How a University Can Sell Its Soul: HASTAC’s Stanford Origins and the University’s Current Decision on Stanford University Press

“Austerity” When You Are Wealthier Than Just About Anyone

In the wake of the decision by the President and Provost of Stanford University to either (depending on which account you read and when) kill its scholarly press immediately or bring Stanford University Press (founded 1892) to a slow death by withdrawing its $1.7 million annual subsidy, a story (perhaps apocryphal) is making the rounds. It seems an important administrator at a different elite institution once said that his university spent less every year to subsidize their prestigious press than they did to fund a faculty dining hall. If my back of the envelope calculation of space on an expensive campus plus staff and food, etc,  is at all accurate, this story could well be true–even if it isn’t.  I suspect Stanford pays at least as much to subsidize its faculty dining spaces and other amenities not key to the University’s scholarly mission than it does to support scholarly publishing at Stanford University Press.

The point here is that $1.7 million a year, in the operating budget of an extremely expensive and well supported university, is pocket change. For a point of comparison, one scholar calculates that Stanford pays about $38 million a year to help subsidize the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center; another notes that, if the 5% spending cap on Stanford’s $26 billion dollar endowment were raised to 5.1%, there would be 2.6 million more a year to spend on the the Press. And  the University is in the midst of a major fund raising campaign. 

To declare “austerity” now and blame a smaller than expected return on the University’s endowment (the third largest in the country) as the rationale for cutting subsidy to a distinguished scholarly press is ludicrous and hypocritical.  And selective

For that, in the end is the point of virtually all arguments about “austerity” that come from wealthy institutions, whether universities or nations.  The burden of austerity is highly selective, a matter of choices that reveal assumptions about who does or does not deserve support, what values are or are not esteemed.  Since the publishing of scholarly books and journals is largely the domain of the humanities and qualitative social sciences and those broader sciences that seek to reach an audience beyond their disciplinary domain (environmental studies, medical humanities, and so forth), the university is making an implicit judgment that these domains do not deserve resources.  “Austerity” is not the same as “inability to pay” at a university that received $1.3 billion in philanthropic gifts in 2018 alone.  “Austerity” is a shabby excuse.  Basically, Stanford is casting its lot against 100 years of excellence and a long tradition of crucial intellectual work in a wide range of intellectual domains–just not the disciplinary ones, most likely, that produced $1.3 billion in gifts last year.

How and when does a university sell its soul?  Why?  And why is the Stanford University Press saga so completely compelling–and terrifying– now?  Stanford’s Role (A Historical Digression, ca 2002-2005)

For HASTAC, this story has particular relevance since we were founded with the conviction that the technologies emerging from Silicon Valley had to have ethical and social dimensions, including ones based on access and equity. HASTAC has deep roots in a scholarly tradition of interdisciplinary collaboration in research and teaching across domains as well as a commitment to technological innovation–and some of those roots go back to Stanford. 

The organization HASTAC was founded in 2002, cofounded by myself (Duke University) and David Theo Goldberg (Director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute), and a dozen other scholars and technology practitioners across a wide variety of fields. One of the founders (and an early technology visionary) was Kevin Franklin (then Associate Director of UCHRI).  UCHRI hosted HASTAC’s first face-to-face meeting in 2002 (and our first conference in 2003). We all began to imagine what an online version of our interactions, contributions, and collaborations might look like, including the UCHRI leaders plus other members of the original design team that included Ruzena Bajcsy (the eminent engineer at UC Berkeley), Kathleen Woodward (Humanities Center, University of Washington), Tara McPherson (Film and Media, USC), Anne Balsamo (Interactive Media, USC), and others. The HASTAC online network–the “world’s first and oldest academic social network” according to an NSF report–was imagined collaboratively and collectively at numerous face-to-face gatherings, including at one hosted by the cyberinfrastructure division of NSF. 

At Stanford, the group involved in translating f2f cross-institutional collaboration into an interactive community-led online tool included: former Stanford Professors Jeffrey Schnapp and Tim Lenoir, librarian Henry Lowood (currently Curator for History of Science & Technology Collections and Film & Media Collections in the Stanford University Libraries) and doctoral students KC Alt, Jesse Thompson  (’s first Webmaster), and Zachary Pogue (HASTAC’s second Webmaster, first at Stanford, then Duke). 

We had to imagine such a tool together since it didn’t yet exist. began as a display website linked to this brand new thing called a “wiki, ” a website on which any registered user could contribute or modify content directly from a web browser.  Ward Cunningham designed and launched the first wiki on the Internet in 1995.  The most famous wiki, the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, launched on the Internet in 2001.  

In 2002, the HASTAC team began to build its site and its wiki. Helping us to design the site was none other than Jimmy Wales, cocreator of Wikipedia. I believe it was in 2002 or 2003 that we first met him.  I remember we first visited his office around that time—cement block walls, a few guys at desktops. We also engaged in a few early experiments with what were then called “web blogs” or “blogs” (considerably before 2009 when “Web 2.0” made “interactivity” readily available).  My point: we were imagining technologies for scholarly collaboration and interaction back then that are now everywhere . . . and humanists and social scientists were there and key.

While HASTAC has hardly had the growth enjoyed by Wikipedia, it has remained free to nearly 17,000 users and three quarters of a million visitors each year. Anyone who registers and abides by our community rules of respect and relevance to our mission of research and teaching can contribute ideas, research, and announcements to the academic social network.

To date, 1430 HASTAC Scholars (80% graduate students, 20% undergraduates) have been part of our HASTAC Fellowship program and participate daily in creating the online intellectual life of HASTAC. Always student-led, the HASTAC Scholars program is currently under the bold leadership of Graduate Center doctoral student and Futures Initiative Fellow Adashima Oya. 

HASTAC’s website moved from Stanford to Duke University in 2005, where it was housed until 2017. From 2014-2017 it was co-located and co-administered with the Graduate Center and CUNY; for one year, the partnership also included Arizona State University. HASTAC is now administered and supported between CUNY Graduate Center and Dartmouth College, codirected by myself and Jacqueline Wernimont (Dartmouth).  The website is now hosted and administered at Dartmouth (with Brinker Ferguson as Website Coordinator; Katina Rogers, at CUNY, Director of Administration and Programs for HASTAC).

HASTAC has always been a multi-institutional collaborative project and many institutions have helped to sustain the network, including via a major, decade-long collaborative project under the leadership of David Theo Goldberg at the University of California’s Humanities Research Institute and the Digital Media and Learning Initiative supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  Digital Promise, NSF, and other foundations, grants, and institutions sustained HASTAC over the years. 

Inside Higher Education dubbed us the “ethical social network” because we do not misuse user data. Ever. We are community-led, user-driven, and open for content to anyone who registers to the site and respects the community principles.  Our mottos are “Changing the Way We Teach and Learn” and “Difference Is Our Operating System.”

HASTAC–called “haystack” by those in the know–stands for Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory.  That last word, “collaboratory” was coined by computer scientist Walter Wulf and it means a “center without walls, in which the nation’s researchers can perform their research without regard to physical location, interacting with colleagues, accessing instrumentation, sharing data and computational resources.” HASTAC received early funding as a “collaboratory” from NSF.  HASTAC would not exist without extended institutional support and subsidy—from universities, from NSF, from private foundations, and from the dedicated efforts of dozens of faculty and students across dozens of universities.

Since 2002, we HASTAC leaders have been meeting online, and, since that time, dozens of universities have stepped up to host face-to-face major international conferences for literally thousands of participants.  Our online presence continues to this day. is one of the most complex Drupal community-built open access sites on the Internet. It contributes to the ultimate goal of higher education to promote and support research, learning, ideas, teaching, and community across all forms of difference, including disciplinary ones.

Thank you, Stanford University.  You were an important contributor, early on, to HASTAC’s pioneering online “academic social network.”


Back to Stanford Today and the (Potential) Tragedy Faced by Stanford University Press

I tell this origin story because, of course, I’m writing this as a HASTAC blog post, and not everyone is aware of this early connection with Stanford, in the belly of Silicon Valley, aided by pioneers of the modern Internet. 

I’m also telling this story of Stanford origins because, early on, scholars and administrators at Stanford realized that Silicon Valley desperately needed a conduit across computer science, digital arts, humanistic inquiry, science studies, social science, and beyond.

Stanford has profited mightily from Silicon Valley—and Silicon Valley has profited mightily from having a great educational institution train the next generation of digital entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, and visionaries.

So what does it say—to Silicon Valley and the world—if this great institution decides that research in the humanities and social sciences is no longer worth supporting?


  • Is Stanford implicitly saying that the technology that has enriched  and been enriched by the University has no need to think about its social and ethical choices?  


  • Is Stanford implicitly saying that profit alone matters and that, when the third wealthiest university in the country suffers a negative blip in its investment returns, it’s time to dump the scholarly press designed to support rigorous peer review of work dedicated to the humanities–“academic disciplines that study aspects of human society and culture”–and social science–“academic disciplines concerned with society and the relationships among individuals within a society” (both definitions courtesy of Wikipedia).


  • Is Stanford saying that its own humanities and social science faculty are second class citizens who do not deserve the same kind of attentive, rigorous peer review that its faculty in science and technology and quantitative social sciences enjoy?  


  • Is Stanford saying it will no longer require its own professors in its humanities and social science departments to produce peer-reviewed scholarship for hiring, tenure, and promotion?  If Stanford—the third richest university in the country—is suffering an “austerity” that means it will no longer subsidize scholarly publishing, then who will be referring and peer reviewing and editing its own humanities and social science faculty?  Who will be publishing their scholarly work?  Surely Stanford’s austerity can’t compare with most other universities committed to supporting academic publishing including the University of Akron, or Penn State, or South Carolina, or Delaware and many others. 


Shame on you, Stanford, for pleading poverty in these beleagured times for most of higher education!


Why Can’t Scholarly Publishing Be Self-Sustaining?

Like the fabled faculty dining commons which cannot support itself (whether it costs 1.7 million a year to support it is another matter—all such amenities require some kind of support for building, operating costs, staffing, etc), university publishing is a greater good that enhances the life of the community of scholars and students that makes up academe.  Given that all of higher education is reputational—rankings, accreditation, and beyond—scholarly publishing is the most rigorous form of peer review.  


There are many other forms, including open access publishing (such as on  They all cost money.  They all require subsidy.  Anyone who thinks there are “free” forms of publishing has not looked deeply enough.  (The oldest adage of the Internet is that, if something is free, it is because you are not the consumer but the product being sold: see the egregious data and privacy violations of Facebook, Google, etc.) 

Some presses support themselves from other sources—such as sponsoring the SAT and GRE exams or selling Bibles or medical books or running collaborative warehouse or printing businesses and charging other entities.  All are subsidized by something other than their publishing.

Why? Because, by definition, academic publishing is too specialized for commercial, trade publishers. It is typically by academic specialists and often for academics.  “Worth” and “merit” are because the research contributes to foundational knowledge. Specialized research reaches the larger public through our classrooms, through generalists using this specialized research in wider contexts. Rigorous, specialized research has to be conducted without profit as its goal.

Speaking personally, for much of my career, I have published a trade book (from a commercial publisher) in between scholarly books. The process is entirely different and so are the goals. I won’t go into that here. There are advantages and disadvantages to both systems–but no commercial press can support specialized, original, rigorous, foundational research.  The bottom line is that, if a university’s intellectual and educational reputation is to rest on the scholarly output of its faculty, including in highly specialized areas, then scholarly publishing must be subsidized as part of the educational mission.

In the sciences, subsidy is often part of one’s grants and one pays to publish a paper with grant funding.  Such grants are rare in the humanities and social sciences although more and more universities are offering “subventions” to their authors to help defray the cost of publishing a book. Without subvention, scholarly books typically lose money.  That does not make them lacking in worth.


Worth Should Not Be Measured by Profits

This sentence bears repeating:  Because scholarship does not make money, does not make it worth-less.

Is Stanford making that value judgment?  “Worth” and “value” are only measurable by profit? If a university as wealthy of Stanford can treat its own scholarly press, founded in 1892, with such disregard, what about the universities that truly are struggling now? 

What is the fate of the humanities and social sciences–disciplines dedicated to the study of culture and society, individuals and nations–in the modern world of higher education?  How is Stanford weighing in on this pressing topic by announcing such a decision (and without consultation of its faculty or of SUP’s faculty advisory board)?

Stanford is cutting-edge. Stanford is a leader. To what is this decision by one of our wealthiest and most respected institutions leading?  The end of the study of the humanities and social sciences? 

Technology by technologists for technologists, with no regard for the human and social implications, is what has brought (this is not hyperbole) the world–the entire world–to a fraught and morally vexed place.  Ironically, among the many fields Stanford University Press publishes are legal studies and security studies. Given the state of our world and the role of monopolistic, global, invasive, and irresponsible surveillance and communications technologies in that world, Stanford’s decision is not just symbolic, it is irresponsible–and even dystopian–in every sense of the word.

I think back to what we dreamed in 2002, and the responsibility we took, as educators, for helping Silicon Valley think through its own human and social imperatives.  Now I think about Stanford’s role and place and its vast endowment, largely a product of its role in creating and shaping the Silicon Valley of today.

Here is the question: Is this decision, implicitly, the cost of being the educational center of Silicon Valley?  If so, in the process of becoming one of our wealthiest institutions of higher education, Stanford University has sold its soul.


Image:Giacinto Gimignani – An Angel and a Devil Fighting for the Soul of a Child – WGA08997.jpg


One response to “How a University Can Sell Its Soul: HASTAC’s Stanford Origins and the University’s Current Decision on Stanford University Press”

  1. This is the publishing list from the Stanford University Press website:
    & POLICY