The ghost of Ronald Reagan haunts the American university. College campuses are widely supposed to be the bastions of shaggy liberalism, but the good people managing our higher education system have sometimes behaved as if they were possessed by the spirit of Reaganomics rather than the enlightened principles of humanism. Perhaps the most telling evidence of this vexation is their treatment of university presses.
.... Those of us who work in books tend to see the early years of scholarly publishing as a kind of intellectual utopia. Universities subsidized not only the research and writing of books, but their publication, marketing, and -- through library budgets -- their purchase. Indeed, the viability of most university press books was largely assured on the basis of their library sales alone. It was an almost perfectly closed economic circle.
This benign socialist cycle functioned more or less unhindered from the creation of university presses around the turn of the 20th century until it was eroded by the flood of federal education dollars loosed by World War II. The influx of wartime cash accelerated the growth of existing fields and sparked the equally swift development of new ones. The cumulative result was the mega-university, with its sprawling campuses, big-budget research projects, and close ties to government agencies and corporate R&D units. Meanwhile, the G.I. Bill fueled enormous increases in student enrollments.
.... And then there was Reagan. With his election to the White House in 1980, Ronald Reagan -- who as governor of California had led the charge against his own state university system -- ushered in an ideology of tax cuts, reductions to government programs and private-sector gimmes that proved absolutely toxic to public universities. Some of the programmatic cuts came at the federal level: the research budgets of NOAA, NIST and the Department of Energy were slashed during his administration, for example, But these were hardly the main sources of government spending on higher education. The worse damage resulted from Reagan’s “federalist” devolution of spending burdens onto the states, the universities’ primary source of support. Program cuts and tuition increases became the norm -- and continue to be so to this day.
The erosion of public support was particularly devastating to the humanities and scholarly publishing, areas that did not benefit from Reagan’s increased defense spending and trickle-down tax cuts for the wealthy. Arriving at a large state university in the early 1980s, as I did, was like showing up at a house party after the last guests had staggered home. The streets were littered with burnt-out hippies and faded dreams.