Category Archives: Administration/Leadership

Use for postings that discuss the administrative aspects of academic librarianship, including managing and leading in the field.

Why All The Fuss Over PhD Academic Librarians

While no one has called it Trzeciakgate yet, I can’t help but see some similarities between what’s happening now with his presentation at Penn State University and the whole Michael Gorman firestorm (then labeled “Gormangate”) of 2005. Are you too new to the profession to remember Gormangate? You can read all about it here. Suffice to say that he said a few things that were considered controversial (and just plain insulting), and quite a few librarians took it personally – and reacted swiftly and loudly. If you want to quickly catch up on who’s contributed to the Trzecial controversy as well as its origins, this post at Sense and Reference sums things up nicely. An alternate opinion was offered over at On Furlough. I guess we like to have a nice, juicy controversy every now and then – not that there’s anything wrong with that.

What’s brought about the attacks on what Trzeciak had to say? He stated that at McMaster, where he is the Dean, his plan is to limit the hiring of traditional MLS librarians while focusing more on hiring PhD subject specialists and information technology professionals. Claiming that you think PhDs can do library work better than professional librarians is apparently the library profession’s equivalent of grabbing the third rail. The reaction to Trzeciak’s vision is not unlike that of a politician who talks about cutting social security or Medicare. While the level of negativity was mildly disturbing to me, I did appreciate that many positive and encouraging themes and ideas about the value of academic librarians emerged from the conversation.

I guess what I found most surprising about all the hostility towards Trzeciak’s ideas is that a good part of what he said is hardly new, innovative or revolutionary. It appears that some academic librarians are unaware that CLIR has since 2006 offered a program that systematically creates positions in academic libraries – and not just ARLs – for PhD holders who have decided they want a career in a library. I reacted to this program here at ACRLog when it was first announced. It’s called the CLIR PostDoctoral Library Fellows Program, and it basically offer instant access to library positions for the Fellows – and it’s a highly competitive program. If you are a PhD who’s facing a depressed job market in your field, a career in academic libraries may look downright inviting.

So while Trzeciak is perhaps the first Library Dean who has publicly commented on the merits of this program and sees it as a potential blueprint for future staffing in academic libraries, he’s hardly the first one to hire non-MLS PhDs to take positions that MLS holders would have filled in the past. Looking back, some, not all of the CLIR Fellows go on to earn the MLS, and they’ve made good contributions to the library literature.

As Lane Wilkerson wrote in the post mentioned above:

So, Jeff Trzeciak, if you can find PhDs who would rather work in a library than as teaching faculty in their subject areas, more power to you. But, I doubt that’s going to be the future of librarianship.

Well guess what? Trzeciak doesn’t have to go very far to find those PhDs. With the support of the CLIR program, they’re lining up for jobs in our libraries – and getting them while MLS graduates sit on the sidelines. I don’t think it’s going to be THE future, but it’s going to be an unavoidable consequence of a future in which library deans will be looking for ways to incorporate new skill sets into their organizations. If you want to better understand why this happening, perhaps you ought to read Jim Neal’s article on “feral librarians” if you happened to miss it when first published in 2006. You can attack Trzeciak’s ideas if it makes you feel better, but he’s hardly the first to promote these them, and he won’t be the last.

The Academic Librarian’s Identity Conflict

Just exactly what role do we play in higher education? Where do we fit into the structure of colleges and universities? On a day-to-day basis I suspect that most of us don’t think about this question. We identify ourselves within the structure of our own academic library organizations: cataloger; reference librarian; bibliographer. Our identification may also be shaped institutionally: professional staff; administrator; faculty. But when we attempt to identify ourselves on the industry level, where we sit becomes less concrete.

Identify is important to our sense of self-worth and self-esteem. When our identify is called into question, we may feel threatened or less secure about our standing in the organization. While in our library organizations we have a fairly specific identity, within the grander scheme of higher education academic librarians – no matter what their position or title – tend to get grouped into one of two categories: administrator or support staff.

Most academic librarians working elsewhere than the administrative office do not think of themselves as administrators. You teach a few dozen instruction sessions a year, and that makes you an instructor – not an administrator. You say you have faculty status and that makes you a faculty member – not an administrator. When you work at the reference desk you help students with their assignments which is another way of helping them learn – definitely not administrator territory. I agree with you. Front line librarians spend considerable time on non-administrative matters that would be identified as “teaching” or “instruction”, whether it happens in a classroom, at the answer desk or in a hallway. But when national data about higher education are collected and reported, we tend to be grouped in with administrators or support staff – not instruction staff.

Consider the July 2010 report from the Delta Project,a non-profit organization that studies college costs and accountability issues, . In examing trends in college spending between 1998 and 2008, there are data in the report worth reviewing. One of the findings that received the most attention in the popular press was the growth of funding for student services. One expert, Richard Vedder, in his reaction to the data referred to it as the “country clubization” of higher education – too much money is being spent on amenities to attract students while instruction suffers. But when one examines the data it’s clear that while spending for student services has accelerated in the past few years, the vast majority of college expenditures go to instruction – for which spending has remained fairly static.

I wanted to learn what the Delta Project report had to say about academic libraries. Unfortunately there’s nothing specific there. I did learn that academic libraries are not considered part of instruction when it comes to where the money goes. Rather, the library is grouped with “academic support”, which many faculty and higher education analysts consider to all be part of administrative expenditures. Here are the scope notes directly from the Project Delta report:

Instruction: Activities directly related to instruction, including faculty salaries and benefits, office supplies, administration of academic departments, and the proportion of faculty salaries going to departmental research and public service.

Academic support: Activities that support instruction, research, and public service,including: libraries, academic computing, museums, central academic administration (dean’s offices), and central personnel for curriculum and course development.

Admittedly, academic support doesn’t sound all that nefarious. We know that “administration” has taken on fairly negative connotations in higher education, particularly from the faculty perspective. And if it hasn’t just yet, a crop of new books about higher education that arrived in 2010 will do even more to paint academic administration as a glutton hogging on tuition and growing itself at a pace that is difficult to rationalize. One of these books, in particular, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — and What We Can Do About It by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, has received significant attention, particularly in the mass media. In varying articles and interviews, Hacker and Dreifus, share their thoughts on what’s wrong with higher education. While they take faculty to task in a way that’s reminiscent of Profscam, they make it clear that the rampant and unchecked expansion of the administration is causing great harm to higher education. It’s hard to deny the racheting up of college administration:

In 1976, for every 1,000 full-time students, there were 42 professional administrative staff members, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. By 2008, the most recent year available, there were 84. At the same time, the number of full-time faculty members for every 1,000 students has declined, from 65 to 55, due to the greater use of adjuncts and teaching assistants.While fewer undergraduates are being taught by full-time professors, the number of administrators keeps growing.

They also point to questionable administration positions they’ve identified in their research: vice president for student success, residential communications coordinator, credential specialist, dietetic internship director, director of active and collaborative engagement, and coordinator of learning immersion experiences. They’re not saying these folks have no purpose, but they question whether the positions are truly fundamental to the mission of higher education or are simply evidence of out-of-control administrative hiring. What might they say about academic library positions such as “director of scholarly communications” or “coordinator of assessment”?

Do academic libraries contribute to the administrative bloat in higher education? Whether academic librarians are administrators or instructors is perhaps not as important as how we demonstrate that we are fundamental to the core mission of our institutions – to educate the students and promote research and discovery that benefits society. With the exception of perhaps a few well-resourced institutions, I believe it is difficult to make a case that academic libraries contribute to administrative bloat. We certainly have our share of assistant deans and department heads, less so in college and small university libraries, but even many of these individuals are doing practical work that enables the library to serve its mission of supporting teaching, learning and research, along with programs and events that contribute to the cultural and intellectual heritage of our institutions.

Front line librarians and other staff may view what happens in the administrative office differently, and any new hire of an administrator rather than a practitioner may be perceived as administrative bloat. The bottom line as I see it is that academic librarians do little to contribute to the administrative bloat described by Hacker and Dreifus, but rather are victimized by it because when our institutions add more vice-presidents, program coordinators and just about anything that isn’t instruction or in direct support of instruction, it drains resources away from academic libraries and hampers our ability to perform our mission.

So what do Hacker and Dreifus have to say about academic libraries in their book? Actually, nothing. I read the book and there are no substantive references to academic libraries. In a way, given the overall tone of the book, I suppose that’s a good thing. But it might have been helpful for the authors to have visited and studied some of our academic libraries (they visited many of our institutions in researching the book). What they could have learned and what they might have said about all the things academic librarians do to contribute to student academic success, may have shed some additional light on our role in the academy and the resolution of the identity conflict.

Learning From The Alumni

I came across an interesting piece of news about how some IHEs are just asking their alumni questions – and listening to the answers. The calls are not about hitting the alums up for contributions. The folks in charge of alumni offices are realizing that they need to learn much more about their instituiton’s graduates. There is particular interest in new, younger alumni because there are concerns that they have no interest in becoming active alumni. And no doubt, there’s always that nagging uncertainty about the potential young alumni have as future donors to the institution:

After hour-long phone conversations, alumni interviewers like Wong hope to be able to tell the college something about what makes graduates tick. They’ll have a pretty good idea of what alumni’s interests are, how they feel about the college and what might potentially motivate them to contribute. What the interviewers won’t ask for is a check.

I like this idea – just contacting the alumni to learn more about what they are doing and how they feel about the institution and their education. Academic libraries clearly have a different mission – and resources for this sort of thing – than the alumni office, but I feel there is much that academic librarians could learn from conversations with alumni. There are plenty of potential questions to ask about their use (or not) of the library. Did anything they heard in an instruction session stay with them, and did they learn it well enough for it to impact their research behavior? It might be helpful just to learn if they do professional research on a regular basis or if they just use search engines for personal, lifestyle research. Would they be interested in continuing to have access to the library databases they used as students (or not)?

As our profession becomes increasingly focused on assessment and documenting our contributions to student learning, it seems inevitable that we would need to engage our alumni in conversations about their library experience. It’s one thing to say the academic library contributes to lifelong learning, but only by connecting with alumni and asking them the right questions can we learn how well we succeed at our goals. If the development officers are taking the institutional lead in connecting with alumni, perhaps that is the starting point. Let’s learn more about what our colleagues in the alumni office are doing when they listen to our ex-students, and whether there is an opportunity for the academic librarian to ask a few questions as well.

Humility Is A Form Of Presence Too

Management and leadership issues, while of interest to a good many academic librarians, are just one of many topics we cover here at ACRLog. We do so mostly when it applies to some issue of the day or a debate within higher education. In the past we’ve talked about being an “involved library administrator“, creating the next generation of leaders, reflections on leadership, decision making, and most recently discussed the value of having presence as a form of expressing leadership qualities. Yet I received some e-mail requests that ACRLog should continue to offer occasional posts about management and leadership topics, since many academic librarians are new to positions requiring these skills or want to learn more about them. To those folks I suggested subscribing the the Lyrasis Library Leadership Network, but we appreciate receiving the suggestion and ACRLog will continue to offer posts about management and leadership topics from time to time.

Where else can aspiring leaders look for advice on how to acquire the skills needed to do the job? I’ve become a regular reader of “Corner Office”, published in every Sunday issue of the New York Times, and authored by Adam Bryant. Corner Office features an interview with a different CEO, business leader or start up specialist each week (you can subscribe to the RSS feed). The quality can be a bit uneven but in general I always find something fascinating in any column. I’ve picked up new ideas about interviewing job candidates, strategies for getting things accomplished when there’s too much to do and being sensible when taking risks. Just recently there was an interview with Andrew Cosslett, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group. I was quite impressed with the InterContinental I visited in Chicago this past July during ALA. So I wanted to see what Cosslett had to say. He came off sounding quite confident in himself, to the point that I might say he sounds like the type of leader who has presence – and I’m sure he does. But in a good way?

I suppose that was the question op-ed columnist David Brooks had in mind when he wrote the column “The Humble Hound.” Referring back to the interview with Cosslett, Brooks makes a point that extremely self-confidant and charismatic leaders can produce volatile results. I won’t try to repeat what Brooks says here, but he too gives some quite poignant advice for would be leaders:

The humble hound leader thinks less about her mental strengths than about her weaknesses. She knows her performance slips when she has to handle more than one problem at a time, so she turns off her phone and e-mail while making decisions. She knows she has a bias for caution, so she writes a memo advocating the more daring option before writing another advocating the most safe…Because of her limitations, she tries to construct thinking teams…She tries not to fall for the seductions that Collins says mark failing organizations: the belief that one magic move will change everything; the faith in perpetual restructuring; the tendency to replace questions with statements at meetings.

The message: be humble, be persistent and be patient. Brooks paints a rather different picture of a leader, but in my view it’s one in which there is still a great presence – just in a different way.

So what’s a future leader to do, especially if going out on interviews for leadership positions? On one hand it’s important to demonstrate self confidence; who wants a wishy-washy leader? Be clear about your vision and values. Show what you believe in and how your behavior supports your beliefs. Do so with an assurance that demonstrates inner strength and faith in yourself. All of that needs to be balanced with humility, an appreciation for the support of colleagues and co-workers, and the good that inspired teams can achieve. There are different ways to demonstrate presence. An accomplished leader is able to express the right type of presence when and where it’s needed.

Taking Risks: Punt Or Go For It

Be a risk taker. Create change. Take chances. Be bold. We come across these inspirational messages again and again when we go out to conferences, read librarian blogs or the latest library manifestos. We are urged to grasp the reins of innovation and seize the spirit of entrepreneurialism. A good deal of what I read in this vein, in and beyond the library literature, is worthwhile. So why isn’t risk-taking happening more often in our academic libraries. The problem is that taking risks is easier said than done, and when it comes down to it most of us will avoid doing so at all costs. A recent sports incident provides an answer, and that answer, put simply, is that if you take risks and fail it can be a painful experience.

The good news is that when most of us do take risks and fail the exposure is limited. We may suffer some embarrassment or anguish, but we can also survive it. With some luck we have a supervisor or colleagues that are supportive, and they’ll see the failure as a learning experience. Risk taking and subsequent failure, when taken on a public stage, can lead to devastating humiliation and far ranging second guessing and hindsight. We recently had a good example of this from the world of sports. On November 18, 2009 the New England Patriots played the rival Indianapolis Colts. With a slim lead and just over two minutes to play, the Patriot’s Coach Belichick took a huge risk on fourth down with two yards to go for a new set of downs – on his own 29 yard line.

If the call succeeded the Patriots could run out the clock and cruise to victory. If the call failed the Colts would get the ball with great scoring position and more than enough time to score. What happened? The Patriots failed to get the first down, and the Colts got the ball and scored the winning touchdown. Belichick was widely criticized for his call and the Monday morning coaches said he should have played it safe and punted. But did he really make the wrong call?

While some analysts argued that given Belichick’s past risk-taking record in similar situations (mostly successful) and the odds of punting and still losing, perhaps he was right to take the risk of “going for it”. Isn’t that what we seem to hear more often. We should be willing to take a risk and go for it. I suspect that most of us are punters. Rather than go for it we opt for the safe move. Part of the problem is knowing when to take a risk. Part of our decision-making process is based on how a risk is framed. If we frame it as a gain or win we are more likely to take the risk whereas if we frame it as a loss we are more risk adverse (this is greatly simplifying the studies of Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory). Another way to think about risk is the waterline perspective.

The origin of the waterline approach is credited to Peter Drucker, but I learned of it from Jim Collins as I watched a video interview (watch the first 2-3 minutes) about his latest book, How the Mighty Fall. It’s a simple idea. Picture your library as a ship on the water. Ask if your risk is above or below the waterline. If it is above and you fail, chances are you can make a decent repair and save the ship. If it’s below and you fail, that blows a whole in the ship and a repair might be possible but it’s far less likely to happen. What about Belichick’s risk? Was it above or below? I guess it depends on how you frame it. For the game, it was below the waterline. For the season, maybe not. Some analysts have said taking risks like that is part of that team’s culture and character. To not take the risk may have altered the very fabric of the team. A big picture perspective would suggest that it was above the waterline in the scope of the entire season, and that would suggest it was worth taking the risk.

What we can learn from this episode is that taking risks is important and necessary, but that the perspective can make a difference in how we judge the outcome. It is wise to frame the risk situation correctly, and consult with colleagues on whether it appears to be above or below the waterline. The next time you and your colleagues have a punt or go for it decision to make, be cautious but don’t necessarily opt immediately for the punt. It’s possible to go for it and fail, and yet survive to see another day – quite possibly having learned something important from the experience.