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Should Academic Librarians Have Tenure May Be the Wrong Question
July 29, 2014 - 9:14pm

Meredith Farkas wrote a terrific post on her move to a non-tenure-track position and why she thinks tenure for librarians is counterproductive. The stimulating Twitter conversations that followed (some of them Storified by Meredith) made me want to unpack what I think about this issue.

First, I believe in the institution of tenure, but am not going to argue for or against it here in broad terms. I also think the exploitation of adjuncts is unethical, counterproductive, and bad for higher education, faculty, and students. (Adjuncts are often fabulous teachers, but they could be even more fabulous if they had good salaries, benefits, offices, travel funds, and job security.)  I want to focus exclusively on tenure for academic librarians.

A bit of context: I was tenured in 1993. The same criteria were applied to me as other faculty going up for tenure: evidence of excellent teaching and an emerging pattern of scholarship and service to the college.  Since 2009, I’ve written letters supporting tenure for two-thirds of my librarian colleagues, and all of them received it. (We have six librarians in total, all now with tenure.) I have also served on the college’s tenure and promotion committee, so I’m familiar with how the committee process works. In my personal experience at my institution, tenure has been stressful, yes, but has also given me and my librarian colleagues permission to spend time investigating and sharing what we learn about useful and interesting questions and it has given our non-librarian colleagues opportunities to understand more deeply what we do.

Also for context, I’m not sure what percentage of librarians have tenure. It’s not uncommon, but I think it’s accurate to say a majority of academic librarians don’t have it. Many have faculty status without tenure. Many have administrative or academic-professional appointments. Yet it’s a controversial issue for librarians, and many feel quite strongly that it’s really valuable while others feel just as strongly that it’s counterproductive. Though I am grateful to have tenure and feel it has been a good thing for faculty in my department, the process that I hear about at other libraries is so unlike what we experienced that I can’t draw conclusions about whether it’s good or bad for academic librarianship generally.

What I do notice is that there’s a rather odd disconnect between what the tenure process promotes (especially in the area of contributions to scholarship) and what academic librarian career paths depend on (which is primarily focused on experience managing other people’s work). Frequently tenure requirements seem orthogonal to career advancement. Research is a requirement for not getting fired, but if you want to move up, publications will have little impact. Shared governance is not typically how academic libraries work (though ours is an exception – we elect a chair and do not have a library director or direct supervisory roles. We’re small and the staff in non-MLS positions are very good at their jobs and don't need a librarian telling them what to do). Not only is individual decision-making slightly suspect in academic libraries (did it go through committee? Have you secured the boss’s permission?) there is a disheartening disinclination to acknowledge the existence of librarians at all, much less to celebrate their contributions. The library offers a service, the library has made a decision, the library (like the butler) did it. Tall poppies too often feel gawky and often get lopped off by their colleagues to keep the garden tidy and make sure the shorter flowers needn’t worry about too much shade. We’re pretty certain our job is to manage information, but we’re not so comfortable thinking we can actually create it. So there are both structural and cultural conditions that work against tenure being as valuable for librarians as it might be in other fields

The objections I’ve heard to being on the tenure track tend to be mainly about research: LIS research is crap, the research I want to do doesn’t count; the way I prefer to share my research doesn’t count; I’d rather be doing something actually useful; nobody trained me to do research; I have to do research, but it has to be on my own time and my own dime.  If, in fact, an institution that won’t count research as actual work, defines research too narrowly, doesn't support it, and sees tenure as at best high-stakes testing for individual job security, it’s pretty hard to see why anyone would think it’s worth it.

Some of the reasons given in defense of tenure are also unpersuasive. Other faculty won’t respect us if we don’t have tenure. (Actually, respect seems pretty independent of tenure when it comes to librarians.) It will give us opportunities to promote the library. (Maybe so. It certainly give us opportunities to be elected to committees where our assumed knack for organization and attention to detail means we'll get to do the tedious work.) I will have academic freedom (but only outside the library if Inside the library, the director calls all the shots and I'm not trusted to make decisions without taking them through the appropriate committee).

Here’s why tenure matters to me: it asks my colleagues and me to take teaching seriously and do it as well as we can in whatever form that takes as we support student learning, which is what my institution values most. It involves us in the life of the college through service, and that gives us the opportunity to see our work in the context of the entire institution’s mission and operations. It gives us support (though never enough, it’s there) to be formally curious about the world, the freedom to ask the questions we find compelling, and an obligation to share what we learn for the public good and to speak up when necessary. It tests us to see what we’re made of but, in exchange, guarantees that if we say unpopular things or ask difficult questions, our colleagues will have our back. It makes us better librarians and it prompts us to approach the world of information with a streak of independence and a disposition to inquire – worth practicing if we want to encourage these qualities in our students.

With or without tenure in the picture, these seem to me to be working conditions every academic librarian should have. Based on my recent conversations, too few librarians – with or without tenure – have them. In some cases they don’t even want them, and that troubles me.   

 

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