Fiddling While Rome Burns

The heated debates prompted by the recent announcement that University Librarian, Karin Wittenborg has changed the status for new librarians at the University of Virginia from faculty to staff strike me as fiddling while Rome burns. Those who advocate for faculty status for librarians working in academic settings cite the importance of librarians participating in shared governance.

While participation in shared governance may be an important avenue for librarians and faculty to meet and learn about each other’s work in large research universities, librarians and faculty in small college settings have other opportunities for relaxed conversations and serendipitous discovery of complementary skills. If the goal of faculty status is to have an impact on research and learning at a programmatic level, there is not a one-size-fits-all model for accomplishing that goal in every academic setting.

What is perhaps more important to consider is that faculty themselves no longer really have faculty status in terms of having access to shared governance to the degree they once did. The trend towards unbundling in higher education has meant an increasing percentage of faculty are adjunct. A recent article in Inside Higher Education, Making the Case for Adjuncts, references a 2009 study showing that only one-third of faculty are tenure track. Two-thirds are not eligible for tenure, and almost twenty percent are part-time. The faculty voice is bound to become weaker when fewer than half of the people responsible for teaching and learning have a seat at the table. This shift will most certainly have a greater impact on shared governance and the future of higher education than whether or not librarians have faculty status.

Another facet of the discussion about librarians and faculty status focuses on librarians’ participation in the teaching and learning mission of the university. I have worked in academic libraries for decades but have never participated directly in course development or delivery of course content in a physical or virtual classroom. My jobs have included developing new systems and services and managing production operations and systems (and I would include circulation in that category). Many librarians have these types of jobs, which are primarily either task oriented, or administrative in nature. That is not to say that the tasks or program administration do not require specialized knowledge or training, but that is a separate conversation. I posit that the percentage of time librarians as a class spend in direct service to the teaching and learning mission of their institutions makes a weak case for their participation as faculty in shared governance.

In my experience as a consultant to libraries, in libraries with faculty status for librarians, cumbersome promotion and tenure processes and procedures seem to interfere with performance leadership programs designed to align performance with library strategy. The case for faculty status for librarians begins to look like a case for librarians being able to act as independent operators, doing what they’ve always done, in opposition to administrators. What the current higher education environment needs from librarians is participants who can help shape the future of academic libraries in a dramatically shifting environment.

The us/them dichotomies that arise when people and institutions are under threat do not serve us well when creative solutions are needed. Faculty versus staff, unions versus management, MLS librarians versus “librarians” with other credentials. Let’s put down the violins and focus on finding new ways to join the conversation about the fires burning in higher education today. Should we try to put them out, work on a controlled burn, or let them flame on, knowing that some new growth requires heat for seeds to germinate?


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