How to encapsulate a year such as the one we’ve just lived through? Who would have imagined that so many presses would have managed so well this year, that we would have transitioned so quickly and under such jarring circumstances to remote working? I do not want to overlook or to minimize the plight of those presses that have struggled, nor, more importantly, the many losses that people in our community and communities, and in the world, have suffered during this pandemic (including my OUP USA colleague, Hector Gonzalez.) The university press community has persevered through these griefs, through the many hardships of the past year, and found sustenance, too, in the meaning of our work, and in the hope that must spring from the social uprisings that have marked this time.
I’ve been thinking about a meaningful way in which to frame this period and the phrase to which I keep returning is “duty of care,” as in “what is our duty of care, and to whom, and how has that changed?”
Our duty of care to our colleagues has certainly thickened and become more braided and complicated for many of us this year, as we have sought to transform our organizations to be more inclusive and less geographically anchored. The stressors of personal caretaking responsibilities under pandemic conditions required sensitivity and accommodation like never before—and may lead to a more thoughtful workplace, one that takes the best of this time into the future. In the early days of the pandemic, we also focused on the duty of care to our audiences, especially students and professors, by making works we publish readily available during the initial spring crisis, improving access broadly due to the pandemic. This reflex in our community, embodied by the original Books for Understanding initiative, remains alive and well, and reinvigorated by a new generation of university press publishers. Our Association’s “Social Distancing” project captured a snapshot of the most relevant scholarship on our pandemic conditions, provided a needed escape into new worlds and ideas, and listed resources that member presses made freely accessible this past year for students and researchers locked out of libraries and campuses.
As publishers, the members of AUPresses have a powerful duty-of-care to our authors, to publish their books as well as we can, navigating between the necessary and irrepressible optimism that comes with writing a book, on the one hand, and the often brutal market realities with which we must contend on the other. We owe it to them to ensure that we are treating them equitably, regardless of access or experience, and scrubbing our review processes of implicit bias as much as possible, to help them navigate the path to publication, and to ensure that their audiences are not only benefiting from their wisdom but that our authors are benefiting from our particular expertise. At a time when social norms around identity, language, impact, and intent are shifting, some of our authors may struggle to keep up—as with technology—and so our duty of care extends to helping authors navigate our social worlds so as to facilitate the best work possible within the norms of the time. Like all of us, authors can be encumbered by their personal histories, and we must act on our duty of care as responsible cultural agents, ensuring that a work’s content enjoys maximum reach and that readers—all readers, regardless of perspective, experience, or means—are able to learn from it. At the same time, as Princeton University Press Director Christie Henry helpfully reminds us, we need ourselves to engage in a process of constant institutional peer review, given our own historical and present shortcomings.
The concept of the ‘duty of care’ extends to the Association, as well—in its relationship to members and our connected futures, to staff and volunteers, to the university press community and ideals, and to the social and civic communities we each live in. Any review must reflect on the activities and achievements of the past year in that light.
The pilot launch of the Global Presses Partner Program at the beginning of 2021 puts this in particular focus. In seeking to develop meaningful professional networks and equitable knowledge sharing between members of AUPresses and non-member scholarly presses in the “Global South” we hope to find a model for a truly inclusive global future for university presses and scholarly communications.
The varied portfolio of the new Equity, Justice, Inclusion (EJI) Committee has been a driving force for the Association over the past year. From the vibrant Community Reads programs, EJI outreach across all active AUPresses Committees and via a members newsletter, a just-launched pilot on the data and demographics of our publishing, to monthly brainstorming sessions for press directors, this group of dedicated volunteers is helping all of us turn EJI commitments into actions. Close scrutiny of the nominating procedures for the AUPresses Board of Directors has helped leadership better envision how such commitments to equity can be made more effective at the very core of the Association.
The continued work of the Open Access (OA) Task Force has led to the creation of a new standing OA Committee to help presses navigate this constantly shifting landscape. Another committee, Faculty Outreach, oversaw the launch and successful first year of the Ask UP website, designed to help scholars and the broader public understand the processes of scholarly publishing—demonstrating care for our future authors, if you will.
At the beginning of my term, the future of the Association—like that of so many nonprofits—seemed less than certain. But successful applications to the PPP program to offset operating costs during the pandemic (a tip of the hat to AUPresses Business Manager Kim Miller) and successful negotiations with the AUPresses conference hotels to shift the Annual Meeting for a second consecutive year (thanks to AUPresses Membership and Events Director Susan Patton), shored up the Association’s ability to continue to serve our members. Creative adaptation, dedicated publishers, and the depth of knowledge and skill in our community have held us in good stead through this period.
In reading over the materials for a recent board meeting, I was struck all over again by the enormous variety of our constituent presses—their focus, their size, their location, their funding models, their relationships to their parent institutions—and by the fact that this range can make any kind of consensus hard to achieve. We are a community of Open Access (OA) enthusiasts and of OA skeptics, of books publishers and of journals publishers, of serious non-fiction publishers and experimental fiction publishers, and of programs with a global reach and with a specific regional focus.
Regardless of these differences, when presses experience hard times, we rally to the cause (just as we gather to cheer good news). Any reflection of the past year would be lacking were it not to include reference to the deliberations over the future of the University Press of Kansas. It has been a rewarding experience to watch the ways in which our broader community—not just presses but authors and learned societies and readers—rallied to the cause. The expressions of support, the debates about how AUPresses might best advocate for the Press, the petitions—all had an impact on the ultimate decision to retain the Press, an influential publisher in a number of fields, particularly US political, military, and presidential history, and law and legal studies. Much of the work that AUPresses does in such moments is necessarily behind-the-scenes. This work cannot be broadcast or trumpeted via press releases or social media but rather constitutes a discrete engagement by the association on behalf of our members, their staff and their authors, and represents a duty of care in its own right.
I had hoped, when I accepted this role, to be in touch with many more of you in a proactive manner over the course of the year, to acquaint myself better with that diversity, and to find ways to explore and celebrate it. The past year’s events precluded my ability to do more than simply react for long stretches at a time. At the same time, this convergence of events has also served to highlight the duty of care many of us experience daily and affirmed our commitment to the attendant responsibilities we have.
In closing, I express my thanks to my unfailingly helpful predecessor Kathryn Conrad, the committed AUPresses staff, all the many volunteers who give of their time and labor, our thoughtful Board, and my dynamic successor Lisa Bayer, with whom I look forward to working in the weeks and months ahead.
Several months ago, a colleague of mine suggested that no one has had the bandwidth to be their best selves this year. I’ve thought of that notion often since, most recently as helpful framing for a year that has reaffirmed the importance of our work to myriad communities, including our own.
Niko Pfund, President 2020-2021
President, Oxford University Press, USA