Earning Full Citizenship: A Response To “Seeking Full Citizenship”

Editor’s Note: ACRLog is pleased to offer a guest post on the long-debated topic of the appropriateness of tenure for academic librarians. In this post, Karen G. Schneider, Director of the Cushing Library at Holy Names University, responds to an article that appears in the September 2010 issue of College & Research Libraries titled “Seeking Full Citizenship: A Defense of Tenure Faculty Status for Librarians“. Many thanks to Ms. Schneider for her contribution to ACRLog.

“Seeking Full Citizenship” (Coker et al., College and Research Libraries, September 2010) notes that faculty status for librarians has been discussed for over a century. Nothing said in that article or this response will abate that discussion. But I knew I had to wade into these muddy waters when I opened an electronic copy of the article and searched its text, confirming my suspicion that nowhere in this article does the word “student” arise.

Any argument for a change to my status or the status of those I manage has to first meet this very high bar: does it work toward the higher good of the institution we serve?

As a library director (my third time in this role, though the first time in academia), my first priority is service to our institution—not just the library, but the entire campus, and by extension, all of higher education and librarianship and beyond. Every student who walks through the doors of this university deserves the very best service our library can provide, and that is our true north, the direction in which our compass-arrow quivers. Even our service to faculty, which we also take very seriously, is an extension of that primary responsibility to students (and I am betting my institution’s faculty would agree with that statement).

Therefore, by this standard, any argument for a change in status to a major demographic in higher education would presumably, at some point, explain how this change benefited the institution it serves—not as an ancillary outcome, but as a central transformation. Yet in “Seeking Full Citizenship,” the argument that there is a relationship between “elevated professional status and effectiveness in the discipline” went entirely unsupported. (And are we really so needy for proof that we are “real” academics that we must use phrases such as “elevated professional status”?)

Instead, “Seeking Full Citizenship” focuses on academic freedom (“[t]he primary protection that tenure gives all tenured faculty members”), job security, the ability to purchase risqué books (I can do that too, by the way), and (between the lines) the assuagement of our personal insecurities about rank and class.

Academic freedom may indeed serve a higher good by exposing our academic communities to ideas that might otherwise not have a voice, therefore contributing to the benefit of our students, faculty, and society–but “Seeking Full Citizenship” doesn’t make this argument. It’s all about the personal advantage of academic freedom—an argument largely unpersuasive to anyone outside the library itself.

I must also shake my head at the solipsism of an argument that ignores the growing tenure crisis in higher education today. As “Seeking Full Citizenship” acknowledges, tenure for librarians really only gained steam in the mid-1970s, a time when the non-tenured teaching workforce began quietly but rapidly growing. Leave it to librarians to embrace a system at the very moment in history when it is shaking itself apart.

Nowhere in this discussion does the article acknowledge the trembling faultlines of the lopsided two-tier system that divides the teaching ecology between the dwindling percentage of tenured faculty—with their viable salaries, benefits, and job security—and the adjunct, graduate-student, and non-tenure track workforce that now supplies over 70 percent of the actual teaching in higher education. No solution has emerged, but there is at least tentative consensus in higher education that the current model is not sustainable.

Then there is the question of where we fit in the larger higher education ecology. The very title of the article is a rather telling admission of class anxiety, but it also begs the question: if untenured librarians feel like second-class citizens, what does that make the other workers in higher education? If there is truly an argument to be made for “elevated professional status and effectiveness in the discipline,” why not align with the academic majority—“Allons enfants de la Patrie!”–and advocate for better pay, benefits, and working conditions for all who serve institutions of higher education in such critical roles? Are these employees not our brothers and sisters, and does a rising tide not lift all boats?

Furthermore, much as I respect and enjoy the contributions of our tenured faculty, in terms of the library’s strategic vision, it is highly advantageous to be a peer with the other non-faculty academic staff, all of whom play central roles in the work of recruitment, retention, revenue generation, strategic direction, information technology, infrastructure management, and the other services and initiatives that keep a university as an entity fueled and on-track. That peer relationship is crucial for achieving our objectives, particularly in an environment of competing priorities. I would be embarrassed to learn that my peers in other departments had stumbled across an article insisting that librarians, lone among the academic bureaucracy, are endowed with numinous, ineffable qualities that justify their “elevation” to faculty status.

Finally, as long as I’m setting myself up as a piñata for faculty-status advocates, I will admit that the lack of faculty status at our library was one more selling point for taking this job. Having had experience in other academic environments, I was seeking an environment where I “interview for my job every day,” as one of my peer department heads puts it, and where others are equally challenged toward excellence. The very point of tenure is to make it “purposely difficult” (in the words of the American Federation of Teachers) to remove an employee—a limitation I did not want (not even for myself), and one that in fact steered me toward one position over another.

However well tenure has worked for the teaching profession, it is a questionable model for modern library administration—not only for individual libraries, but for our profession as a whole. I admit to a fondness for the romantic vision of the librarian-scholar steeped in contemplative and scholarly activities, but the reality is that the shape-shifting changes that have happened in librarianship in the last two decades mean we are all running startups, and we need all hands on deck for our organizations to continually reassert our relevance while we undergo (and ideally, lead) the massive shift from print to digital and from a focus on collections to a focus on services. We need to come to work every day driven by a sense of urgency and a push toward immediate excellence; we cannot afford anything less.

If your library has faculty status, so be it; I am not advocating the dismantling of any system in place—in any event, I predict the larger forces at work in higher education will take care of that. But not long ago, when asked how her library had moved from stodgy to innovative over a decade, a colleague responded, “Tenure was eliminated.” This is anecdotal evidence, but no worse than what is forwarded for the other side of this argument in “Seeking Full Citizenship.”

When I hear new librarians arguing for tenure status (and I was once one of them), I wish I had a time machine to push them twenty years forward for a week, where as administrators they will be coping with the outcomes of the system they helped create. At the very least, I carry this message from the future: you’re already a full citizen—now do everything you can for the rest of your career to warrant that status.

1. U.S. Department of Education, NCES, 2007 Fall Staff Survey, quoted in American Federation of Teachers, “Academic Staffing Crisis,” http://www.aft.org/issues/highered/acadstaffing.cfm

2. American Federation of Teachers, “The Truth about Tenure in Higher Education,” http://www.aft.org/issues/highered/truthtenure.cfm

3. For a cogent argument that tenure status is also a poor fit for librarians because our work organizations are team-based, see Steve McKinzie, “Tenure for Academic Librarians: Why it has to Go,” Against the Grain, September 2010, p. 60.

14 thoughts on “Earning Full Citizenship: A Response To “Seeking Full Citizenship”

  1. Wanting tenure primarily for status is kind of silly when 70% of faculty are no longer tenured or tenure track and when we should respect ourselves for who we are and what we do. But I question equating stodginess with tenure. I know loads of stodgy libraries where there is no faculty status and others where tenured librarians are deeply engaged and curious professionals. I doubt there’s any correlation, to be honest. But then I’m a card-carrying member of the AAUP and I believe tenure is not about job security, it’s about freedom to do your job without worrying about losing it for political or ideological reasons. Admittedly, it’s a screwed-up system and wanting tenure too often makes people craven and over-cautious. But I’m not too crazy about the idea that innovation depends on having the freedom to can people. I think it depends on freedom AND professionalism.

    Tenure doesn’t mean nobody can be fired. It means due process, which is a hassle, and unfortunately (with or without tenure) too many people are unwilling to take the trouble to hold one another accountable.

  2. Karen, I love that you’re jumping in with full force “as a piñata for faculty-status advocates.”

    I should preface my comment by stating that librarians on my community college campus are tenure-track faculty, including myself as the Library Director. I’ve often considered this idea of tenure and its relevance to the academic environment for both librarians and other discipline related faculty. I have received tenure twice in my career.

    At times, it feels like a system that has taken its course and should be dismantled. Tenure may have been about “freedom to do your job without worrying about losing it for political or idealogical reasons” (as Barbara points out) but it has become muddied by the job protection aspects. This has been my observation. If it’s about job protection then it needs to go immediately. Let people stand on their own merit without an antiquated system to protect you. If, on the other hand, it is about intellectual freedom then perhaps it still has a role. But, is it relevant to all academic environments? I’m uncertain.

    That said, what has our faculty status done to impact students on our campus? It has created a strong relationship between the library and the faculty across campus, primarily through faculty-related governance committees. This relationship educates faculty and drives them to use the library with their students. Students using the library are going to be more successful and have a greater chance of retention and graduation (we can argue this point too). In my opinion, one of the reasons we have a success library program on our campus is because librarians are faculty members.

    Could it be accomplished without faculty status? Yes, but it would require greater effort. The (unnecessary) barrier between “faculty” and “administration” is still quite strong and also needs to be dismantled. In the end, I could go either way. I feel confident that I can be who I am, keep my job, and successfully serve students.

  3. I do just want to point out that there seems to be an assumption you are making: that if librarians (or any faculty members) do not have tenure, they will constantly work hard and innovate and the failure to do so would be the only reason why they would lose their jobs.

    Unfortunately, we work in an environment where budget cuts and bad administrative decisions can lead to layoffs. Tenure at least offers some protection. I worked in the dot-com industry before becoming an academic librarian, and that experience did not give me any confidence in the ability of people in power to make good decisions when it comes to taking people’s livelihood away. It’s not just, or even primarily, about merit.

  4. I’ve been a librarian for a few years, but I’m just one year into my first tenure-track position. I’m not sure yet what I think about tenure. Last month I eagerly read the Coker article and was disappointed that it left me unconvinced. And while this rebuttal makes some good arguments, I’m not convinced in this direction either.

    First, a quibble:
    “Having had experience in other academic environments, I was seeking an environment where I ‘interview for my job every day,’ as one of my peer department heads puts it, and where others are equally challenged toward excellence.”

    I’m not sure I can think of a better description of the tenure process than being like a daily job interview. Each day I try to balance the work I do in the library, with faculty, with students, and on my own research. I am keenly aware that my tenured peers will judge whether or not I’m suitable to keep my job. In fact, one could argue the tenure process is much more like a job interview process, because peers–and not just the boss–have formal input into it. Only your boss can fire you, but your peers can keep you from getting tenured–which is essentially being fired. I would be shocked to learn under the current hierarchy in Karen’s librarian that regular librarians have any formal, measured input into her performance evaluation–but they would if she was tenure track.

    Kenley also makes an excellent point: tenure and faculty status give librarians access to important decision-making on many campuses. As a second year faculty member, and tenure track librarian, I’m serving on faculty governance boards I wouldn’t even know about if I wasn’t also a faculty member (I know this from previous campuses where librarians weren’t faculty).

    Also, faculty status for librarians doesn’t mean tenure status necessarily. These can be separate issues completely (for example, on campuses where librarians are faculty at the instructor level, with no possibility of tenure, only promotion).

    What’s missing from these arguments and discussions is actual evidence. Certainly librarians who are tenure track write more than their non-faculty colleagues. But does faculty status and tenure status actually effect the view of the library and librarians on college campuses? Do librarians with tenure actually have more input into how their library is run than on campuses where librarians are staff? Do librarians with tenure make different collection, service, and research decisions than non-faculty librarians?

    We can argue til we’re blue in the face, but I’d like to see some real data.

  5. (With apologies for the many typos in my comment above.)

    I left out the most important question:

    Is student learning better at campuses where librarians have tenure or faculty status? I’m not sure we can make any arguments about this until someone actually attempts to find out.

  6. “I’m not sure I can think of a better description of the tenure process than being like a daily job interview.” And once the job interview process is over..? I would also submit that the quality of tenure “portfolios” I have seen didn’t persuade me at all.

  7. I’ve worked in both systems as a professional librarian. Given the kinds of issues that we’re dealing with, it’s ideal for librarians in academic libraries to have faculty status. Tenure enables a librarian to speak out on issues vital to the profession. Specific example: the Innovative Interfaces/SkyRiver legal action against OCLC.

  8. KG, if someone rocks for five years, they’re probably going to be just fine after that. Many folks, especially the upwardly mobile kind, don’t stay in jobs that long anyway.

    Also, are you really saying here that librarians do poor research? Or just the tenure-track ones?

  9. Having to interview for one’s job every day sounds like sheer hell, as does the idea of library as startup. I think I understand the idea you are aiming for, of a workplace consisting of very competent people who are open to change and creating value for their institution every day, but the image I get is of a high-pressure workplace where no one feels she can relax or fail or take a little time to do something that doesn’t provide value immediately lest she fear failing the interview or being cut as dead wood. I would take tenure any day over such an environment.

  10. Unfortunately Karen, life on the ground as a non-faculty status librarian on a campus where the faculty pretty much rule the roost denies your arguments.

    University of California Librarians are the only ones in the State system for higher education who are not “faculty.” Even the Junior College librarians have that status and protections.

    Cogently argued, but the real impact is that UC lags by 20% or more in salaries compared to CSU or JC librarians.

  11. If the pay issue denies Karen’s arguments, then why are there so many librarians working in the UC system? By now wouldn’t they all have tried to get jobs at CSU? Surely there must be something more than pay that keeps them working at UC. Perhaps they appreciate the tradeoff of lower pay for something else they get that keeps them motivated. If you can point me to some data that suggests that UC librarians consistently apply for positions at CSU and the JCs when they are open you might change my mind on this one.

  12. Interesting discussion. I agree with others comparing a library to a startup ignores it’s cultural mission and need to preserve “the long tail.” of information. I would argue we’ve running not just a startup but also inheriting the Mom and Pop store just as the local Wal-Mart has opened down the street and is trying to put us out of business. Is tenure good for this scenario or bad? I’m not sure – I think each place has to decide the best direction for themselves.

  13. Steve Lawson, I don’t find my job sheer hell, or even opaque or dotted-swiss hell. I love the standards of excellence at my uni, and I’m not under pressure (beyond the bar I set for my own service). Frankly, I’m far more relaxed and happy at this job than I have been in a long while. As for relaxing and failing, I have done plenty of both. There’s room for mistakes here; that’s part of productivity. What I particularly love at this job is the level of commitment I feel from others.

  14. I myself have always thought tenure was very acceptable for librarians. They do research, they teach instructional classes, they do community services…they do a lot more than people realize, therefore i have always been an advocate for tenure to librarians. But after reading Karen’s post, she makes me think :) I love the part about coming in to work every day and handling it as if it was an interview. That is how it should be, each day librarians should try their best and not rely on status to keep their job safe.

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