Category Archives: Higher Education

Postings about the higher education industry.

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.

Just Around the Corner

It’s the middle of August, which means that the Fall semester is coming up fast. Posts about beginning the new academic year on the right foot are starting to pop up all over the higher ed blogosphere. Here’s a couple that have caught my eye recently:

1. Earlier this month Tenured Radical* encouraged us to “conjure–for a second–a week in mid-semester.” What will our days (and nights) look like? How stressed out will we be? What plans can we make now to minimize our stresses later?

While her post focuses on faculty who teach full-time rather than academic librarians, there’s lots of good advice here for us too. A central thread of her post is know your limits, and know when to say no. Of course, saying no can be difficult–I often return to Emily Ford’s excellent post How Do You Say No? at In the Library with the Lead Pipe when I need a refresher on strategies for declining with grace.

*(Tenured Radical’s post was also published at Inside Higher Ed.)

2. And here are a few tips from the good folks at Prof Hacker:

• Before the summer winds down, why not take some time to get your CV in order? Even if a job change isn’t on the horizon for you, it’s a good idea to have an updated CV in case you’re asked for it–for example, many grant applications require a CV.

• How do you keep track of your plans for the new semester? Creating a checklist of things you need to do is a great way to prepare for the start of school. Again, many of these are teaching-specific, but librarians need snacks and supplies, too!

• And while it seems almost impossibly far away, the holiday season is sooner than we think, and the winter holidays arrive when many of us in higher ed are at our busiest. Some advance planning now can help make a smoother end to the calendar year.

What advice do you have for getting the new school year off to a good start? Please share any strategies that work for you!

Chance To Influence Next Generation Higher Education Administrators

I was intrigued by this new initiative created by the folks at Inside Higher Ed and the Association for the Study of Higher Education. It allows anyone to submit a 1,000 word, well-researched and documented essay on any news story published by Inside Higher Ed. While some essays must be based on a set of pre-selected stories, others can be proposed by potential authors. Because the content is targeted to faculty and graduate students in higher education administration programs, as well as current higher education administrators, this seems like an excellent opportunity for academic librarians to share their perspective on library-related news stories and essays that appear in Inside Higher Ed. Doing so could help to influence and shape how future higher education administrators perceive the academic library.

All too often when these stories appear, be they informative or controversial, librarians engage in discussion among themselves on their discussion lists and twitter feeds, or they leave insightful comments to the stories, but rarely is there any organized follow up. In the end those who need to hear what we bring to the conversation most likely never have that opportunity. This new program changes that. Take for example two recent IHE articles, one a news item on “bookless libraries” and the other an essay on “Reviving the Academic Library“. Both generated considerable discussion in the library community, but who knows what message reached the academic administrators who decide on the library budget or whether or not to commit funds to a new library facility.

What do these essays look like? If you go to the detailed information page there is an example that provides a good picture of what’s expected. In addition to the essay authors should develop a set of questions that faculty could use to lead a discussion on the topic. Academic librarians should keep this new program in mind for the next time that Inside Higher Ed publishes an article or essay that could use a balanced and authoritative response from our profession. To not do so allows authors who may have an outdated interpretation or inaccurate understanding of the mission and operation of the contemporary academic library to unduly influence the thinking of academic administrators.

Impact Factors Adjusted for Reality

An interesting study forthcoming in the September issue of C&RL tackles the question of how our scholarship is evaluated by tenure and promotion committees. As a tenured librarian in a department in which half of the faculty are currently working toward tenure, this question intrigues me. Fortunately, my non-librarian colleagues at my institution do not take a bean-counter approach to assessing scholarship. I’ve served on the committee and have seen first-hand that there’s no talk of “impact factor” and having published a book is not a mechanical substitute for evaluating the significance of a faculty member’s intellectual work and potential for future engagement with ideas.

The authors describe the way Oregon State University has adopted Boyer’s definition of scholarship – which embraces not just discovery of new knowledge, but application, teaching, and integration. After examining what librarians have been doing, they concluded the problem isn’t being productive, it’s explaining the “breadth and impact” of librarians’ scholarly work. This includes not only traditionally-published research, but additional modes of communicating ideas.

Blogs are vehicles to teach and communicate to both broad and specific audiences. Their format precludes them being taken seriously as scholarship in current tenure review processes, but their content often demonstrates engagement and suggests impact in ways rarely seen in the print library journal. This raises questions about the concept of format and vehicle. Expanding acceptance of new forms of communication along with reconsidering what constitutes scholarship will benefit librarianship as a whole. A first step is accepting open-access, peer reviewed journals as outlets of high impact and validity. The next step will be integrating non-traditional peer reviewed work such as blogs that have an active readership and generate comments and commentary.

The outsourcing of faculty evaluation by peers – relying on university presses and journal rankings to determine whether a colleague is worthy or not – has contributed to the problem libraries find themselves in: having to somehow fund access to a bloated body of research, much of which is only produced to gain job security. (Two years ago an MLA survey found a third of institutions required progress toward publishing a second book. This, when libraries’ budgets can’t keep up with bare necessities.)

Maybe in a backhanded way the work we do, documented in a way that people in other disciplines can understand, could provide a model for sanity.

CC-licensed image courtesy of Kristina B.

For the Hacker in You

Last week was the official launch of Prof Hacker, a new website devoted to productivity, technology, and pedagogy in higher education. A link to this group blog first popped up in my Twitterstream a couple of months ago and I immediately became a regular reader. While the main audience for Prof Hacker is college and university faculty teaching semester-length courses, there’s also lots here for academic librarians. (And of course we sometimes teach credit-bearing courses, too.)

Prof Hacker publishes at least one new post every weekday featuring news, advice, and how-tos. Posts are short and accessible, and cover a wide range of topics. Some of my favorites so far include:

  • A couple of posts about using and managing course blogs, including a review of the pros and cons of group vs. individual blogs and thoughtful discussion on evaluating and grading blog posts. Great comments, too.
  • A timely entry on managing stress over the course of semester (timely for me, at least, since it was published on the first day of classes at my college). Great advice that’s worth saving to reread on the first week of every semester.
  • One professor’s report on using iPod Touches in a class he taught over the summer. This one seems especially relevant for librarians as we investigate ebooks and the various ways that they (and other library resources) can be accessed by students.
  • And if you miss something and need to catch up, each week there’s a handy week in review post drawing together all of the previous week’s entries (the week I link to was particularly full of great posts).

Definitely a valuable addition to my feedreader. What blogs/sites are you reading this semester?