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The History of the University Press of Kansas

Ad Astra per Aspera

The progress of scholarly publishing in Kansas corroborates the state's motto, ad astra per aspera, which is usually glossed as "to the stars through difficulties." Kansans pride themselves on their doughty survival through cyclones, drouths, blizzards, and grasshoppers. In contrast, the University Press of Kansas for almost four decades suffered an unnatural inclemency--the state constitution that prescribed that all public printing must be performed by state printing facilities. At every crucial turn, section 4 of article 15 played a major role in thwarting the ascent of the press toward publishing prominence.

Like that of any press, the history of the University Press of Kansas has been shaped by the main currents of higher education and scholarly publishing and by the tributaries of local influences. For its first thirty-six years, local factors arrested its development. From 1946 until 1982, Printing, Money, and Bureaucracy rode together as the Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Of this unholy trinity, Printing proved to be the most baneful.

The prehistory of the University Press of Kansas hinted at the difficulties with which it would grapple. As early as 1911, University of Kansas (KU) Chancellor Frank Strong, who regarded published research as an effective way to publicize the school, reported that "important work done by members of our Faculty . . . had of necessity been sent for publication to other Universities and to Commercial publishers." He explicitly complained that the laws governing state printing hampered university printing and binding. Joining Strong's brief, Professors Merle Thorpe and William Carruth also deplored the excessive printing and binding costs that constrained the university's fledgling efforts in publishing.

Twenty American university presses were founded in the 1920s and 1930s, a factor that doubtless contributed to growing faculty interest in the University of Kansas having its own publishing house. On 9 January 1940 the Committee on Publications and Printing recommended to the Faculty Senate "that the Administration be invited to consider establishing a University of Kansas Press." The Senate adopted the recommendation, but the Second World War intervened before the university administration could act on the faculty's invitation.

War or no war, other universities joined the publishing fray: Tennessee and Vanderbilt in 1940, Nebraska and Wayne State in 1941, Kentucky and Syracuse in 1943, South Carolina in 1944, and Alabama and Florida in 1945. At KU the machinations chiefly involved an American serviceman in Australia, a graduate school administrator, and a former Dole Hawaiian Pineapple Company executive. Dr. Clyde K. Hyder (1902-1992), a wartime cryptographer in the U.S. Army Air Force and a peacetime KU English professor, received an unexpected invitation. John H. Nelson, then assistant dean and secretary of the Graduate Research Council, asked Hyder to serve as the first editor of the yet-to-be established publishing operation. The former pineapple merchant was Chancellor Deane W. Malott, who had most recently forsaken the Harvard faculty for Kansas. While Malott's approval was necessary for the plan to succeed, Nelson was the moving force behind the organizing of the University of Kansas Press.

Malott seemed poised to endorse Nelson's initiative. In August of 1941 he had renamed the Bureau of Printing the University of Kansas Press, a change that prefigured a more organized approach to publishing but blurred the distinction on campus between printing and publishing. In November of 1943 his executive secretary, Raymond M. Nichols, had answered Alabama's inquiry about setting up a press: "Just before the war broke out we were studying the possibility of establishing a press for publication of research work of the faculty but that plan has, of necessity, been pigeon-holed for the duration. . . . After the war we hope that we will find it possible to complete our plans. . . ."


I. 1946-67

Image of Clyde HyderThe postwar influx of students, we can guess, diverted Malott from thoughts of publishing. But Dean Nelson persevered, and the Publishing Division of the University of Kansas Press was formally established with Dr. Hyder as its part-time editor. Nelson, who chaired the Press Publications Committee until 1963, called the inaugural meeting to order on the ninth of January in 1946. The committee promptly approved A Malariologist in Many Lands, by Marshall A. Barber, as the first book to be issued by the new operation.

For those familiar with the founding of university presses, it is superfluous to observe that the University of Kansas Press in its infancy was understaffed and undercapitalized. In fact Hyder was the staff; the Printing Division had to fill the book orders; and the Graduate Office handled the bills. Other presses managed to outgrow similar humble origins, but local conditions constrained the University of Kansas Press. Its godfather and overseer from 1946 until 1963, Dean Nelson "had thought of the Press as necessarily remaining a small one, financial resources being limited, but always publishing good books." Small at birth and malnourished, it hardly grew. Handicapped by the state's printing regulations and forced to rely on the limited capabilities of the on-campus printshop, the press published only seven titles in its first five years. Although admitted in its founding year to the Association of American University Presses, the press was briefly placed on probation for not meeting minimum standards of staffing and publishing output. Even in the early 1950s Thomas Ryther, head of KU's Printing Division, professed an inability to print more than four books a year.

During these early years and afterward, Clyde Hyder subscribed to the principles found in the policy statement that he had drafted in 1946 for the committee's and the chancellor's approval. "We believe," he wrote, "that the chief purpose of a university press, like that of a university, is to contribute to society by the enlargement and propagation of knowledge. The Press should publish some books which interest only particular bodies of scholars and which can hardly have a wide circulation. . . . University presses have long stressed the principle of intrinsic value, rather than the immediate appeal, of what is put into print."

What the University of Kansas Press put into print upheld these principles, but its growth was stunted. In the 1950s the press published 71 books; in the 1960s it managed but 75. Lack of money cramped the press at a time when the university was short on everything but students. Printing problems continued. The formulaic lament dwelled on the binding bottleneck at the State Printing Plant in Topeka. Understaffing was a chronic condition for the first twenty years. Not until fall 1953 did Hyder become the full-time director (and editor), and his entire staff consisted of not more than 1-1/4 clerk typists until July 1965.

Despite these constraints, the press published meritorious works, including the monumental 18-volume Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology (1953-66) and Lawrence S. Kubie's Neurotic Distortion of the Creative Process (1958), which was translated into German, Spanish, and Japanese. Perhaps its most distinguished titles dealt with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English literature: e.g., Kathleen Williams's Jonathan Swift and the Age of Compromise (1958), Alan Dugald McKillop's James Thomson (1967), W. P. Albrecht's Hazlitt and the Creative Imagination (1965), and Ralph Wardle's Mary Wollstonecraft: A Critical Biography (1951). Like other presses at the time, the University of Kansas Press had an eclectic list. Through 1966 its output could be categorized roughly as one-third literature and the humanities; one-third history, biography, and the social sciences; and one-third medicine and the sciences. Indicative of the eclecticism were L. E. Richdale's Sexual Behavior in Penguins (1951), James Seaver's The Persecution of the Jews in the Roman Empire (300-438) (1952), Thomas Bonner's The Kansas Doctor: A Century of Pioneering (1959), and Robert Riegel's American Feminists (1963).

In November of 1963 the Press Publications Committee, with the encouragement of Dean W. P. Albrecht, concluded that the press had accumulated financial reserves sufficient to contemplate an expansion. Oklahoma to the south and Nebraska to the north had helped to raise awareness that other presses were prospering relative to the University of Kansas Press. Inhibiting its growth, the committee concluded, was the ever-present printing problem.

With faculty sentiment in favor of growth, interest flared about how it might be achieved. The administration commissioned a wide-ranging report by the Press Committee to examine "the present state of the University of Kansas Press and [to make] recommendations for its expansion and improvement." In addition to inadequate staffing and space and the restrictive legal handicaps, the June 1964 report faulted the "lack of sufficiently positive directives from the University Administration concerning the role and eventual stature desired of the Press."

Among the early results of the report was the edict from Raymond Nichols that henceforth the name University of Kansas Press belonged solely to the publisher. The press also moved into better quarters in Watson Library and began to add to its staff in 1965. Casting a pall on this progress, however, was a failed attempt that same year to seek legislative relief; a bill exempting the press from the printing statute died in committee. Its death augured ill for the expansion plans.

In January 1966 the administrations of the University of Kansas and Kansas State University (KSU) began talking seriously about cosponsoring the press. Doubtless KU's desire for a larger, better-funded operation dovetailed with the urge of KSU's faculty, led by Robin Higham, a military historian who came from a British publishing family, to get involved in scholarly publishing. Earlier inquiries into the possibility of starting up a separate press in Manhattan had collided with economic realities. Hyder recalled that the Oklahoma press director, Savoie Lottinville, had advised the KSU contingent to cooperate rather than compete with the University of Kansas Press.

In short order Wichita State University (WSU) joined the talks. A Tri-University Press Committee, under KU administrator Francis Heller's guidance and with KU geographer T. R. Smith as chair, was appointed to study the proposal. The committee issued its report in April 1966. Recommending staff and space increases, the report called for the annual title output to rise from 8-10 to 25-30 with the objective of increasing the backlist from 70 to 250 "within 5 to 10 years." With Hyder's retirement looming in 1967, the report advocated "the appointment of a full-time professional Director." In October 1966 the Board of Regents authorized the "joint operation in the publication of scholarly books," and on 1 July 1967 the cooperative enterprise began operations as the University Press of Kansas.

In the words of the Kansas City Star, the press harbored "lusty intentions of becoming a major university press" (9 July 1967). KU's Provost James R. Surface sounded the keynote: "By combining the resources of the three state universities of Kansas, we hope to make possible the creation of an expanded and more significant scholarly press than any of us could provide singly." At the 16 November 1967 official founding of the reorganized operation, the poet Bruce Cutler, Distinguished Professor of English at WSU, hailed the cooperative effort as "a powerful leaven in our state's academic loaf."


II. 1967-69

Image of John DessauerTo meet these rising expectations, the Board of Trustees had hired as director John P. Dessauer (1924- ) from Indiana University Press, where he had served as associate director. Dessauer, who arrived in Kansas just as the golden era of university publishing started to wane, fought three familiar battles--printing, money, and bureaucracy--with mixed results. The tangled thicket of the state's bureaucracy especially complicated matters. For example, publishing contracts were held up for a time until February 1968, when the state attorney general issued an opinion that the press was indeed authorized to enter into such agreements. The impervious state printing statute resisted every legal maneuver, including one that sought to persuade the attorney general to rule that manufacturing scholarly books did not constitute "public printing"--a distinction that naturally comes to academic publishers' minds when they contemplate piddling sales or visit their overstocked warehouses. Dessauer, whose frequent faculty visits at the member campuses helped to solidify the consortium arrangement, resigned in the summer of 1969 and headed off to the Grolier Press in New York City. His departure took the steam out of the heralded expansion plans. Dessauer went on to write Book Publishing: The Basic Introduction, now in a third edition, and to become a well-known statistician for the publishing industry.

Dessauer's greatest legacy is the American Presidency Series, which to this day remains one of the chief adornments of the University Press of Kansas publishing program. The idea for the series originated in early 1968 with James O. Maloney, a member of the Editorial Committee and a KU professor of chemical engineering who had looked futilely for concise biographies of presidents. The idea was refined by KU historian Donald R. McCoy, who took inspiration from Richard Neustadt's landmark book, Presidential Power, and astutely reasoned that what was really needed were not biographies but histories of presidential administrations.

Although his directorship was too brief to have lasting impact on the list, except for the presidency series, Dessauer oversaw the publication of some noteworthy books, including the artist Thomas Hart Benton's autobiography, An American in Art (1969) and a biography of a Kansas newspaperman, Ed Howe: Country Town Philosopher (1969), by Calder Pickett.

In looking for Dessauer's successor, the search committee discovered at least one potential candidate who found the restrictive printing statute intolerable. "The printing problem," he observed upon withdrawing his name, "is analogous to forcing a race horse to run on three legs, and a University Press that cannot take a given job to the best-qualified printer in the country . . . is forever condemned to either unsatisfactory or heavily overpriced work."


III. 1970-81

Image of John LangleyFrom Dessauer's departure in 1969 to spring of 1970, Assistant Director and Editor-in-Chief Yvonne Willingham served as acting director. In May 1970 John H. Langley (1914-1988) became the third director of the press. A publishing veteran, Langley came from Duke University Press, where he was assistant director and business manager. The 1970s was a period of cautious readjustment for scholarly publishers, and the word crisis appeared with alarming frequency in their shop talk, speeches, and writings. But under Langley the University Press of Kansas enjoyed something of a boomlet during the decade. Title output increased 67% over the 1960s, and the sales during the fiscal year 1980 were 162% higher than in 1970-71. The staff increased from six in 1970 to seven in 1981. In constant dollars the deficit that Langley had inherited did not worsen, even though financial support for the press languished during a period of high inflation. In 1978 the annual title output rose to 18, but budgetary stringencies--exacerbated, of course, by overpriced state printing--dropped the total below 10 by 1981, when he retired in June.

During Langley's tenure, another milestone in the history of the press occurred. In February of 1976 the Board of Regents reorganized the University Press of Kansas. Effective 1 July 1976, Emporia, Pittsburg, and Fort Hays joined in the sponsorship of the state's publishing arm, which was renamed the Regents Press of Kansas. As before, its Board of Trustees was composed of the chief academic officers of the sponsoring institutions. A lively raconteur, Langley demonstrated a deft public relations touch in his vigorous and continuing efforts to make the consortium work.

In acquisitions he had a straightforward philosophy: publish the best available books. That he succeeded can be seen in such books as the two-volume autobiography of Chang Kuo-t'ao, The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party (1971-72), which the American Historical Review hailed as "an important event"; and the eight-volume set, Opera Omnia di Sidney Sonnino (1973-76, 1982), which received the Howard R. Marraro Prize in Italian Historical Studies. Other notable works include John T. Alexander's translation of S. F. Platonov's Time of Troubles: A Historical Study of the Internal Crisis and Social Struggles in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Muscovy (1970) and Hal Sears's Sex Radicals: Free Love in High Victorian America (1977).

Some of the titles published during the Langley era prefigured the list-building initiatives of the 1980s and 1990s. Of course, the American Presidency Series got underway, with the inaugural volumes being Paolo Coletta's The Presidency of William Howard Taft (1973) and Forrest McDonald's The Presidency of George Washington (1974). As exemplars of regional publishing, Kansas Impressions: Photographs and Words (1972) by Wes Lyle and James Fisher, The Land of the Post Rock: Its Origins, History, and People (1975) by Grace Muilenburg and Ada Swineford, and Wildflowers and Weeds of Kansas (1979) by Janet Bare, showed the possibilities of publishing books on Kansas that would reach a wide audience. The roots of the American West list can be traced to such books as John Clark's edited volume, The Frontier Challenge: Responses to the Trans-Mississippi West (1971), Jimmy Skaggs's The Cattle-Trailing Industry: Between Supply and Demand, 1866-1890 (1973), Craig Miner and William Unrau's The End of Indian Kansas: A Study in Cultural Revolution (1977), and Robert Athearn's In Search of Caanan: Black Migration to Kansas, 1879-80 (1978). Even the faint outlines of the future commitment to military studies can be glimpsed in the Eisenhower Foundation's D-Day: The Normandy Invasion in Retrospect (1971), Norman Saul's Sailors in Revolt: The Russian Baltic Fleet in 1917 (1978), and Coletta's Admiral Bradley A. Fiske and the American Navy (1978).

Although they ultimately proved to be a cul-de-sac in terms of list development, books in the humanities published by Langley maintained high standards. Among the most noteworthy belonged to American and English literary criticism. W. P. Albrecht's The Sublime Pleasures of Tragedy: A Study of Critical Theory from Dennis to Keats (1975), Robert Hipkiss' Jack Kerouac: Prophet of the New Romanticism (1976), and Daniel Schneider's The Crystal Cage: Adventures of the Imagination in the Fiction of Henry James (1977) all came to be regarded as standard references on their subjects. In recognition of the quality of the press's contribution to humanistic scholarship, the American Council of Learned Societies awarded it a $7,500 grant in May of 1976.


IV. 1981-2000

Image of Fred WoodwardWhen Langley retired in 1981, the Regents Press of Kansas was a good but small press in some financial difficulty. Its very existence was called into question. To help answer the question, the trustees invited David H. Gilbert, then director of the University of Nebraska Press, to review the operation in February 1981 and make recommendations. His sensible report carried the day, and the trustees once again set the press on a course toward expansion. If the trustees' plans were to succeed, the state printer's death grip on the press had to loosen.

It did. Fred Woodward (1943- ), formerly marketing director at the University of South Carolina Press, arrived in November of 1981 as the fourth director with a mandate to build the publishing program and to put the press on a sound financial footing. In February 1982 the state printer, at the urging of the KU administration, at last granted the press permission to purchase book printing and binding (but not typesetting) in the commercial marketplace. From this "beneficence," all else flowed. Heartened by this action, the trustees agreed to pay off the $162,000 deficit and increase the annual operating subsidy. With access to commercial printers, the press realized immediate improvements in pricing and scheduling. The change also permitted the press to begin publishing color-illustrated regional books for the popular market such as Kansas in Color, a perennial best-seller since the fall of 1982. The long-sought expansion began to occur.

Another obstacle to success was surmounted when the imprint changed. Both printing problems and name changes recur in the history of the press. In the opinion of many, Regents Press of Kansas proved itself unsatisfactory on two counts: (1) outside the state it was not immediately recognized as the name of a scholarly publisher; and (2) the operation was then regularly confused with the now defunct Regents Publishing Co. of New York City. Without ruffling too many feathers, the Board of Regents in June of 1982 restored the name to University Press of Kansas.

In April 1986 the printing problems were resolved when Kansas Governor John Carlin signed into law Senate Bill 643 exempting the press altogether from the state printing requirement. This action freed the press to work with commercial typesetters and printers for all of its printing.

Adequately capitalized and liberated, the press managed to solve many of its long-standing problems. Needing room to grow, it moved its book inventory in 1989 into a newly built warehouse with a storage capacity of 535,000 books. In 1991, on land donated by the Kansas University Endowment Association, it constructed an office facility just north of the Yankee Tank Creek that runs through the West Campus. The costs of both the warehouse and offices were paid from funds generated by book sales. In early 1986 the press converted from a manual to an electronic order fulfillment system. By the end of 1999 the staff had grown to twenty-six. But these physical and staffing improvements, however crucial, were but a means to a greater end. Former University of Chicago Press director Roger Shugg said almost thirty years ago on the KU campus that "a press exists only to publish and what it publishes tells the world who and what it is."

The mission of the press is "to extend the reach and reputation"--to borrow University of California Press Director James Clark's pithy phrase--of the six Kansas Regents universities. It fulfills that mission by publishing scholarly books that advance knowledge and regional books that contribute to an understanding of Kansas, the Great Plains, and the Midwest. In contrast to his predecessors, who embraced a catholic acquisitions program in order to represent the diverse interests of the home faculties, Woodward set out to focus list-building efforts in specific areas as a means to attract the best possible manuscripts and thereby to build a national reputation for excellence. In choosing this path the University Press of Kansas was emulating some but not all academic presses.

Since 1982 the editorial program has evolved--in often linear but sometimes convoluted ways--into one that focuses most broadly on history, political science, and philosophy, excluding the regional list. More specifically, it concentrates on military studies, American history (especially political, cultural, intellectual, and western), presidential studies, U.S. government and public policy, legal studies, American studies, and social and political philosophy. Active series include: Modern War Studies, American Presidency Series, Development of Western Resources, Studies in Government and Public Policy, American Political Thought, Landmark Law Cases and American Society, Feminist Ethics, and CultureAmerica.

By most impartial accounts the strategy of specialization or niche list-building has succeeded. The lists in presidential and military studies are regarded by the cognoscenti as nonpareil. Those in constitutional and legal studies, the American West, urban studies, and American political thought rank among the very best. While not a major press if judged solely in terms of title and sales volume, Kansas has steadily ascended toward the stars. Not only is its ascent confirmed by such objective criteria as a disproportionate number of book prizes and commendations, major media reviews, and book club adoptions, but commentators also say as much in print. Most notably, in a cover feature that appeared in its 3 July 1998 issue, The Chronicle of Higher Education profiled the press as "a distinctive model of success in turbulent times." Concurrently, the editorial director of the History Book Club, Kathleen McDermott, observed that Kansas "has really started to climb up to that top tier of university presses."

Accounting for this growth in eminence are, of course, the actual books and authors. Some of the award-winning books published since 1982 include: Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution (1985) by Forrest McDonald, the 1987 Jefferson Lecturer in the Humanities; two Lincoln Prize-winners, The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln (1994) by Phillip Shaw Paludan, and Decision in the West: The Atlanta Campaign of 1864 (1992) by Albert Castel; two Fletcher Pratt Award-winners by Steven Woodworth, Davis and Lee at War (1995) and Jefferson Davis and His Generals: The Failure of Confederate Command in the West (1990); the monumental Flora of the Great Plains (1986); Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946-1988 (1989) by Clarence Stone; The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century America (1986) by Robert Athearn; and The Middle West: Its Meaning in American Culture (1989) by James Shortridge.

Other prize-winning titles: Donald Baucom's The Origins of SDI, 1944-1983 (1992); Richard DeLeon's Left Coast City: Progressive Politics in San Francisco, 1975-1991 (1991); William Skelton's An American Profession of Arms: The Army Officer Corps, 1784-1861 (1993); David Adams's Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1828-1928 (1995); Gareth Davies's From Opportunity to Entitlement: The Transformation and Decline of Great Society Liberalism (1996); Norman Saul's Concord and Conflict: The United States and Russia, 1867-1914 (1996); Charles Walcott and Karen Hult's Governing the White House: From Hoover Through LBJ (1995); William Davis's The Cause Lost: Myths and Realities of the Confederacy (1996); Michael Durey's Transatlantic Radicals and the Early American Republic (1997); and Charles Shindo's Dust Bowl Migrants in the American Imagination (1996). Almost certainly the most prestigious prizes bestowed upon Kansas books are the 1997 Bancroft Prize, which David Kyvig's Explicit and Authentic Acts: Amending the U.S. Constitution, 1776-1995 (1996) received, and the 1999 Francis Parkman Prize, which was given to Elliott West's The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado (1998).


V. The Future

The history of the University Press of Kansas testifies to the resilience of scholarly publishing as well as to the value of persistence. Handicapped, stunted, and beleaguered for over half of its life, the press has persevered for more than a half century of enlarging and propagating knowledge. On the cusp of the twenty-first century, like other scholarly publishers, it faces new challenges occasioned by declining markets for serious nonfiction, the rapid pace of technological change, and the diminishing prestige of humanities and social science research in academe. To thrive in this shifting environment, the University Press of Kansas must find better ways of disseminating knowledge to a larger public. The future is uncertain but not the aspiration: ad astra per aspera.


© 2000 University Press of Kansas
Revised 10 January 2000

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