Penn Press recently adopted a new mission statement. In this post, excerpted from our 2022 Annual Report, the Press’s Director Mary Francis shares the new mission statement and reflects on the process that helped create it.
The University of Pennsylvania Press disseminates knowledge and advances intellectual inquiry. We collaborate with scholarly communities, foster creative ideas, and give voice to thinkers of diverse backgrounds. As one of the oldest scholarly presses in North America, we publish thought-provoking work to gain a better understanding of our shared past and inform a more just and equitable future.
Like Penn itself, the University of Pennsylvania Press has made outstanding intellectual contributions for generations—and like our home university, we have evolved to meet the needs of our international community of readers and writers. In 2022, both Penn and Penn Press are under new leadership, and the time seemed right to consider how to articulate our mission to colleagues near and far.
On the surface, putting our mission into words might seem simple. Isn’t the mission of every publisher to develop and publish the very best books and journals they can? True enough—but a strong mission statement would communicate our contributions to Penn’s mission in a way that honors what has made Penn Press strong, while also capturing what we hope to accomplish in the future and how we act to fulfill our goals.
Since coming to Penn Press in 2019 I’ve spent many rewarding hours listening and learning about what sets Penn Press apart as a publisher. To find our way holistically to our mission statement, I wanted to incorporate as many staff perspectives as possible: those whose ideas about Penn Press are rooted in years of dedicated work at Penn to those who came to West Philly recently attracted by something new and intriguing.
Work started with our leadership team. Walter Biggins, our Editor in Chief, Elizabeth Glover, our Editing and Production Manager, Joe Guttman, our Business Manager, and Paul Chase, our Journals Operations Manager, gathered for a sequence of discussions, with leadership coach Dianne Kenney leading the conversations. Armed with markers and sticky tabs, we pondered the underlying goals of our publishing program. What kind of difference can scholarly books and journals make in the world? Penn Press’ stellar reputation for publishing histories from a wide range of periods and parts of the world got us talking about the value of history itself, of learning from the past to tackle the problems of the present, and ultimately, make the future better for all. The kernel of what became the final phrase in the mission statement—to gain a better understanding of our shared past and inform a more just and equitable future—emerged from those first discussions.
With assistance from our Employee Resource Group, the entire staff was invited to read and comment (anonymously) on the first draft of the mission statement that the leadership group created. It was gratifying that many colleagues thought the first draft was headed in the right direction. But compelling points were made in favor of thinking harder about what kind of publications serve our mission—and what kind of writers would create them. Scholarly publishing, especially university press publishing, has a long tradition of relying on rigorously selective engagement with scholarly communities to bring innovative ideas to readers. Watching my colleagues pursue the most vital and engaged work in their disciplines week in and week out, I knew that Penn Press had grown beyond conventional assumptions about what university presses do—and my colleagues were right to point out that the mission statement needed to acknowledge that.
An all-staff meeting was called to discuss the first draft and the comments. It was a thoughtful and generative discussion that revolved around questions about valuable knowledge: what kinds of knowledge are valuable, who can generate it, what modes of thought can foster it. The responses to all these implied questions—and many others that came up during the discussion—referenced concepts of being open to new perspectives, embracing creative modes of thought, and Penn Press as a site of collaboration rather than a vehicle for establishing authority. While it was challenging to encompass every facet of those discussions concisely, the core concerns expressed in that all-staff meeting underlie the mission statement’s pledge to collaborate with scholarly communities, foster creative ideas, and give voice to thinkers of diverse backgrounds.
I am proud of what resulted from our discussions, and I am excited to share it. It is a shared goal to make our mission statement a living document, one that the Penn Press staff revisit together to assure that it continues to be an honest reflection of our goals and tactics.