A community college district in Texas is reclassifying newly hired academic librarians from faculty to professional staff, a move that has raised larger questions about how the nature of library work is valued and categorized in academe.
The policy is being described as a cost-saving measure in the face of a potential loss of $25 million in state funding to the Alamo Colleges over the next four years. Alamo includes San Antonio, St. Philip's, Palo Alto, Northeast Lakeview and Northwest Vista Colleges, which teach, collectively, about 64,000 students.
The move, which would pay incoming librarians according to the lower salary scale used for professional staff, would save about $300,000 per year, according to a Feb. 9 memo written by Robert Aguero, Alamo’s vice chancellor for academic success (the memo and the librarians' rebuttals can be read here). "The savings would be realized over time as the ratio of staff librarians to faculty librarians increases through attrition and replacement," Aguero wrote.
The new policy would protect the faculty status currently held by full-time librarians, but not Alamo's 16 adjunct librarians, who said that they would see their pay slashed by 30 percent as early as the summer, when the policy is due to be enacted, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
Librarians, along with the faculty senates for the five colleges (all of which passed resolutions opposing the change in status), have offered alternatives. These include canceling or sharing database and print journal subscriptions, which would save more than $1.2 million over the next two to five years. They also proposed making half of the librarians full-time and the other half part-time adjuncts, as required of other academic departments. Savings annually, from attrition, would be expected to top $440,000, they said.
The librarians also have objected to the new policy on the grounds that it goes against at least one longstanding declaration on the status of their profession -- the 1972 joint statement of the American Association of University Professors, the Association of College and Research Libraries and the Association of American Colleges (which later became the Association of American Colleges and Universities). Adopted in 1972, the statement contemplated a world in which forms of information would grow more various and bibliographic systems and their accompanying technology more complex -- all of which would require the guidance of librarians. The statement refers to librarians’ role in teaching and research, the “essential criterion” of faculty status, while also noting their unique role in collections. “Because the scope and character of library resources should be taken into account in such important academic decisions as curricular planning and faculty appointments,” the statement reads, “librarians should have a voice in the development of the institution's educational policy.”
More specifically, the librarians in Texas argue that the new policy will create a split cadre of librarians, in which two classes of workers will be paid differently for doing the same job. The result, they say, will be depleted morale.
Alamo’s administration has responded that, despite the joint statement, there is no requirement from their accrediting agency that librarians hold faculty status; they also cite a market study of selected peer institutions whose librarians are classified as professional staff. The new policy is one of 25 cost-saving ideas that grew out of a series of meetings last summer between administrators, trustees, staff and faculty. The chief rationale, according to the administration, is to protect jobs and avoid furloughs and salary cuts of existing employees.
The shift in Texas is not without precedent. The State University of New York at Buffalo increasingly has been hiring new librarians on professional rather than faculty lines, say librarians there. Librarians contend the move in Buffalo has little to do with cost savings -- in fact, they say faculty librarians often earn less than their professional counterparts. The librarians allege that the change has enabled administrators to more closely control hiring and promotion. On the other hand, Wake Forest University went in the opposite direction in July 2009, when the status of librarians was shifted from professional to faculty in an effort to let librarians share in academic governance.
In general, most institutions report that they treat their librarians like faculty, according to data collected by the ACRL. Among responding colleges that grant associate of arts degrees, most reported that they “fully” (in the language of the survey) offer librarians the trappings of faculty status -- eligibility for tenure and membership in the institution’s governance structure; promotion through peer review; access to faculty title, salary structure and appointment schedules; and the guarantee of academic freedom. Similar results were reported among other types of institutions.
Faculty status matters to librarians for both practical and conceptual reasons, according to several people working in the field. It reflects the teaching that librarians actually do -- both informally with individual students and more formally in the classroom, said Celita DeArmond, instructor and distance learning librarian at San Antonio College. “Here at San Antonio, we do need to be faculty because that’s the relationship students are requiring of us,” she said, adding that she and her colleagues keep office hours at the reference desk. “They rely on us.”
DeArmond said the need for the kind of work they do is acute at San Antonio, where many students lack basic understanding of how to do research papers. The problem has been seen elsewhere, up to the elite levels of higher education, as sources of information proliferate faster than students can discern their reliability.
“I think there are a lot of administrators who look at personnel costs and say, ‘We’re spending all this money on databases,’ and they ask why they need librarians,” said Patricia W. Bentley, librarian emerita at SUNY-Plattsburgh, who is chairing the “Special Committee on the Status of Librarians in the Academy” for the AAUP. “I think we need them more than ever. Students come with equipment, but they’re still rather naïve and unsophisticated about how databases work, and they can be tricked into believing something that looks pretty.”
Librarians also point out that they work in more formal educational settings, partnering with classroom faculty on research assignments and teaching their own classes in how to use the library. Last year, librarians at Alamo Colleges said, they taught more than 1,200 classes to over 30,000 students.
Having faculty status gives librarians the ability to work with classroom faculty as peers, they said. “As a faculty member I have the voice and ability to form relationships with faculty,” said DeArmond. “They see me as an equal and I can better help their students. It’s connected all the way back to the students.”
And yet, DeArmond and others acknowledged that faculty status is not a goal for all librarians. Some do not want the burdens of research and scholarly production that attach to the designation, especially at research institutions. Others see their role in teaching students as substantially different from that of classroom faculty -- while still others describe their teaching as very intensive, and akin to independent study, research consulting or mentorship.
At the same time, many librarians favor faculty status because it guarantees their inclusion in such shared governance institutions as the faculty or university senate. This inclusion connects their jobs to the central functions of the college -- teaching and research.
But, perhaps most important, librarians say that faculty status offers them the best protections of academic freedom. The ability to gather materials for a university’s collection -- whether the collection includes material that is politically sensitive or sexually explicit, or deals with, say, the occult -- lies at the heart of intellectual freedom and, by extension, academic freedom, said several librarians.
“It’s not that everything we have in our collections offends everyone. There’s always something that someone finds difficult,” said Lisa Hinchliffe, president of the ACRL and coordinator for information literacy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “There’s a cultural need to preserve our cultural heritage -- even if our cultural heritage is something one might not wish it to be.”
While it is not clear how often such faculty reclassification occurs -- in fact, the absence of data on the profession is a consistent complaint (and one reason the AAUP is examining the status of librarians) -- many say the recent events in Texas also suggest larger questions about the perceived role of librarians on campus.
On one hand, academic librarians are nearly unanimous in seeing their jobs as deeply tied to teaching students. In a recent Ithaka S+R survey of directors of academic libraries, 94 percent said that teaching information literacy skills to undergraduates is a very important role for their libraries. Faculty members, on the other hand, view the job of the library rather differently: according to an Ithaka S+R survey from 2009, more than 80 percent of faculty members saw the library’s role as buyer of materials as most important. “Overwhelmingly, faculty believe the library’s most important function is opening its wallet and paying for access to publications,” Barbara Fister, professor and librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in Saint Peter, Minn., recently wrote in her blog, Library Babel Fish, on Inside Higher Ed.
Uncertainty about proper roles is not limited to librarians either, said Hinchliffe of ACRL. The idea of what it means to be a faculty member is far from settled, she argued, and has been debated at institutions where courses have been designed or delivered by those who are not faculty. “This is not a different question than the English department that hires many, many adjuncts, sometimes even full-time adjuncts,” she said. “I don’t see a lot of librarian exceptionalism here. Fundamentally, I see this as the academy grappling with, ‘What does it mean to be faculty?’”