Is the Intinerant Academic Librarian In Our Future

On Monday, December 12 several higher education news sources and metropolitan papers (here and here) reported on the AAUP’s 2006 Contingent Faculty Index. According the the AAUP site, “the Index provides data to document the increasing predominance of non-tenure-track faculty in America’s colleges and universities. This report draws on figures submitted by institutions to the US Department of Education’s IPEDS database for fall 2005”. I don’t think anyone who works at a higher education institution is surprised by the report’s finding that the number of part-time instructors is on the increase while the number of full-time tenured faculty is on the decrease. That is a continuation of an on going trend. But what did seem to open eyes a little wider this time is the revelation that 62% of all faculty teaching at IHEs are OFF the tenure track. That seems like an astoundingly high number of non-tenure track faculty, and the data showed that this isn’t limited to community colleges. A number of prestigious institutions showed surprisingly high numbers of non-tenure track positions. Contingent faculty, by the way, is a combination of non-tenure track full-time faculty (at many institutions faculty in certain curriculum, such as design or the arts, can opt for a non-tenure track status) and part-time faculty.

Members of the ACRLog blog team exchanged some messages about what the numbers mean for academic librarians. Consider that we often hear that approximately 50% of academic librarians are on the tenure-track or have tenure. Barbara Fister cited the following as the best published statistic available: a supplementary survey to the ACRL statistics for 1999, reported that 43.6% of institutions reporting (BA – PhD granting institutions) said librarians were covered by the same tenure policies as other faculty. So assuming the number of tenure-track librarians are between 43% and 50%, you could come to the conclusion that you actually have a better chance to be on the tenure track if you are an academic librarian, and not a faculty member, these days. Lisa Hinchliffe raised a good question. She asked if the AAUP numbers include academic librarians in the faculty data. I contacted Dr. John Curtis, the lead author of the Index report, to ask him if academic librarians with faculty status are included in the report data. The answer is no, they are not. He provided me with the following rationale for the exclusion of academic librarians:

Previously, in IPEDS, institutions could classify Librarians and Counselors as either Faculty or Other professionals (support/service), however, institutions must now classify Librarians and Counselors in IPEDS as ‘other professionals’ (support/service) only. According to that rule, librarians would not be included in the data we reported. There is always the possibility that the individual(s) submitting the data did not read the instructions closely and included librarians in the faculty section, but this is the way the data were to be reported.

So however you feel about academic librarians being excluded or how you interpret their exclusion, the bottom line is that the numbers in the report don’t reflect tenure-track library faculty. If it did, the numbers might actually look better at some institutions. Consider Pennsylvania State University, for example, that has a large number of tenured and tenure-track librarians. Penn State’s total percent of contingent faculty was 47.8%. Had they included their full-time tenured librarians in the calculation that number would certainly be lower.

Marc Meola brought his usual “from a different angle” perspective to the numbers by questioning the validity of “part-time faculty”. He pointed out that since many part-time faculty fall into the category of “itinerant faculty” or adjuncts who carry the equivalent of a full-time teaching position by taking on courses at multiple institutions, the numbers of part-time faculty are misleading. While I guess you could make that case philosophically, from the perspective of how part-time faculty is defined by IPEDs for data collection, there’s no getting around the fact that any instructor who isn’t teaching full time at a single institution is part-time by definition. But there’s no denying that one of the primary reasons for the increase in contingent faculty is the over supply of qualified PhDs who are unable to land a full-time position, and who end up eking out a living teaching at several different institutions. This enables IHEs to replace full-time faculty slots with part-time slots. Of course, not every part-time instructor falls into the category of itinerant faculty. We all know our institutions bring in many full-time professionals who only want to teach a course or two to supplement their income or simply for the joy of teaching. I’m sure this is the case with many full-time librarians who are adjunct instructors teaching a course or two at their local LIS program.

Marc and I debated whether our institutions could just as easily create a new class of itinerant academic librarians. Why couldn’t they, I posed, just force library administrators to fill open full-time faculty slots with two or three part-time librarians. Then we’d have librarians that work 20 hours or less each week for reference duty, to lead some instruction sessions, to develop the collection, or whatever could accomodate a part-time existence. The future academic library might consist of a core of full-time administrators and department heads leading a much larger number of itinerant librarians who carry multiple part-time positions at several area institutions. If they can do it to faculty, then why not us? Marc made a good point about why it’s not likely – at least not yet. It’s the numbers. While there are certainly always librarians looking for academic positions, it’s not comparable to the vast numbers of unemployed PhDs who are clinging to the hope that even a part-time position could lead to a full-time tenure track position. Any IHE that thought its library could viably run on a crew of part-timers would likely find itself unable to fill all the positions it would need to keep the library running. But will that keep academic librarians as a protected class for the extended future? Will our institutions look for ways to further erode the numbers of librarians in tenure-track positions as the AAUP reports has happened with faculty? But for now, if you work at an IHE and you are looking for a tenure-track position, you may just actually be better off as a librarian than a faculty member. Let’s see how long that lasts.

3 thoughts on “Is the Intinerant Academic Librarian In Our Future”

  1. The issue of the blanket exclusion of librarians from (statistical) faculty status is a fascinating one all on its own, but I want to address the latter part of the post.

    There is no doubt that “contingent librarian” status could be supported at a number of institutions – both those where there are a large number of institutions in a small geographic area (I can certainly see librarians as “freeway flyers” in the DC area, or Boston), and those located in close proximity to a library school (where, as with Colleges of Education, there are often many credentialed professionals with geographic mobility limitations).

    More important is the fact that it is already happening – if not to the extent that it is happening in some other academic fields. Over the past few years, I have visited libraries where there is an “instructor” class of librarians, if you will – that is, a group of librarians who may work full or part time, but whose professional focus is limited to front-line public service activities, including reference and instruction. These librarians may or may not be on the tenure-track (or the track toward “continuing appointent”), but they are distinguished in some way (title, scope of responsibilities, participation in academic governance activities) from some or all of their library colleagues.

    To go into greater detail would be more than a “post” would allow, but this is definitely an issue for librarians, even if (following AAUP) it has not been discussed as part of the broader issue of the rise of contingent faculty across campus.

    Mind you, though, I definitely think that, regarding the issues you raise in this post, most remain better off as a librarian than as (an AAUP-defined) faculty member.

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