Unusual Business: A University Press Goes Private, And No One is the Wiser


On 11 March this year, a brief announcement by the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and Amsterdam University Press (AUP) marked the latter’s transfer into private hands. The upbeat text conjures up a healthy image: a rigorous restructuring had saved an ailing organization. Following a dire diagnosis, AUP achieved a great “track record” and “international visibility” and was “stable and growing.” “A good moment” presented itself to let AUP direct its own destiny, a “long-cherished dream” of its new owner, whose “network in the sector” reassured UvA Ventures Holding B.V., the company through which the UvA formally owned AUP, of the press’s bright future.


Anyone unversed in the corporate idiom of mergers and acquisitions could easily be forgiven for reading the press release as a tale of unmitigated success. The truth is more complex, and shrouded in secrecy since neither the UvA, nor UvA Ventures Holding B.V., nor AUP itself have been forthcoming about the precise circumstances of the press’s privatization. It seems, at any rate, that what led to the UvA’s decision was a desire to cut its losses, rather than faith in the press’s viability. According to Peter Krijnsen, director of UvA Ventures Holding B.V., despite diverse attempts, the UvA’s seasoned aficionados “did not succeed in turning AUP into a profitable company.”[1] How noble an endeavor and how great a risk the new owner was taking is anyone’s guess, but the press release alludes to neither.


Putting aside the rosy joint communication, a few questions emerge about the university’s offloading of AUP, its assumptions about the role of a university press and its implications for the academic community. To clarify: I am not concerned here with a private company fighting to succeed in a tough market, one moreover whose dedicated employees continue to produce valuable books and journals; my astonishment (yes, still) is rather at how the UvA ushered the press’s privatization, colluded in embellishing the shift’s circumstances, and what that tells us about the value of academic labor when leaders of a public university embrace rather than resist breakneck capitalism.


Let’s begin with Amsterdam University Press, the name. How is it that AUP, an entirely private company for the last six months, is trading on the UvA’s history and name (“brand,” if you prefer) by alluding to it in its title, and employing the university’s logo ubiquitously on its website and in key publications. The answer is that they are doing so perfectly legally, since the UvA has leased (sic) that title to the press for an undisclosed sum, apparently along with rights to its logo, including in major series run by UvA staff. The name’s ongoing use, according to Krijnsen, will be evaluated at a later moment to see if an extension is warranted. I asked Krijnsen, repeatedly but in vain, how much a public institution’s name goes for these days, and what criteria are being employed to evaluate whether it is being appropriately used.


As a proud former author, advisory board member and a series editor at AUP until recently, I (like other colleagues I’ve polled) was never formally told in real time by the press about this rather dramatic change in its status. But perhaps even more telling is that the UvA never specifically disclosed the reasons why tax-paid scholarship and the labor of numerous staff members turn at the stroke of a pen into someone else’s private property, even if contributors originally signed up to publish, review, edit and indeed solicit scholarly texts on behalf of an ostensibly public press. Some of these “content creators” may not care that they are literally volunteering to produce wealth for a private company that is unaccountable to them, and which may fold or be sold to the highest bidder, with no guarantee that fields it supports today will be continued tomorrow. (On that topic, see, most recently, s.v. Ashgate). Others, like me, very much do care, not least in light of the destructive force with which private publishers (now increasingly selling their wares as data merchants) have hit universities’ depleting research and library budgets. AUP cannot be charged with the latter offenses as yet, but there is now far less to stop it or a future owner from doing so.


Either way, neither group were given an opportunity to make an informed decision, especially given that many contributors are not UvA staff, and as such would not have seen the UvA’s rosy press release. Nor is the implied historical relationship between the UvA and AUP nuanced on the press’s landing page.


Certainly, it was also AUP’s responsibility and not just the UvA’s to alert contributors past and present to a major change in status and ownership. On the other hand, in its apparent haste to rid itself of AUP, the UvA let genuine transparency slide for its own constituency, that is (in case we forgot) academics, who in Europe are still mostly public employees. Was there a tacit agreement between the parties not to rock the boat for financial gain? And in the longer term, does the UvA really benefit from a private company bearing its name and logo without ensuring everyone knows that both are in fact leased? In a responsible, well-run public university these questions would at the very least merit a discussion that extended beyond the five businessmen running UvA Ventures Holding B.V.


The corporate, market-blindness leading this process on the UvA’s part underscores its dismissivness of the needs and concerns of the academic community, above all in the social sciences and humanities (SSH). It also betrays a lack of transparency in the UvA’s handling of the affair as well as a cavalier attitude towards the commodification of scholarship. I, for one, hope that SSH scholars—the myriad editors, reviewers, board members and authors on whose tax-paid work the press’s success relies—will take stock of what is being promoted behind their back yet ostensibly on their behalf, namely a business model built on ignorance and exploitation. The UvA has consciously lent it a hand, allowing some fishy business to go on as usual (with apologies to the fish).


[1] Email to the author 13 August 2019.