The Chronicle of Higher Education: Special Report
From the issue dated September 20, 2002

The Crumbling Intellectual Foundation

Budget cuts for libraries, university presses, journals, and culturecombine to threaten the infrastructure on which professors and students depend

When money is scarce, some basic needs lose out to others. We see it in our homes and cities. That aging roof may not be replaced, that cracking pavement may be ignored. The same thing happens at colleges as they deal with deteriorating classrooms, outdated computers, neglected landscaping. But beneath higher education's physical world, academe is supported by an intellectual life of research, writing, editing, publishing, reading, and culture. The recession and the ensuing budget cuts at colleges are chipping away at that foundation.

During the downturn, some budget items, predictably, have received the lion's share of attention: faculty salaries, tuition rates, and construction spending. In many cases, officials have attempted to keep salaries competitive or to minimize tuition increases. But the budget items that support intellectual life are much smaller and much more vulnerable, so many academics believe they will not be able to bounce back when the economy recovers.

"Imagine that flush times return in 2006," says Michael Bérubé, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University at University Park. "I can't believe any state legislator will be saying, 'OK, now let's pour money back into the library.' That's not going to happen."

And so, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst's library, as at others, the talk is of "inventing a new library." The library lost about 20 percent of its staff and saw its acquisitions budget shrink by more than $1-million. It canceled 1,000 journal subscriptions and cut back on buying books.

"We're trying to make choices," says Margo Crist, director of library services. "What are we going to invest in and what are we going to downsize or eliminate?" But she does not think that's a decision for the library to make alone. "The campus is going to have to help us decide what they want in a library. We won't be able to serve everyone."

This imperiled infrastructure is interconnected. As libraries buy fewer books, the university presses -- already hurting from a shifting publishing landscape -- see their balance sheets getting redder and redder. A decade ago, "you could sell 800 to 900 copies of anything, and I mean anything," says Beatrice Rehl, an art-history and classics editor at Cambridge University Press. She is rejecting many more books than she used to. "There's no way I can make the numbers work," she says. "I can't charge $100 for a 260-page book." Libraries that once had standing orders to buy everything a certain press published are picking and choosing more carefully. At other places, like the University of California, one copy of a book is being purchased for the entire system, instead of copies for each campus.

Other than feeling sorry for librarians and press directors, why should the rest of us care? What's really lost? A look at how these changes have rippled through academe suggests that the cuts threaten the intellectual infrastructure, undermining the liberal arts that have long been considered a cornerstone of Western, and particularly American, higher education. "Universities encourage venture- capital thinking," says Kenneth A. Wissoker, editor in chief of the Duke University Press. "That means it's easier to get money for projects that don't exist. ... There's less concern about what upholds the institutions that we depend on."

All of the changes have filtered down to faculty members and their students. Consider Paul Babbitt, a young political-science professor at Southern Arkansas University. He would like to do more research, but his library is struggling to support it. He clings to the rumor that the library might finally be getting access to JSTOR, a database of more than 200 journals. In the meantime, he stops by the library at Rutgers University at New Brunswick whenever he visits his parents.

Mr. Babbitt also tells his seniors that they must start their thesis research early, because they will need to request many books through interlibrary loan.

"My book budget might be sufficient to buy the new books I need," he says. "But I can't catch up on books that we don't have."

As presses cut back on titles or, like the University of California, cancel a respected series on philosophy, professors and graduate students will find it harder and harder to get published, and get tenure. That trickles down to the advice undergraduates get, says Anthony T. Grafton, a professor of history at Princeton University. "There are many kids that I know who are bright, but when they ask [other professors] about graduate school, they're told, 'Oh, no. Don't even consider it.'"

Given the decentralized nature of this infrastructure, it is nearly as difficult to discern the extent of the damage as the reasons for staving it off. Part of that stems from the difficulty of putting a price tag on the liberal arts. Defenders find themselves in a familiar position. "Knowledge in the liberal arts is crucial for practical reasons," says Stanley N. Katz, a Princeton professor and former president of the American Council of Learned Societies. "We need language skills. We need basic science. ... This is the utility of useless knowledge. It's not useless. We give up something very important if we starve the liberal arts."

But in a world where many universities have positioned themselves as economic-development engines -- to please state legislators, businesses, or donors -- technology and vocationalism have eclipsed and, in some sense, cheapened intellectual life. "A lot of things that underpin the academy weren't made to be evaluated on a cost-benefit basis independently, as if they were part of a corporation," says Mr. Wissoker, of the Duke press. It's vital, he explains, "that when Northwestern says, 'We don't want to translate these Eastern Europeans before they win their Nobel Prizes,' then someone else would say, 'But that's really important.'"

But that has become an uphill battle as the humanities and soft sciences have lost out to a stalled economy and, increasingly, the hard sciences. The life sciences, for example, are basking in the glow of a near doubling in federal funds for the National Institutes of Health over the last four years, to a total of more than $23-billion.

Other scientific fields can bank on corporate support, state money, or even big donors who want to direct their giving to science and technology. Last spring, for example, the Walton family (of Wal-Mart Stores) pledged $300-million to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with the goal of sparking economic development in the state. Humanities professors were demoralized when they were told they probably would be ineligible for any of the money.

Even the sciences lose out with the erosion of the base. Robert L. Park, a physics professor at the University of Maryland at College Park and public-information director for the American Physical Society, says universities reflect public sentiment.

"We tend to not honor scholars right now," he says. "We honor people who risk their lives or make enormous profits or invent gadgets that are useful. ... But for whatever reason, knowledge for knowledge's sake doesn't have much currency."

Indeed, Princeton's Mr. Grafton wonders whether academe's great erudite programs, like Brown University's history-of-mathematics program or the University of Chicago's Committee on Social Thought, could be developed in the current budget climate. "Those are things institutions could be sold on 50 years ago, but we wouldn't create such a thing now," he says. "We talk about being bold and experimental, but my sense is that higher education was bolder 40 years ago."

Not every library is facing the budget knife, but the list of those that are is long. At the University of Idaho, the library lost five positions, including 3 of 21 librarians. The library also cut 130 out of some 5,000 journals, as its budget was slashed by 5.5 percent. If the state economy doesn't improve, the library may lose another 6 percent next year. "We've brought in lots of new faculty coming from places like Berkeley, and they're saying, 'You don't have this? Berkeley had this,'" says Ron Force, dean of library services.

At the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the library's acquisition budget has remained flat and no staff positions have been cut. Kenneth Frazier, the library director, says he does not fear that Wisconsin will ever be unable to afford the "core academic literature." But in the long term, a level or declining budget will reduce the quality of the research holdings.

"As the buying power of the library budget shrinks, our collections become less deep, less interesting, and less inspiring," he says.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, librarians are preparing for a budget trim of 5 or maybe even 10 percent. In the short term, the library can weather the cuts, says Joe Hewitt, the university librarian, but he fears what the future will bring. "The tendency will be to do everything to protect core services to current faculty and students," he says. "And what might go would be preparing for the future, doing the collecting that we do to preserve the cultural record."

In the world of academic presses, the biggest recent headlines have covered changes at Northwestern, whose director was fired for failing to meet budget targets, and at the University of California, where critically acclaimed series have been canned. But other presses have suffered as well.

The University of New Mexico Press has laid off 6 of its 26 employees, citing a deficit of more than $1.9-million. At the University of Illinois Press, two positions are being lost and Willis G. Regier, the director, says he hopes to save money by enforcing page limits. The days of contracting for a 400-page book but receiving 700 pages are over. "We're going to be a whole lot stricter," he says. "It will affect our decision to do long books in general. We hope to avoid cutting the size of our list, but we're attempting to be more conscious about price upfront."

University museums, another part of the intellectual foundation, are also taking a hit. The University of Kansas has closed the public exhibition space at its respected Museum of Anthropology. At the College of William and Mary, budget cuts nearly shut down the Muscarelle Museum of Art, but the trustees eventually decided not to withdraw all of the college's money. The museum, financed with college and private donations, will cut its operating budget in half and eliminate two staff positions, including the director's post.

Les Reker, the departing president of the Association of College and University Museums and Galleries, says he knows it's a cliché to lament the neglect of the arts in bad fiscal times. "But it's true," he says. "The trend toward vocationalism is there. The liberal arts are being trampled, and an art museum is a way to keep it alive."

Literary journals and cultural magazines are also not receiving the support they once enjoyed. Duke University Press has decided to stop publishing Transition, a hybrid academic journal and cultural magazine of Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research. A press official has said producing that type of journal -- replete with photographs -- is "beyond the means of a university press in these financial times."

Meanwhile, the New Art Examiner, a respected magazine of art and culture, closed this summer after three decades because the money had dried up. And in Massachusetts, DoubleTake, an award-winning quarterly founded by Harvard's Robert Coles, is struggling to stay alive. Dependent on foundations and donors, it has seen gifts plummet with the recession.

Not everyone in the liberal and fine arts is feeling the effects of the downturn. Most academic associations say they are fine: Memberships are steady, and conference attendance, despite travel cutbacks in many departments, is not declining.

And some in higher education see no threats at all to the intellectual foundation. Frank Newman, a former president of the University of Rhode Island and of the Education Commission of the States, says that it is a legitimate concern, but that academics always worry in times of economic troubles. "I don't see a particular pressure to get rid of knowledge for knowledge's sake," he says.

Still, some universities have been pleasantly surprised. At Michigan State University, library officials were asked to prepare for a 3-percent cut, but the acquisition budget ended up increasing 5 percent. "The libraries seemed to be shielded from many of the cuts," says Clifford H. Haka, director of libraries.

At Ohio State University, the press had feared a budget cut, but it is getting the same $150,000 university subsidy it has received for several years. Malcolm Litchfield, the director, describes himself as "fairly complacent" about the economic situation. "State budgets ebb and flow," he says. "We're going through a drought right now."

However sanguine Mr. Litchfield is about his own press's finances, he sees the interconnected world of presses, libraries, and tenure decisions as a "tangled web that is not functioning properly." While it is easy to blame the economy, he suggests that the liberal arts suffer from far more fundamental problems that require rethinking the whole system. "Expecting academic work to be printed as books and journals, and to expect a press to engage in a marketplace activity of creating or finding an audience for all academic work, is probably not an efficient use of money," he says.

Even people pushing for change acknowledge that it would take a cultural revolution in which everyone from professors and librarians to departments and tenure committees modified their expectations. Others have said that the changing economics of publishing mean the book should no longer be the standard of achievement.

In a letter this year to members of the Modern Language Association, the group's president, Stephen Greenblatt, pointed out that university presses are cutting back in English and foreign-language literatures. Because that trend could jeopardize the careers of a generation of young professors, he encouraged departments to consider the situation when reviewing tenure cases. In the long term, he said, they should reconsider whether a book should really be a criterion for tenure.

Altering the relationship between university presses and tenure decisions could help shore up the intellectual foundation, but other fundamental changes in how knowledge is bought and sold will be necessary. Ms. Crist, the University of Massachusetts librarian who is struggling with deep budget cuts, is frustrated that libraries must pay so much money -- especially for scientific journals -- to "buy back" research that was conducted on their own campuses. "Why isn't our intellectual capital more freely available?" she wonders.

Duke's Mr. Wissoker says the answer to economic challenges is not to make academic presses behave more like commercial presses. "We survive because we serve a function for scholarship," he says. "What makes better sense is to figure out a way that the people who benefit could support it."

So Mr. Wissoker has a surprising, if impractical, suggestion. Nearly all of higher education depends on academic publishing in some way, so it should spread the costs, now borne by the limited number of universities with presses, around more broadly. For instance, he suggests that when a professor at Sarah Lawrence College wins tenure, the college, which does not have an academic press, should make some payment to the press that published the professor's book.

At Illinois, Mr. Regier sees a future in which more publishing is done electronically and, perhaps, universities reconsider how they support their presses. "Universities may find that a more honest way to track the cost of publications would be to fund them upfront, publish them electronically, and publish them free," he says.

That doesn't mean he thinks presses will vanish or that libraries will stop buying books. But maybe, embracing this lightning-fast, digital world could push one aspect of publishing back decades. "Being published in a book," he says, "is going to signify something that it used to signify" -- a work of enduring value and relatively broad appeal -- "and it isn't going to serve all of those other purposes." And ultimately, Mr. Regier says, "the prestige of the book would return."

Despite such hopes for the future, the likelihood is not some evolution into a new system but rather a continued chipping away at the intellectual foundation. And when the money returns, imagine where it will flow. "The priorities are going to be the decaying physical plant, faculty recruitment and retention, student services," says Penn State's Mr. Bérubé. "Oh, and then there are these libraries."

But figuring out what we are missing, he admits, is difficult, so maybe we won't even miss it. "It's like looking for missing matter in the universe," he says. "It's hard to say what isn't being read or isn't being published."
Section: Special Report
Volume 49, Issue 4, Page A10