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UVa, the Cult of Change, and the Uses of Fear
June 20, 2012 - 1:07am

I am getting a bit obsessed with the news coming from the University of Virginia.  It is frightening, and it’s all too familiar a scenario. A group of political appointees decide to take the very real power they have and use it under the mistaken impression that they must know better than anyone else how to run a university because, well, they’ve been given that power. Surely that means manifest destiny is on their side.

Those who defend their actions seem to think the faculty are incapable of seeing the big picture, that they are only out for their own interests, that they are tweed-wearing fuddy-duddies who are constitutionally opposed to and incapable of change – or all three. They say it’s time to wake up. This is how the world works. But it looks to me more like this is the way valuable things get badly broken because in the face of challenges, the people in charge decided recklessness is the best option. Change becomes a religion, a fire-and-brimstone religion based on fear. Change demands blood sacrifices.

The phrase “strategic dynamism” sounds like a cult or an expensive workshop series for CEOs or perhaps a previously undiscovered work by Ayn Rand. It doesn’t sound like any way to run a university or any other complex enterprise.

Libraries have a weird relationship to the fire-and-brimstone cult of change. On the one hand, librarians are often too risk averse, too timid for their own good. On the other, calls for change are usually demands that libraries embrace corporate solutions under banners bearing corporate slogans. I’ve been a librarian long enough to remember TQM. Then we were urged to throw fish. Cheese was moved. These management fads are curiously awkward fits for an institution that doesn’t make money. We spend it, huge wads of it, and we don't spend it on ourselves. Sure, we have to do a lot of analysis of community needs and spreadsheet voodoo to make sure that we’re spending that money on the right things, given there’s a limited amount of it, but we aren’t trying to increase our profits or destroy the competition. We’re trying to do something that is weirdly anti-corporate. We’re trying to hold onto a piece of the commons that corporations have been trying to enclose for a long time. But since to do that we give our money to corporations, we get a little confuzzled.

I’ll be going to the American Library Association meeting later this week. I’m on a panel on academic and public libraries’ efforts to promote reading. I will also do some tabling for a non-profit I am involved with, Sisters in Crime, somewhere in the vast and scary exhibit hall that is a temple to the corporatization of the knowledge – or rather the "information industries." I find it almost as unnerving as the Mall of America, which is to me a circle of Dante’s hell that Virgil left off the tour. I will not be going to the Association of College and Research Libraries meeting, which is just as well since I don’t have to wrestle with the moral dilemma of attending a conference that thanks Elsevier for its sponsorship on its website.

Yes, libraries need to be able to deal with changing conditions in publishing, in higher education, in student populations, in the ways that libraries organize their work. But they need to do it with confidence in their core values, not by seeing change as a fearful force that must be appeased with bloody sacrifices.

Dean Dad raised a really good question in his confessional: is the fire and brimstone religion of change the answer we deserve when the collegium throws up its hands and refuses to make hard choices? We need to have communities that work together well enough to address budget shortfalls, enrollment changes, a hostile political climate and many other problems. We need to sometimes stop doing things that some people feel are necessary even when the evidence suggests they aren't. That does not seem to be the case with the German and Classics departments at UVa, but I know even thinking about ending a major is hard. It’s also sometimes necessary, just as its necessary to say no to new programs that an institution just can’t support without new revenues. But unless the faculty has totally fallen down on the job, and I have no reason to believe that has happened at UVa, those are their decisions to make. To make those decisions, they need integrity, a sense of shared purpose, and good information. The last bit is what is often what’s missing, and that makes having a shared purpose harder and good decisions impossible.

I do not believe that faculty by and large lack integrity. Most of them care about the institutions they serve, as do most people who work in libraries, as do most administrators. We don’t need trendy management theories to figure out what changes need to be made. We need information. It’s power, and it works best when it’s shared. Isn't that one of the things we try to teach our students?

 

 

 

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