COLUMNS

George Frazier: The University Press of Kansas must be preserved

By George Frazier
Special to Gannett Kansas

In late January, I received an email from my publisher, the University Press of Kansas, that an external consultant will conduct a review of the Press and put forward a recommendation to its trustees about how or if the Press will continue to operate. As a writer and armchair academic (I have a Ph.D. in computer science but work as a software architect rather than professor), this felt like one more 2020 pandemic-year kick in the gut.

Four years ago, the Press published my book “The Last Wild Places of Kansas: Journeys into Hidden Landscapes.” Since then I’ve traveled across the state giving talks about Kansas wild places. At every stop, somebody comes up after my presentation to let me know how my book put down in print what they had felt all their lives about Kansas — that it is a place that matters. Books are powerful like that. They can legitimize and validate feelings that are sometimes hard to articulate. They offer a compact sense of community within the confines a few hundred pages and a cover.  When something is published in a book, it often seems “more real.” 

Kansas, which continues to play a unique role in the history of this nation, is sometimes snickered at as a “flyover” place. But the truth is more complicated. The University Press of Kansas — which is not the “University of Kansas” press, but the press that represents all of the Kansas Board of Regents’ schools — is one of the main voices setting the record straight about Kansas and its role in the American experiment. Not only is it the caretaker of the academic and historic legitimacy of Kansas, but it publishes titles each year that celebrate things that distinguish Kansas from other places — even other places as close as Nebraska, Oklahoma and Missouri. If the press didn’t exist, some of the books that tell the story of our lives here in the central prairies would never be published.

Many of the best-selling titles at bookstores like the Raven in Lawrence, Watermark Books in Wichita, Rainy Day Books in Kansas City, and others are University Press of Kansas titles. The same goes for public libraries: Some of the most checked out books are published by the press. Almost 50% of the speakers at the Kansas Book Festival, held each September in Topeka, are Press authors, as are many of the winners of the annual Kansas Notable Book Award. If the University Press of Kansas, which was founded in 1946, closes, one of the strongest voices for advocating Kansas as an important place in modern America will disappear. I’ve found that Kansans are proud to have the Press and want more books like the “Kansas Trail Guide” by Jonathan and Kristin Conard, “Elevations” by Max McCoy, “Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills” by Rex Buchanan and “No Places like Home” by CJ Janovy.

2020 has dealt a blow to state education coffers. But the university presses of America have fared surprisingly well during the pandemic. People are reading more, not less, in the new world of social distancing and work from home. Unlike many university departments, the Press has its own revenue stream: book sales. Of the 36 public members of the Association of American Universities (California alone accounts for seven of them), all but two have state presses. In my opinion, if KU, K-State and Wichita State can have basketball and football teams, the state should be able to maintain an academic press. In 2012, a plan to close the University of Missouri Press stirred anger across the state, and the decision was eventually overturned. Today, the highly successful Unbound Books Festival in Columbia attracts thousands of visitors and internationally renowned authors such as Salmon Rushdie, Zadie Smith, George Saunders and others. The festival would almost certainly never have happened if the University of Missouri Press had closed.

As an author, I welcome critique. I hope that the external consultant comes back with solid proposals for improving press operations and covering some of their budget shortfall. But I also hope that the Press’s board of trustees — which comprises the provosts from each of the consortium institutions — Emporia State University, Fort Hays State University, Kansas State University, Pittsburg State University, Wichita State University and the University of Kansas — will consider the impact the Press has on Kansas’ reputation, both academic and cultural, and choose to help retool the Press for its next 75 years of service to the people of Kansas.

George Frazier is a software architect and author who lives in Lawrence.

George Frazier