Christie Henry on the Ecosystem of University Presses


Adapted from a presentation given at UGA by Christie Henry, Director, Princeton University Press

I have had the incredible fortune of living in the university press ecosystem for several decades, having moved in the fall of ‘17 to Princeton University Press, after twenty-four years with inspiring colleagues at the University of Chicago Press. University presses and the universities with which we partner are part of what I would describe as a metacommunity of ideas and knowledge—that is, a set of interacting communities linked by the dispersal of multiple, potentially interacting species.

Publishers do like to interact with species of students and academics; in fact we depend on these interactions. And it’s quite well known that each of our ecosystems draws resilience and sustainability from one another; most often our relationships are mutualisms.

As within ecosystems, there are vital nutrients that flow through our systems, among the most important of which is knowledge. Universities are the deep-sea thermal vents of knowledge, pumping it out in amazing quantities at highly concentrated sites. And university presses help create a pelagic zone for this knowledge, putting it into circulation across the globe.

Like organic nutrients, knowledge is created, consumed, processed, recycled. And we must be aware of its potential to get stuck in dead zones, or in massive clumps of plastic debris. As a vital nutrient, knowledge is also essential for us to conserve, ideally to grow.

Currently our ecosystems are facing unprecedented climate change—we can consider it our own Anthropocene. How we define “anthro” in this case varies. But we certainly don’t want to be having conversations years from now about how to clone an extinct idea or population of knowledge, much as we are now having conversations about cloning mammoths and other extinct fauna.

Strategic plans for conservation depend on an understanding of threats and challenges, and especially the climate disrupters. Those inhabiting our ecosystems will find this overview familiar terrain, I suspect, but I think it’s important to trace the contours of our current stressed landscape.

The worlds of research and knowledge are experiencing fluctuations in funding that are as erratic as global temperatures, though not trending on an increase as global temperatures are. Just as increased snowfall doesn’t negate the reality of global warming, we know that increases in the population in higher education don’t mean our system is showing signs of health and well-being. Reductions in funding, and university budgets, have run like a rhizome through our communities, have disrupted library budgets, and in the university press world have resulted in events such as the recent University Press of Kentucky battle for survival under proposed state government cuts.

We have seen massive influxes of what I could call invasive species—those that disrupt or harm our systems, the economy, and even human health. Email, many say, is one of these species. So is fake news. So too is the volume of information, which is impacting attention span, and certainly causing some concern among book publishers of all species.  Some of these influxes are leading to an extinction of time, and this has a ripple effect, with impacts on critical system operations like peer review. And even if altruism has been recognized in dolphins and scrub jays, we know there are limits. There is less time for writing, and for reading. Though some positive trends outside of the academy point to growth of reading time, it’s not necessarily time spent with books, or with long-form writing.

There are also arguably more predatory species in our communities, from rapacious journals to those attempting to extract nutrients from our systems: the tyrannical form of the assault on higher ed. And some of these predators are known to live in the Amazon, but this verdant jungle is also important to visit from time to time for all that it harbors.

We know that species diversity drives ecosystem health and stability, and another threat is the lack of diversity in our ecosystems. We are at risk of genetic bottlenecks, those major events that decrease diversity and the gene pool—immigration legislation is among the most acute recent examples.

There are pressures to grow the reach of our ecosystems, our nutrient output, while at the same time reducing incoming nutrients. Open access expectations in the book world pose one of these pressures for university presses. So does the tenure and credentialing process in those disciplines that quantify book output as a key metric.

Okay, enough of the gloom and doom. Many historical moments of massive disruption are followed by a burst of evolutionary adaptations that lead to greater diversity. And I think there is a chance we are now in our own Cambrian Explosion, amidst great radiations of knowledge and books. We will need to be intentional about supporting and preserving these ecosystems.

A recent article in the Chicago Tribunewas titled “University Presses Deserve Protection,” much as ecosystems around the world need conservation and management.

Another recent publication from the science literature shifted the foci of biodiversity from mass of species to the diversity of functional traits of species in an ecosystem as a measure of resilience. This study focused on pufferfish, and one could argue we have some of these swimming in our collective waters. But universities are growing innumerable new functional traits, as are university presses. I’d argue we in the AUP world were preadapted to this need for an array of functional traits, as our lists of book species are diverse—we publish course books, textbooks, popular books, reference works, regional works, and monographs. And we as a community function much like a honeybee democracy, which in the face of threats takes the form of an incredible superorganism—without needing to sting.

New modes of communication have also increased outlets for knowledge sharing, and we just need to learn the best ways to research and curate these. Blogs have become a flagship species in our ecosystems, inspiring books, and have provided new platforms. There was a great article in Natureyesterday about the first science conference proceedings published in graphic form, a genre we all know could benefit from evolutionary change.

Libraries and publishers are working to coevolve, crafting aggregations of content, and partnering on joint publications and initiatives.

Some evolution is at a slower pace, in the best of ways. The price of university press books in real dollars, accounting for inflation, has not increased in measurable ways at all. The nonprofit mission and ethos have been in a state of equilibrium, only rarely punctuated.

Technology is leading not just to artificial intelligence, but to new and real knowledge. Open peer review is using technology to bring in a wider range of reviewers, particularly more global ones. A recent great example is Bit by Bit: Social Science Research in the Digital Age:author and sociologist Matt Salganik worked with the Sloan Foundation to create the Open Review Toolkit. This platform facilitated feedback from around the world, at various scales, and generated a database of interested readers.

Technology has also helped to grow our landscapes, to aid in bringing our content to readers the world over on new platforms. New digital initiatives, from digital humanities, sciences, and social sciences, are animating scholarship, and the book.

And publishers are also focusing on the diversity of species—of readers, of authors, of reviewers—and that will ultimately drive our resilience, as it will the university’s ecosystem.

There are many compelling reasons to be part of the circulation and exchange between our linked metacommunities.

As I think about a field guide for those of you coming new to the AUP land, there are a number of entries in the field guide index I would point you to:

  1. Find your niche. Know your audience, especially the difference between a dissertation committee and a book readership.
  2. Look for conspecifics. Identify those species of books that are like yours, as there is strength in being part of a family. And then see where those species tend to gather, under which imprints.
  3. Think about your plumage. This includes your proposal, a vital signaling tool, but also your platform. What type of author species are you? What are the novel traits you contribute to the ecosystem? We look for functional diversity on our lists. But we are increasingly looking for how well your plumage works in the world—what we call your platform. Social media, while causing a lot of information overflow, has also become a vital signaling tool in the world of publishing—for scholarly and trade alike. Many of the signaling forms of earlier geologic eras, like print advertising, are not resonating—they are being replaced with Altmetric badges and Twitter followers, and these new efforts depend on partnerships between presses and authors.
  4. Think like bowerbird. Look for the houses that are constructed and decorated in ways that sing to you. Each publisher has its own niche, and we usually do a pretty good job of signaling that ourselves. Visit websites; visit booths in exhibit halls. And your journey should explore not just the construct of our houses, but how we get our birdsong out into the world—are we visible? are our prices reasonable? do we appear on syllabi? are our books translated widely?
  5. Sensory ecology is a wonderfully exciting field. Embrace the ways in which you can adapt this to publishing. Listen to your peers; listen to yourselves as you teach, and the books you use. Listen for the authors and books that are being mentioned in your own niche.
  6. Circulate like plankton. Find ways to share your ideas. If at conferences, be sure to test them out with publishers on-site. Though also be mindful of the conservation of energy rule for publishers—try to make sure the engagement is focused and meaningful.
  7. Be active foragers—do your research. There is so much information on press websites about their own DNA. Their priorities, strengths, weaknesses. The more you can align your approach to these strengths, the better.
  8. Be clear signaler, not stealth like anglerfish. Communicate with publishers with clarity and transparency, from the proposal to the project’s main hook, to your aspirations as an author, to the way to engage your readers with story.
  9. Prepare to be challenged by your conspecifics and your competitors. Peer review is critical by nature, but it also evolves stronger life-forms of books.
  10. Be a patient species—we know the book world sometimes seems to move at geologic time scales, but the results can be structures as magnificent and multilayered as the Grand Canyon.
  11. You may also occasionally need the tenacity of a bulldog.
  12. And nothing ignites the senses better than reading or listening to books—please make time to do so. It’s the best way to find models for different forms of writing, and to support the ecosystem with which you are now coevolving as academics.

Another reference to a recent article in Nature:

“Ecological theory suggests that large-scale patterns such as community stability can be influenced by changes in interspecific interactions that arise from the behavioral and/or physiological responses of individual species varying over time.“ Please be those individual species that respond and behave in ways that will stabilize knowledge, and so too the evolution of the book.


Christie Henry talks with Hanna Gray for International Women’s Day

This post is a transcribed excerpt from a forthcoming Open Stacks podcast interview.

I couldn’t be more fortunate to be in the company of Hanna Gray, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago and Jeff Deutsch, director of the seminary co-op. As a proud member of the University of Chicago diaspora, I am in awe and admiration of these two individuals, whose integrity and erudition animate the scholarly culture. We meet on the occasion of the imminent publication of Professor Gray’s memoir, An Academic Life. Professor Gray and I overlapped briefly in 1993 as inhabitants of the 5801 Ellis Avenue Building, now Levi Hall. At the time, the University of Chicago Press occupied two floors of the building, and the University Administration was on the fifth floor. Two months after I joined the Press, Professor Gray stepped away from the presidency. But the resonance of her leadership endured for the entire 25 years I was on campus. She was the first European born and woman to lead the University of Chicago. As our paths intersect again, I now have the privilege of being the first woman to Direct Princeton University Press, and in that capacity, also to be the publisher of Professor Gray’s forthcoming memoir. I have savored reading the pages of this work and learning more about the fortitude and intelligence she used to shape experiences for so many of us at USC and throughout the world.

GrayChristie: We could use hours of conversation given that so many themes of our discussion—particularly the investment in thought and the benefits gained from communal thinking—are resonating beautifully. I wanted to ask you about on the privilege and responsibilities of being first. You were the first European born president of the University of Chicago as well as the first female provost at Yale and first female president at Chicago. You talk about these opportunities that you have had as you being in the right place at the right time. And I think that that’s often the way I have described my own narrative, as I too have been lucky to be in the right place at the right time. But if one of the responsibilities we carry is to try to create that right place and right time for others to enjoy these opportunities—and especially now as we’re thinking about how to intentionally diversify the demographics of publishing and of the university—what were some of your experiences of creating those right places and right times? Consider this my plea for advice as to how to be intentional and less serendipitous in creating opportunities for others.

Hanna: I’m the first European born president of the University of Chicago but we haven’t had a lot of presidents. So it’s not the biggest deal right? [laughs] I think my work at Yale was more complicated because it was a very early stage in the coeducation of Yale. Women wanted to be seen so much as integral parts of the university, but there were not a lot of women—to put it mildly—on the faculty.

The women surrounding the university wanted things to happen very quickly. And obviously my role was to be concerned for the whole university not only for those who were women.

And at the same time, I felt that I could understand the situation of women much more than my male colleagues had over the years, and obviously a lot needed to be done at Yale. And so there was always this tension between my knowing that and working to address it. And the sense on the part of many women was that not enough was being done because they hoped for almost overnight change, which is of course impossible. I mean, you know how appointments are made in institutions and obviously as provost or President, as I was briefly, you can only do so much. It’s not you who make the appointments. You could encourage appointments you can allocate appointments, but you shouldn’t have quota systems. Rather you have to wait until those opportunities come up and you have to prioritize and so on and so forth. It was very difficult for women who saw themselves as competent. Why was there not for them a position in the history of art, as an art historian so well-trained and so ready to be a member of a good department? But there were no places. There were no positions in that area. Those kinds of issues were there all the time. And so the question of pace was a very big question and I think I made a difference.

We made a slow difference, but that slow difference obviously was not satisfying to those who didn’t benefit from it. And that is an issue that one confronts as one hopes to make a difference. Institutions that move slowly move slowly in part because that’s their way. They don’t know how to run. But that moves slowly also because process is so important and people need to feel things have been done fairly and appropriately and according to policies and rules that everybody understands and has one hopes been a part of shaping. Now when I came back to the University of Chicago, the situation was very different.

Chicago, of course, has always been a coeducational institution that had women on the faculty from day one. But the extraordinary thing about the University of Chicago, which speaks to the larger history of women in higher education in America, was that the percentage of women on the faculty when I became president was no larger than it had been on the opening day of the university. That was an extraordinary fact and it was something I had seen in my own earlier time at the university where I was, I think, one of the first women to be appointed to her husband’s department.

There were some obstructions to women’s progress within the university. There were some women on the faculty, of course, but none of them were in the sciences except for medicine. But even there, there weren’t so many. And I think I was one of—I forget, how many—five, in the social sciences altogether. And then, one of only two tenured female faculty at some point. We did make steady progress because the institution had made, I think, an institutional determination that these figures were ridiculous and they did not represent “our” institution, which prides itself on going against the tide. Chicago recognizes merit where merit is due, and it should certainly be doing just that. It wasn’t always smooth progress and it certainly did not involve quotas of any kind, but we steadily did increase the number of women. And I think that having a woman president was a help in that respect. And I think once again, my responsibility was for the whole institution and for being sure that the appropriate appointments were made and other policies were followed. There was clearly some weight to the kind of encouragement. And you know, just the fact of being a woman made a difference.

Check this space later this month to listen to the complete interview on Open Stacks.


Christie Henry: Celebrating Black History Month

This month we celebrate the altruism and insights of the educator Carter Woodson, and his enduring legacy, which includes the creation of Black History Month. We are grateful for the opportunity as a publisher to underscore our commitment to promote work that informs and ignites conversations about the African American experience, and to honor PUP authors such as Edwidge Danticat, who encourages her readers to “Create dangerously, for people who read dangerously…. Writing, knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them.”

During this month’s reflection and celebration, we also take stock of our responsibility and aspirations as a publisher of a diverse and engaging library. We strive for inclusivity, as does the university community we inhabit. We can deploy, with intentionality, the power of books to encourage further growth and inquiry. Fellow publisher Chris Jackson eloquently remarked in an address to the Association of University Presses (and reprinted in What Editors Do):

“I believe in book publishing, in its capacity to help us all retrace our paths back into history, to see the present in all its complexity, and to imagine different futures. To do that we have to build a publishing industry—at all levels of publishing—that honors the potential, the complexity, and the fullness of the world itself.”

In sharing with you, our partners in this publishing endeavor, books of great pride and import that we have published in recent years about African and the African-American experience specifically, I also want to underscore, as PUP’s new director, born in the Cote D’Ivoire in a Baoule community, how vital it is to our mission to embrace this fullness of the world, and its every complexity. To further quote from Mr. Jackson, and in admiration of his publishing ethos,

“When we expand the range of the industry’s gatekeepers, we expand the range of our storytelling, which expands our ability to see each other, to talk and listen to each other, and to understand each other.”

This month, as we do throughout the year, we will invest our human and fiscal capital in cultivating books that lead to understanding and inspire smarter listening. We also invite your ideas; as Princeton University professor emerita Toni Morrison has elegantly challenged the writerly world,

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” 

Announcing Princeton University Press Scholarship Online in collaboration with Oxford University Press

October 19, 2017. Princeton University Press is delighted to launch Princeton University Press Scholarship Online (PRSO) in collaboration with Oxford University Press and the University Press Scholarship Online platform. Continuing our mission to advance and enrich global conversation, we join an esteemed group of our peer university presses in this evolving digital initiative that will increase the discoverability of and engagement with our titles by academic libraries and research institutions throughout the world.

Our initial launch includes over 400 new and backlist titles across disciplines including anthropology, biology, economics, history, mathematics, physics, political science, religion, and sociology. The extent of PUP offerings is expected to grow annually, with the ongoing addition of works from our diverse publication programs in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences.

Oxford first launched University Press Scholarship Online (UPSO) in 2011 in collaboration with five other presses with the goal of creating an intelligent online platform to house thousands of high-quality scholarly works from the best presses in the world. PUP will be the 25th press to join this exciting collaboration.

Princeton University Press, established in 1905, is an independent, not for profit publisher with close ties to Princeton University, including an Editorial Board appointed from the faculty of the University. Our publishing program includes works by more than 50 Nobel Prize winners and dozens of renowned series including the Collected Papers of Albert Einstein, Thomas Jefferson, and Woodrow Wilson; Monographs in Population Biology; The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts; and the Princeton Science Library. Princeton University Press is headquartered in Princeton, NJ, with offices in Oxford and Beijing.