From the President

AUPresses 2022-2023 President Charles Watkinson (Director, University of Michigan Press)

As countries worldwide lift restrictions first imposed in 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19, the aspiration to achieve a “new normal” is a common feature of today’s business-speak. My excellent predecessor Lisa Bayer hoped to be the last president whose summary of accomplishments would be wholly colored by the coronavirus. While millions continue to struggle with the disease, that hope has been realized as the pandemic formally moves into endemic status. At the same time, we understand that the environment into which the university press community emerges has little of the stability that the term “new normal” might imply.

When it met in Ann Arbor in April 2023, the Board of Directors focused on the manifold environmental forces affecting the Association and its members now and in the imminent future. Informed by both interviews with Directors and Committee chairs and the PESTLE framework (see below), the board began shaping a refreshment of the Association’s strategic plan which will be shared later in 2023.

  • “Political” issues include attacks on intellectual freedom and marginalized voices manifest in book bans and attacks on tenure across the United States.
  • “Economic” issues include spiraling costs set against reduced resources in higher education as a demographic cliff in student enrollment looms.
  • “Social” changes include unprecedented awareness of the deep racial inequities exposed over the past few years and an appetite for structural engagement.
  • “Legal” changes include significant international legislative activity in spaces such as public access to scholarly information, accessibility, and privacy.
  • “Technological” challenges include the proliferation of misinformation online, amplified by machine authorship and the active involvement of warring governments in social destabilization through cyberspace.
  • Underlying everything, the “Environmental” implications of increasingly rapid climate change that require active commitment to sustainable practices by organizations as well as individuals.

Many of these forces overlap to create “wicked problems” that are not soluble through any single action. However, they can also inspire creative engagement, especially when approached through the lens of our core AUPresses values—diversity and inclusion, integrity, intellectual freedom, and stewardship. Over the last year, the Association’s many volunteers and talented Central Office staff have made great strides.

The year started with appointing the chairs and co-chairs of the 18 AUPresses Committees and shaping their charges. The Committees, staff, and Board worked together to adopt three charges each, accomplishable within the year, and engaging with the Association’s core values—especially diversity and inclusion. Bringing more structure and focus to Committee work was a particular product of Allison Belan’s energy. Allison led a training session in the late summer focused on effective mobilization of volunteer Committee members, which introduced best practices and enabled peer sharing of strategies. In the winter, we held a check-in with Committee and Task Force leadership focused on reviewing structural changes that each group had made in their operations and programming to advance equity, justice, inclusion, and belonging. This review was led by Valarie Guagnini and Clare Litt, the energetic co-chairs of the Equity, Justice, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee (renamed in 2022 to include “Belonging”). The strategies shared were based on consultations led by EJIB Committee members with the other groups.

Over the last few years, AUPresses has progressed from raising awareness of inequities in the experience of historically marginalized groups to confronting the structures within university press publishing and the workings of the Association that allow these inequities to persist. The concern that the energy around anti-racist work shown across our community in 2020 might dissipate is somewhat alleviated by the work of Committees this year. As examples, the Acquisitions Editorial Committee’s updated Best Practices for Peer Review prioritize equity, justice, and inclusion and “building up books” in the peer review process; the Editorial, Design, and Production Committee and Digital Publishing Committee are working with C4DISC on best practices in accessibility; and the Annual Meeting Program Committee has prioritized and documented inclusive practices in developing the format of the Association’s virtual Annual Meeting—which will alternate with the in-person version. Structural change is long work, and the Association will need to continue to advance its commitment to diversity and inclusion.

Equity concerns have also informed ongoing Association work on career path and compensation transparency in the university press community A new initiative announced last year, the Task Force on Career Progression, has consistently coded over 1,000 position descriptions and includes participation from the Society for Scholarly Publishers (SSP) and Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP). This data will help articulate the skills needed to enter non-profit publishing and advance between positions; clarity that has been much in demand, particularly from early career colleagues. The about-to-be-released 2022 AUPresses Biennial Compensation Survey will provide more data transparency than that program has ever before, and the gender parity analysis first commissioned by the 2018 Gender Equity and Cultures of Respect Task Force has become a standard additional report.

Fall/Autumn 2022 was marked by two concurrent celebrations of university press identity. The first was an excellent University Press Week, led by the amazing Carrie Adams, which mobilized the links between university presses and independent bookstores and received coverage in The New York Times among other venues. The second was an inaugural combined AUPresses display at the Charleston Library Conference organized by Jason Fikes and the Library Relations Committee. This display highlighted the distinctive values of our field of publishing and showcased resources such as #AskUP to librarians, as well as providing a connection hub for university press staff attending the meeting. It was accompanied by a keynote presentation from university press directors to hundreds of potential library customers that emphasized the values alignment and quality of university press books and journals.

The federal declaration of 2023 as the Year of Open Science in the United States complemented substantial policy initiatives around public and open access in Europe, Australia, and the UK. The Association has conducted considerable advocacy behind the scenes this year to ensure university presses are not forgotten in funder moves influenced both by commercial science publishers and start-up born open-access publishers. Our initiatives included consultations with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and UK Research and Innovation, and collaborations with the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the National Humanities Alliance. An application to NEH entitled “Sustaining Bibliodiversity in Humanities Publishing: Practical Impacts of Public and Open Access Policies on Smaller Book and Journal Publishers” was a project inaugurated this year, and we look forward to a program evolving from our discussions about a collaboration with Jisc in the UK to offer an easy on-ramp to consideration for AUPresses membership for the multiple New University Presses.

Association members continue to develop initiatives aimed at enabling (especially smaller) presses that want to publish open access to do so sustainably. As the TOME pilot ended, new opportunities have emerged. Project MUSE has created a Subscribe to Open (S2O) model for journals, JSTOR has partnered with ACLS to create a Path to Open (P2O) model for books, and the Big Ten Open Books program for opening backlist titles is piloting a collection of books on “gender and sexuality studies” from six university presses in the Big Ten Academic Alliance.

A decade ago, the Board of Directors made the great decision to appoint Peter Berkery as Executive Director of the Association. One of his first initiatives was to go out on the road to visit many AUPresses members in their home contexts. Peter’s message on returning was that our Association is characterized both by the variety of its members (from large to small, from trade-focused to library-focused, from private to public) and their common orientation around the Association’s core values. This “bibliodiversity” is a great source of strength in changing times, even as it makes meeting the varying needs of members challenging for the dedicated Central Office staff. It has been a great privilege being your 2022-2023 President, and I am excited to hand over to Jane Bunker, a colleague whose wisdom and expertise I have benefitted from regularly over the last year.

Charles Watkinson, President 2022-2023
Director, University of Michigan Press

Read the announcement of Watkinson’s presidency >