July 15, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 19

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    [morris philipson]
    Morris Philipson leaves behind 32 years of renowned service as University Press Director, a position he said he believes was tailor-made for him.

    Philipson leaves publishing legacy after 32-year career

    By Amy Rust
    News Office

    After 32 years of internationally renowned service, Morris Philipson has announced he will retire as Director of the University Press, the nation’s largest and one of its oldest academic presses.

    Next month, Provost Geoffrey Stone will appoint a national search committee, composed of members of the faculty and the University Press staff, which will select Philipson’s successor.

    “The University of Chicago Press is one of the treasures of our University, and Morris Philipson deserves much of the credit,” said President Sonnenschein. “In more than 30 years as Director of the Press, he has built an organization that is the envy of the scholarly publishing world. The Press, and the University, will long be the beneficiary of Philipson’s extraordinary service. On behalf of the entire University community, I am most grateful.”

    Philipson, who has served longer than any director in the Press’s 107-year history, said, “This is exactly what I was made for. From the time I started working for any publisher, this is the only job I ever really wanted.”

    His publishing style has truly complemented his position as Director. He has overseen the Press’s expansion from 140 new books and 23 journals grossing $4 million in sales in 1967 to 261 books, including paperback reprints, and 50 journals grossing $40 million in sales in 1998-99. Outstanding projects of his tenure include the publication of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, a 1980 American Book Award winner that broke new ground in gender studies research; the monumental 31-volume project, The Complete Works of Giuseppe Verdi, which will take an estimated 30 years to complete; and the multivolume dictionary Mythologies, a 1991 publication that took 10 years to translate and reorganize.

    “It’s very difficult to run a truly first-rate university press at a profit and sustain its intellectual quality over the long run. Morris has done it exceptionally well,” emphasized John Comaroff, the Harold H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor in Anthropology and Chair of the Board of University Publications. “The University owes him a huge debt of gratitude. He fully deserves all the praise being heaped upon him.”

    Plaudits also go to Philipson for raising the Press’s prestige worldwide. In 1982, the Press received the Carey-Thomas Award for Creative Publishing for The Lisle Letters, a collection of more than 2,000 16th-century letters from Viscount Lisle, the illegitimate son of Edward VI. Also in 1982, Philipson became the first academic publisher to win the PEN American Center’s Publisher Citation, which stated that he had “raised the University of Chicago Press to its place as the best university press in the country.”

    Philipson said of the PEN Citation, “What it really appeals to is recognition of a style of publishing that maintains very high standards in scholarship––where you take a gamble on things that require a great deal of care and taste in order to do them at all. And doing them right, doing them effectively and drawing attention to them, is what brings distinction to a press.”

    Philipson is central to that distinction, according to Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Professor in the Divinity School. “Morris’s secret is, I think, that in addition to an unparalleled knowledge of the world of books and authors, he has a genuine dedication to the publication of books that are important, that will change the way people think,” she said. “It’s hard to think of the Press without Morris. He has built it into what even his competitors agree is the best university press in the country.”

    At Yale University Press, director John Ryden agreed, “The University of Chicago has always set the standard in American scholarly publishing. In his long tenure, Morris Philipson raised that standard and made the list deeper and richer. He has been a model to all of us in university publishing.”

    Siegfried Unseld, head of Germany’s most prestigious literary and scholarly publisher, Suhrkamp Verlag, noted Philipson’s expertise on the occasion of the Press’s 100-year celebration. “In his decisions he considers only and exclusively the merits of a work, and in particular, the true intrinsic values of scholarship.” Under Philipson’s direction, Unseld added, “the University of Chicago Press has become the leading American publisher of translations from European scholarship.”

    Indeed, translations to English, primarily from French works, have been a hallmark of Philipson’s tenure. He is the only American publisher to be made a Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Minister of Culture of France. The award was presented in recognition of the Press’s translations of French authors such as Jean Paul Sartre, Jacques Derrida, Claude-LÚvi Strauss and Francois Furet.

    Philipson also has supported a program of reissuing previously out-of-print books. Given different modes of publishing and pricing, the University Press can publish books that have gone out of print at commercial publishing houses, which often consider such books financial burdens, Philipson said. He added that he has remained committed to taking “a gamble on things that should be in print, should be kept in print,” even if they are financially risky––such as Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott.

    He largely attributes the Press’s distinction to its “programs,” ongoing, large-scale investments in a body of work. It is in such programs that Philipson’s own distinctive style emerges. “Someone else in the same position not taking an interest in quite the same subject matter as I do would have turned down those large projects. Somebody else might have said, ‘It’s too much trouble.’”

    Both The Lisle Letters and Mythologies were “enormous projects that lesser publishers would have been terrified to take on,” said Doniger. “But Morris had the courage to take the risk, and it paid off not only with great honor for the Press and the University, but with financial success as well,” she said.

    His appointment as Executive Editor of the University Press in 1966 was a return to the Quadrangles for Philipson, who received his A.B. at Chicago in 1949 and his A.M. in 1952. After receiving his Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University in 1959, he worked for several years as an editor in New York with Alfred A. Knopf Inc., Random House Inc., Pantheon Books and Basic Books. He was appointed Director of the University Press in 1967.

    Philipson is a prolific writer himself, having written five novels, including Secret Understandings (Simon & Schuster, 1983) and Somebody Else’s Life (Harper & Row, 1987), as well as short stories and works of nonfiction. He also has edited 10 books and written more than 50 articles and reviews. He plans to continue writing in retirement in addition to traveling and working as a consultant.