#AUPresses20 Mellon University Press Diversity Fellows conversation

Yelena Kalinsky's picture

The Mellon University Press Diversity Fellowship Program, the result of a four-year, $1,205,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, aims to diversify the university press acquisitions pipeline by offering highly competitive fourteen-month apprenticeships in the acquisitions departments of six university presses. This panel brought together the outgoing 2019-2020 cohort, which included Noor Shawaf (Mellon Diversity Fellow, University of Chicago Press), Dominique Moore (assistant editor, University of North Carolina Press), Hanni Jalil-Paier (Mellon Diversity Fellow, University of Washington Press), María Isela García (Mellon Diversity Fellow, The MIT Press), Alexis Siemon (Mellon Diversity Fellow, Cornell University Press), and Elizabeth Alexander (Mellon Fellow, Northwestern University Press)

Panel moderator, Kyle Gipson (assistant editor at Johns Hopkins University Press and a former fellow), opened by citing the 2019 Lee & Low Books Diversity Baseline Survey, which confirmed what most of us already know: the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white (76%), while editorial departments are 85% white, (up even from 82% in 2015). What followed was a wide-ranging conversation in which the fellows reflected on their experiences of the program, offered advice to mentors and incoming mentees, and thought broadly and creatively about how to promote meaningful diversity in academic publishing as a whole. While this post cannot fully capture the range and depth of the conversation, here are the four points that stood out most clearly to me:

  1. Promoting diversity does not mean compromising quality. As Hanni Jalil-Paier reminded us, diverse acquisitions programs are in fact consciously driven by quality, which means continually finding people beyond the press’s reach and prioritizing and intentionally carving out extra space for under-represented voices. In terms of staffing, the current and former fellows are all impressively talented and extremely accomplished, coming from publishing, academia, and other creative pursuits. They express a desire to both represent and to grow new communities of readers. Alexis Siemon asked the audience to consider what it says that the fellows on the panel likely wouldn’t have gotten a chance in university press publishing without this opportunity. Presses should think about how they can treat diversity as an integral part of recruiting the best talent.

  2. There are many ways to show experience beyond formal training. A number of the panelists emphasized that listing “MA or PhD preferred” in the job description made them think twice about applying for the fellowships. Other ways that job postings limit a candidate pool and deter diverse applicants: no visa sponsorship, no funds for relocation, no listed salary range. Noor Shawaf emphasized that recruitment is the first way to counteract entrenched elitism in institutions. Recruiting through Twitter, online publications and international listservs, departments beyond English, and local networks and organizations serving underrepresented communities are all ways to avoid reproducing what Liz Alexander called “pattern-matching” of staff from the same cultural, ethnic, and class backgrounds. Intentional mentorship that treats the fellows as colleagues and helps them to identify a plan early on for the milestones they will need will help those diverse colleagues to remain in the pipeline and to build and sustain community with fellow coworkers.

  3. Presses must take responsibility for representation through the allocation of resources. It is a truism that budgets indicate priorities, so it shouldn’t fall to members of the most marginalized communities to make the financial sacrifices to diversify presses. Everyone agreed that salaries for entry-level positions across the industry need to come up if we don’t want staff to have to rely on family or marital support or burn out just to make ends meet. Relocation support can mean the difference between a fellow being able to make a cross-country move and not. Dominique Moore put it concisely that presses need to move from thinking about a livable wage to a “thriving wage.” Financial strains are real concerns for university press publishing. But thinking creatively at every step of the process in order to find the resources should be part of a press’s tangible work towards diversity.

  4. Diversity efforts cannot stop with the diversity fellow. This point was echoed across a number of areas. Noor Shawafi challenged presses to think not just about hiring and staffing, but also about peer review, marketing, and all of the press’s activities. Demonstrating such ongoing commitments to diversity means that individuals don’t feel tokenized. In response to an audience question about diversity and inclusion groups, several fellows cautioned that such initiatives often have a glass ceiling, and can become performative rather than productive the closer to the ceiling one gets. The bottom line is that buy-in from the leadership is paramount. The pay-off, however, can reverberate in dynamic publishing programs that drive conversations in both the academy and the broader civil discourse.

The incoming 2020-2021 fellows are Jason Alley (University of Washington Press), Erika Barrios (MIT Press), Rebecca Brutus (University of Chicago Press), Joe Fitzgibbon (The Ohio State University Press), Allegra Martschenko (Cornell University Press), and Iván Pérez-Zayas (Northwestern University Press).

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