the Press's board of trustees concluded earlier this year that its $100,000 annual surplus was just not equal to the challenges that lie ahead. How would the Press pay for that new roof? The new software for order fulfillment? The new computers and personnel? And how could it expect to compete in the rapidly expanding digital realm?
"In order for us to meet our long-term obligations, instead of a $4 million corporation, we needed to be in the $8 million range or cut back to $2.5 million or so," explains Al Austin, an ISU professor of engineering and the president of the Press's board of trustees. To reach this goal, Austin says, the board examined a range of options, including acquiring other presses, scaling back publications, and selling off lines of books. "One thing we looked at was closing the doors of the Press and going out of business," Austin notes, almost as an afterthought. "But that was never high on our list."
One source of investment that was not available to the Press was Iowa State University itself. "In a lot of ways, you can look at our press and say that we were already operating as a commercial press under a university press umbrella -- we had to make a profit or we would go out of business," says Austin. "The university made it very clear to us that it was not going to put money into the press." According to Austin, this has been true for at least forty years. And although former ISU president Martin Jischke raised over $425 million in gifts in the past five years, administrators' attitudes have not changed. "The university in its strategic planning came to a conclusion that it is not able or interested in allocating resources to the press," explains Warren Madden, ISU's vice president for business and finance. "It's just not in the priorities of Iowa State University." Does that mean that if the press had asked for some investment, it would have been turned down? Yes, says Madden. "And there is no indication that would change."
So the trustees opted for a merger deal under which Blackwell Science will pay ISU about $2 million. That money will go into an endowment, out of which $100,000 annually will go to sustain "scholarly publications." The university will license its name to Blackwell Science on a five-year renewable basis, and the joint Blackwell-ISU venture will continue to publish under the ISU Press imprint. Blackwell will own the Press's backlist outright. (Better Farm Accounting, with sales of over one million, is the press's best-selling backlist title; a series of flight manuals by William Kershner has also done extremely well.) Some of those backlist books may become Blackwell Science editions, says Madden, just as some future Blackwell publications may be published under the ISU Press imprint. A joint imprint is also a possibility. For the moment, at least, Blackwell has agreed to retain the current ISU staff, and the operation will remain in Ames, Iowa.
Is the university at all worried about licensing its name to a corporate entity? Madden says there are safeguards in the deal to protect the university's reputation. "There will be peer review of proposed publications," he says. "And there is a mechanism for us to say no if they want to publish something like a Playboy magazine under the imprint." In the case of a more typical editorial disagreement over, say, the quality of an author's scholarship, the merger contract provides for legal arbitration.
Such assurances fail to quiet the nerves of some scholarly publishing professionals. University presses are by their nature responsible to scholars, not shareholders, explains Douglas Armato, the director of the University of Minnesota Press. "I am most concerned," says Armato, "about the possible dilution of what it means to be an American university press." It's a concern he shares with Willis Regier, the incoming president of the Association of American University Presses (AAUP) and the director of the University of Illinois Press. Regier told reporters at the Chronicle of Higher Education that the merger was "a real takeover by a corporation of a university press" and that it marked the first time a university press's assets had been sold off by its parent school to a corporate entity. "I think it's a horrible precedent," Regier declared.
For some observers, the biggest question is simply, why? What challenges loom so large that a midsize university press with a healthy bottom line would deem the future of nonprofit scholarly publishing untenable? "I may be going bonkers over this one," confesses Peter Givler, the executive director of the AAUP, "but something here doesn't add up." Givler, who characterized the merger as "sad" and "peculiar," offered to travel to Ames in early April to discuss alternatives with the Press's board of trustees. He received no reply.
Austin maintains that neither Givler nor anyone at the AAUP ever contacted him personally, but he confirms that the AAUP did reach out to the Press. The trustees, he says, did not think the intervention was necessary. "I'm not trying to be critical of the AAUP," explains Austin. "But when you're dealing with issues on a daily basis, and have conducted a thorough study over a number of months, and right at the end they come in, what could they bring to the table that we haven't already thought of?"
"What would I have brought to the table? You'd think that would be obvious," says Givler. "I'd like to think that if I'd had a chance I could have helped them get a better and more realistic understanding of where they were and what their choices were. Where in the world did they get the idea they had to hit $8 million? I'm sure somebody did that calculation for them, but the sad fact is that Mr. Austin and his colleagues just don't have any way of knowing whether it reflected a good financial model, whether it was based on reasonable assumptions, whether it grew out of a good understanding of this business and how it works. How could they? Publishing isn't their business. It is mine, though." It's Blackwell's, too.
Andrew R. Albanese
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