I'm sitting here with my first edition of Sexual Politics by Kate Millett (Doubleday, 1970), given to me by a boyfriend in 1975 as a joke. This was Millett's doctoral dissertation, the first to say something like, ""sex has a frequently neglected political aspect." It blew my mind. It blew the whole world apart. It's a doctoral dissertation.
It wasn't published by a university press, but it's the kind of thing that might have been if it hadn't had that incendiary title. We are now given to understand that university presses are a luxury. Even before "academic" was a rude word, very few people bought and read university press books: They are about ideas, history, culture, science, and so on, from highly specialized or unique points of view. It is easily if wrongly said that university press books are published primarily for their authors and their small academic circles. Yes, it's for their CVs, but it was also about getting air time, even a little, for facts and concepts just as valuable as any others -- some of them with the potential to explode the entire culture or a generation's thought patterns. Sure, scholarship is "heavy" reading. It does heavy lifting! Sometimes these very few readers, also teachers and/or writers, funnelled these ideas into the culture at large, down to the street level, and changed our conceptual thinking, whether the ideas themselves were right or not: Feminism. Literary theory. Gender studies. Biblical exegesis. Afrocentrism. Philosophy of language. Particle physics. That National Geographic had a political agenda. And so on. (P.S. Sexual Politics has been kept in print since the year 2000 by the University of Illinois Press.)
So a university press might look to a cost-cutter like a great luxury, although the University of Missouri Press, publishing between 25 and 50 books per year with a staff of 10 on a budget of around $400,000, was a miracle of cost-effectiveness. If they published each year only one idea or one fact that got out and got traction in our minds, an idea that got lived in, that's more than $400,000 worth of most anything else on campus will accomplish.