A Provost and Librarian Walk Into a Meeting...

Panel of chief academic officers advises college library leaders how to present their case for funding and get what they want.
June 26, 2007

Dear Chief Academic Officer (who isn't my own):

I'm the head college librarian. I've been here for years, even outlasted several provosts. Just got in good with the last one -- then she left. Now, a new person is on his way and I don't want to lose any ground. Should I meet with him right away, and what should I say? Please help.

Speaker after speaker in the audience posed variations on that scenario Monday at a session of the American Library Association's annual conference that was part roundtable, part "Ask Amy." During "The Art of Persuasion: Strategies for Effective Communication with Chief Academic Officers," organized by the Association of College and Research Libraries, the provosts and vice presidents for academic affairs on the panel shared a list of their do's and don'ts when approaching new college officials in their positions.

Do arrange a meeting early on. Don't seek out the president for funding requests without first asking the provost. Do list the main assets of the library. Don't submit a bill that highlights inflation costs and expect provosts to pay for it, no questions asked.

Learning how to approach meetings with chief academic officers has become crucial in a time when provosts and presidents often last only a few years at an institution. Forming new relationships can be make or break for a librarian, both panelists and participants agreed. When asking for increased funding, the provosts said it's important to show what value you are adding. One effective way, they said, is by working with academic departments to determine which potential enhancements would be most useful to students and professors.

"You don't have to convince me that you are worth the extra funding," said Dominic Latorraca, vice president of academic affairs at County College of Morris, in New Jersey: "Can you convince others within the university that this is the way to go to track down the help we need? If you can show that, it's going to impress me more than you saying, 'Did you know that inflation went up 4 percent last year?'"

At the same time, panelists said they understand the strains placed on librarians these days. The price of periodicals and other materials is soaring. Libraries are as much Wi-Fi zones and group meeting places as they are research hubs. The role of the librarian is also changing, panelists agreed.

That's why it's becoming less important for librarians to brag in meetings with provosts about the number of books and periodicals they have in their collection, and more important to emphasize how they are helping students with information literacy, said Elise Bickford Jorgens, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at College of Charleston.

Added William W. Destler, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost at the University of Maryland at College Park, who has accepted the presidency at the Rochester Institute of Technology: "The librarian who comes in and says, 'I know the number of books won't matter two years from now,' that person is going to get my attention in a hurry. The new provost will characterize you either as a traditional librarian or someone who gets that they are part of a new era of solutions," Destler said.

Likewise, using history as a crutch -- saying that money has been spent this way in the past -- is no longer a convincing argument, Latorraca said. John Kimbrough, assistant to the library director at the University of Chicago, said he agreed with the panelists that the "business as usual" mentality isn't going to fly any longer. The problem, he said, is that "[provosts] want us to give solutions, we want to give solutions, but sometimes it's a tough match."

And then there's the matter of form. Jorgens said that it's a bad tactic to go around the provost and seek out a president when looking to talk about funding. "No surprises," she said. "Let me know what you need, so that when a president asks me, 'Can we afford this?' I can have an answer ready."

On the other hand, Destler said it's not worth going to a dean, because she often has no incentive to increase her budget to spend on the library. Instead, Destler advised to go straight to a provost -- and get a group of faculty members together who will speak to the need to add resources in a given academic field.

As for the little things: Destler said avoid hosting big receptions for new chief academic officers. They've already been overwhelmed with those. If you meet at the library, instead, you can show off the new technology. Make sure you know how the new provost likes to hear from you -- in short notes, or in long reports.

Destler made more than a few friends Monday when, in an effort to show that provosts understand the tension between chief information officers and library heads regarding who makes resources decisions, he said that "the CIO's job is to report to the library, not the other way around."

So, can we expect Educause to schedule a session at its next meeting on how CIOs should talk to provosts?


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