Lost in Exigency, Baby.

As a researcher of organizational communication, I have spent much of the past year observing and analyzing crisis communication by university and library leadership. Often I’m in the minority, praising communication and transparency I’ve observed from university responses to the pandemic, where others have been quick to find fault. Far from an apologist, my unpopular opinion just as often puts me at odds with leadership, especially when presenting views of those further removed from the hierarchy.

Kansas stirred up quite a bit of crisis communication last week as its Board of Regents (KBOR) unanimously passed a policy suspending University tenure protections aimed at addressing immediate budget challenges due to COVID-19. While no University is required to implement the new policy, KBOR gave Universities 45-days to respond with criteria and a process for invoking such a policy.

University administrators’ reaction to the policy was swift, either seeking broader input or acknowledging they would not implement. An open letter also quickly circulated, criticizing the policy as well as administrations who hadn’t joined in denouncing it outright. Without diminishing this alarmed response — the policy and its adoption are certainly worthy of it – my first and strongest impulse is always to ask questions.

One important question being asked is “why is a new policy needed?”

When KBOR’s Governance Board met to present and discuss this policy (around 19 minutes in), Regent Kiblinger asked this very question, in context and comparison to KBOR’s existing “financial exigency” policy. The response she got highlights several distinctions, while justifying it against other COVID-specific policy changes the Board has made.  The first key distinction, though, really struck me.

“It treats everyone the same.”

KBOR General Counsel, Julene Miller

The new KBOR policy (6.b.ii) creates a COVID-specific exigency (if you will) applicable to any state university employee without the declaration of financial exigency as a prerequisite. Who is affected is the current focus of both the response from Universities and indeed the essence of how this policy “treats everyone the same”. It is admittedly more complicated , but deceptively that simple.

This sentiment — a takeaway from Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s very timely visit to my campus this week discussing Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University (John Hopkins University Press) – has bolstered an uncomfortable hunch I have about this current situation in Kansas.  Fitzpatrick calls for a radical rethinking of how we participate in our collective values as communities of learning with a “duty of care”. While faculty loudly address the failure of leadership to make clear or understand the value of academic freedom and shared governance promised by tenure, we fail recognize and acknowledge how its structures like tenure and governance have also been built and broken down in ways that no longer live up to the values they intended to secure.

The key differences in the policy getting the most attention have to do with who has input throughout the processes and changes to the advance notice, process of appeal, and the affected employees. These explicit limitations on who is consulted, their representation and due process do raise justifiable concerns on a number of levels, one of which may be the further erosion of academic tenure in and beyond Kansas.  But, remedying these concerns through a narrow lens of tenured faculty rights, just hits wrong. It misses the larger point, an opportunity even, that could be driving new and more equitable policy. Ironically, it misuses the privilege afforded by that which actually needs defending here.

What’s driving the policy?

The next set of distinctions the KBOR Governance Board outlined in its meeting mention the expedited timeline the new policy provides and an executive-centric role in the process. While financial exigency lacks as explicitly specific a process, it does ensure the executive role is shared with governance. We’ll come back to this.

But, first, the gist of the financial exigency. The Kansas Reflector summarized the policy even more succinctly [my emphasis inserted]:

Under existing Board of Regents’ policy, a state university must formally recognize a financial exigency that [has already] required elimination of non-tenured positions and operating expenditures. With the declaration, the universities could move ahead with reductions in tenured faculty positions.

By the open letter responding to this new policy asserting at the outset that, “procedures already exist to make decisions according to financial exigency as part of shared governance”, its authors acknowledge the similarly dire circumstances that concern both policies. KU’s rules and regulations for shared governance of financial exigency further emphasizes the gravity.

“Only as a last resort after all possible alternatives calculated to preserve the survival of the University as a quality institution of higher learning have been in good faith examined, and utilized or rejected, should the University consider the release of any tenured member of the faculty on the basis of Financial Exigency.

https://policy.ku.edu/governance/USRR#ArticleVII

If urgency of the circumstances are justifiably similar and this new COVID-19 specific policy is something clearly different than financial exigency, then how we talk about those differences matter.

The positive difference in the policy of financial exigency (shared governance) has already been noted. My question is why would we defend a policy that requires Universities to explicitly begin eliminating non-tenured lines before any tenured lines?

Because…tenure?

Like crises before it, COVID-19 has been both a global equalizer and a stark reminder of disparities resulting from all kinds of privilege. For KU employees COVID-19 has already forced temporary salary reductions across all employee types, additional hiring freezes, and top-down realignments that have resulted in administrative promotions and demotions, unpaid additional labor, and the voluntary and involuntary loss of good people and expertise.

Values and standards can certainly be upheld during unprecedented upheaval. The open letter reminds us “the statements of core values and standard practices [of academic freedom and tenure] were composed during moments of extraordinary societal upheaval and unrest—during the worst economic depression and the deadliest world war”. We must acknowledge they also occurred when “in some Northern cities, whites called for African Americans to be fired from any jobs as long as there were whites out of work.” Can we honestly say today, under circumstances similar or unique from crises of the past, that explicitly prioritizing the elimination of non-tenured faculty or staff actually “preserves the survival of the University as a quality institution of higher learning”, but eliminating any tenured faculty doesn’t?

What actually needs defending here?

What if Universities responded to the call for developing this framework with a generosity inherent in “it treats everyone the same”? What if a framework did include shared governance, adequate notice and appeal privileges, and did so (as the policy requires) for any state university employee?

Wouldn’t that be better than defending currently inequitable alternatives like financial exigency, or narrowly focusing on the academic freedom afforded only to tenured faculty?  Wouldn’t it be better than an institution publicly declaring they are (for now) not planning to submit criteria or implement the new policy as is?

These questions prevent me from defending an alternative of financial exigency as it exists. In posing these questions, I also acknowledge that KBOR’s approval of this policy without shared governance and transparency is indeed unprecedented in a manner that “degrades the working conditions of the entire university and the learning conditions for all of our students”. At the same time, I can see the issues it is attempting to address gives unprecedented opportunity for more equitable approaches to “save the university”.

Having worked for the State of Kansas in the KBOR system for more than 20 years, I have experienced the political and budgetary challenges to employee salaries and benefits from the vantage point of different employee statuses – classified and unclassified staff, tenure track and non-tenure track, and tenured faculty administration in which I have supervised or mentored all of the former. This given me access to perspectives some of my colleagues may not as readily share.

Clearly this issue has shaken more than the foundational principles of tenure. It has us questioning ourselves, our professional relationships, and our leadership at all levels. Ultimately, though, this is a good thing.  And while manifested poorly, both these polices, and at all times our privilege, should be open to further critique.

Shared governance is a privilege students, staff, and faculty can and should exercise on behalf of the most vulnerable. It calls us to use our collective voices not in self- or self-identifying preservation, but for giving unprecedented voice, participation, and due process for all employees. KU’s chancellor has publicly and internally sought input from governance, administrators, faculty, and staff across the university to determine this process, despite any requirement of the KBOR policy to do so – as he should! In addition to this invitation, it is our right and obligation to demonstrate how equity becomes and remains a prerequisite part of any policy.

Let’s get to it.

Reflecting on library space through the lens of the pandemic

Before the pandemic turned our world upside down, I was working on some space-related projects at my library. A recent update to a small lounge area had a notable payoff. Collaboration with my colleague in the Learning Center was making slow but steady progress toward a renovation to expand and enhance our spaces and services in a Learning Commons model. The need for and value of this work were clear. The progress and outcomes were gratifying.

I’ve written a few times about some of this work and the opportunities and challenges of my lovely but tiny library space. The public health crisis has cast our space and these efforts to improve it, like pretty much everything, in new light. Obviously, slashed higher ed budgets and broader economic challenges suggest that there will be increased competition for limited resources to fund any space project, particularly a large and pricey one like our Learning Commons proposal. But the pandemic will affect higher education’s short-, medium- and long-term future in many arenas, not just fiscal; the impact on demand for and nature of library space is difficult to anticipate, reducing our ability to plan and advocate strategically.

In the short-term, space has featured prominently in the many meetings about the fall semester at my commuter campus and across my institution. Currently, my institution is planning for a mix of in-person, hybrid, and remote courses. At the core of our many space-related conversations has been the recognition that access to physical space matters even in this very virtual incarnation of higher ed, particularly for our most vulnerable students. On a practical level, we need to offer on-campus space (and resources) to students who don’t have access to reliable technology at home or whose home environments aren’t productive or safe. We also need to offer on-campus space for students to participate in Zoom classes sandwiched between in-person classes. Like many folks, we’re working out how to safely open and manage access to our space. 

Then, there are the more theoretical conversations about the sense of identity and community that physical (library) space fosters. We’ve cast our proposed Learning Commons, for example, as a welcoming learner-centered space where students can focus, study, collaborate, and access academic assistance. In our advocacy, we’ve cited the impact of the library’s and learning center’s physical constraints on students; they have had to vie for limited space or even leave campus, thereby missing out on opportunities to engage with services, programs, faculty and staff, and peers. We’ve argued that these missed opportunities reduce their ability to make connections on campus and build community. Library space helps our students dig in, connect, and belong. How can we attempt to recover or replace what we’re losing during this time? While perhaps not our most pressing concern given all the demands of planning for fall classes, it’s still an important one–for this coming semester and beyond. 

The medium- and long-term vision for our space projects, then, feels murky. Surely, expanding the physical library with more square footage would mean that we could accommodate more library users while complying with physical distancing guidelines. But it’s more than that. In our newly upended world, the assets and liabilities of all public space are thrown into sharp relief. The pandemic calls on us to reconsider how spaces are designed and how they’re used. How do we plan for library space projects in this time of uncertainty not just in higher ed but in our world? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Dane Ward: Teacher, Leader, Friend

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Craig Gibson, Professor & Professional Development Coordinator, Ohio State University Libraries.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in a lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.”—Reinhold Niebuhr

One bright summer day in 2002, I saw in my email box a message from longtime colleague and friend Mary Jane Petrowski, informing me about her excitement about making a new hire for the ACRL Immersion Program. “We’re getting Dane Ward to join us,” she said. I could sense her anticipation about someone special joining our group and bringing talent and a new perspective to our discussions, and to our collective vision for the program.

I first met Dane Ward at one of our Immersion faculty meetings, and was immediately impressed by his genuineness, sense of humor, and easy grace in relating to others.  He listened carefully to our wide-ranging discussions in Immersion faculty meetings, made pointed observations in those discussions, and quickly earned the respect and admiration of colleagues for his quiet but assertive confidence in his beliefs. He had obviously experienced enough of the world, and of our profession, to have firm convictions about what our larger purpose should be as librarians and as professionals.   

Of course, all of us on the Immersion faculty learned quickly about Dane’s sense of humor and his willingness to take risks and be fully engaged in some of our experiments in creative programming.  As many participants in Immersion from those years know, our group coalesced around a “Wizard of Oz” theme in pursuing the path to knowledge and information literacy enlightenment (a trip to the Emerald City, but ultimately, returning to home with much learning and growth).  We invented numerous skits and followed the “Wizard of Oz” theme in performances.  In his very first year as faculty member, Dane was asked to play the role of Munchkin with another long-term friend and colleague, Beth Woodard, and he was totally game for it. His performance in that role demonstrated his willingness to take risks, be vulnerable, and engage with our faculty group and participants alike in learning that builds a community through laughter and the sharing of vulnerable human moments. 

Part of what I learned about Dane, and the immense respect I quickly developed for him, drew from my reading of the book The Collaborative Imperative: Librarians and Faculty Working Together in the Information Universe, which he co-edited with Richard Raspa. I found the book compelling because Dane had already imagined what is possible for academic librarians through that book, which continues to influence the thinking of many. Dane possessed an early and profound intuition about what true collaboration means, as opposed to what we often refer to as “collaboration”, which is more often performative and may be nothing more than coordination and protection of turf.  For Dane, authentic collaboration involved reimagining roles in higher education in a transformative way so that a shared energy and collective work emerges from partnerships.    

For years afterward, and beyond his time on the Immersion faculty, Dane and I would often share a hotel room at ALA conferences, and we had an ongoing discussion about cultures of organizations, the role of librarians, the concept of information literacy, and what matters in leading a good life that would encompass our professional and personal selves. I have often thought that I learned more from Dane in those conversations, over dinner or just talking between meetings or in extended discussions in the shared room, than I did from many of the conference speakers.  Dane was an extraordinarily reflective person who could delve deeply into questions that he cared about, and he cared much about librarians becoming more integrated into their institutions and making a difference for students and faculty.  I could often sense his impatience with the technocratic aspects of our work and how it might limit the imaginative and the productively ambiguous dimensions of it. For him, we need the wellsprings of creative thinking to energize our relationships within our campuses, and he was totally dedicated to those spaces and times within which creativity could flourish. 

Dane’s influence on my own thinking, about the role of librarians as educators and as change agents in the academy, grew out of those many rich conversations.   The way he conversed and listened, and offered insights that would cause me to pause or rethink some statement I’d made, were part of a continuing pattern of learning for me, of helping me to understand where I was falling short in my own thinking.  He sometimes challenged me, quietly and humanely, and I grew better after each conversation.  Conversations with him were like a tonic, sparkling and energizing and full of brightened prospects for even further learning together.

Dane was the best kind of colleague and teacher for me—one who was interested in working alongside me in a collaborative spirit as we searched for a more compelling understanding of information literacy and the role of libraries. He also understood, in a very fundamental way, that teaching and leading are relational activities that draw on the full emotions and imaginations of the teacher, who leads students in discovering their previously unknown talents and in knowing themselves better; and of the leader, who teaches others through example and building community.   In the words of Henry Mintzberg, Dane believed in “communityship,” not in models of leadership that focus on the single heroic individual at the apex.  

At various times in the past fifteen years, my conversations with Dane have shown me his character and wisdom.  Dane and I co-taught the “Leadership” track in the  Immersion Program, and our conversations about that large topic while planning the curriculum and teaching it together showed me that his ideas about the collaborative search for meaning in the academy are integral to the practice of leadership; that leadership is not a formulaic, technocratic,  practice; and that disciplined character and judgement, combined with humanity, kindness, and cultivation of others through listening, are crucial in leading, guiding, and mentoring others.  Dane did not care about the trappings of leadership or those who use the word “leadership” too carelessly, because he believed that leadership is always a journey, a disciplined practice of becoming more human in guiding others and helping everyone develop a shared purpose and meaning.   Dane’s wisdom, intuitively gained, mirrored that of Parker Palmer, who was part of our Immersion journey.  Palmer wrote in his Courage to Teach that “the power for authentic leadership is found not in external arrangements, but in the human heart.” 

I recently finished reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, written by a digital humanist and scholar at Michigan State. Among much else, that book is about reinventing the university and helping us reimagine its core purposes around engagement with what we often refer to as our “constituents,” and to learn new ways of listening and talking to each other to help build community within our institutions.  I couldn’t help thinking of Dane as I finished this book, and pondering how he had identified the same search for meaning through building community.  Dane himself embodied the call to a new way of thinking—the “Generous Thinking” of the book’s title.    He was always a “generous thinker” for colleagues and friends wherever he worked and in whatever role—someone who believed in bringing out the best in us and creating new bonds for the greater good.

Dane aspired to help all of us understand how to build a new academy, based on the collaborative spirit and creative imagination, and would show us the role of the library as energizing hub within that new academy—a collegium of partners who learn from each other, who found new initiatives together, and who look outward toward their larger mission and inward in forging new bonds of friendship and community, instead of accelerating the hypercompetitive individualism and prestige obsessions rampant in the academy.  To Dane, the library had a special mission for creating conversation, community, and networks of friendship that enliven a campus and point it to a higher calling, a community of scholars, teachers, and learners.  The activated collection and library as essential partner would be integral in that new academy, where, in these fraught and pandemic times, our work aspires to great meaning and moral purpose in making a better world. Dane’s voice of leadership was prophetic: the need for greater community in these times of tribalism, polarization, and fractured institutions speaks to his intuition in what matters most in helping all of us reach for our better selves.

Dane’s own learning took him to places that he and none of us, neither his family nor his friends, would ever have wanted for him.  Two years ago, after moving to Boone, North Carolina, to accept the Dean of Libraries position at Appalachian State, he received a diagnosis of ALS, an incurable neurological disease.   When I learned of the diagnosis, I, along with all of his friends and colleagues, were heartbroken because of the nature of the disorder.  But we immediately learned of Dane’s great courage and spirit in his response. He wrote about the need to learn about the disease as an information literacy problem, the scattered nature of medical information about ALS, and his need to educate himself.   This determination to continue learning shone in all of his later communication.  He was also determined to support others, in whatever way possible, through ALS fundraising and education.   He no doubt found a new community through ALS patients, and a new bond with them and their families.   The shared recognition of human possibility and frailty alike is one of the key attributes of a true leader, and the need for compassion and bringing forth the best in people under the most challenging personal circumstances.  

Dane found meaning and purpose in the last part of his life through that community, through continuing friendships, and the love of his family.  He was, I believe, one of the most humane teacher/leaders in our profession, and it was because he lived the great questions of life. Across the years I knew him, we always returned to those questions in our talks.  In the spirit of words from the New Testament, “rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation,” he lived the questions across the arc of his life.

When I think of Dane, I recall the words of Rilke from his Letters to a Young Poet:

“. . . be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Dane lived the great questions of teaching, of learning, of the role of libraries, of the mission of the academy, throughout his days, and drew others into his reflections. He did not pretend to have answers when he lacked them, but he did teach me to inquire, to be curious, and to aim for better understandings, in a continued conversation with others. He also never considered himself an expert, but a teacher who helps others discover themselves. His spirit of teaching is best captured by a well-known quote about the famous art historian and part-time boys football coach Kirk Varnedoe, described by Adam Gopnik in a New Yorker article in this way:

“A guru gives us himself, and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves.”

Dane Ward’s life is a testament of faith in the spirit of collaborative leadership, searching for shared purpose in forging new roles for academic libraries in the academy. As a leader and teacher, he has truly given us ourselves, and we will always remember his example and be inspired by it.

Thank you, Dane Ward, for coming our way.

Celebration Ceremony Link

Dane Ward’s family hosted a Celebration of Life in his memory on July 18, 2020.   Friends and colleagues can view the virtual event at this link:

Sources

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.

Gopnik, Adam, “The Last of the Metrozoids,” The New Yorker, May 10, 2004.  Available at: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2004/05/10/last-of-the-metrozoids

Mintzberg, Henry. “Enough Leadership. Time for Communityship.” Henry Mintzberg Blog.  February 12, 2015. Available at: https://mintzberg.org/blog/communityship

Palmer, Parker. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco: Wiley, 2007. 

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. New York: Norton, 1963.

Selected Works by Dane Ward

Raspa, Richard, and Dane Ward, eds. The Collaborative Imperative: Librarians and Faculty Working Together in the Information Universe. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2000.

Ward, Dane, “Revisioning Information Literacy for Lifelong Meaning,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 32/4 (July 2006): 396-402.

Ward, Dane, “The Future of Information Literacy: Transforming the World.” Illinois State University/Milner Library. Faculty/Staff Publications, October 2001.   Available at:  https://ir.library.illinoisstate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1031&context=fpml

Ward, Dane, “It Take a University to Build a Library.” Illinois State University Library/Milner Library.Faculty/Staff Publications, April 21, 2015. Available at: https://ir.library.illinoisstate.edu/fpml/68/

Remote Managing in the Time of Corona

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Candice Benjes-Small, Head of Research Services, William & Mary Libraries.

When my university moved us to remote work on March 16, I immediately began thinking about how I could best support the colleagues I manage.  Most of the articles for work from home management focus on productivity and accountability, though, and I soon realized that these priorities did not match our new reality.  As Neil Webb posted on Twitter, “You are not working from home; you are at your home during a crisis trying to work.”

As a manager, what could I do to acknowledge the struggles we were all facing?  In my social media feeds, I saw many peers asking themselves the same question.  Although everyone’s situation is different, I thought it might be helpful to share some things that my team has found helpful:

1. Explicitly talking about how these are strange times. When we first moved to remote work, I think I expected it to feel like a prolonged snow day.  Many of us, including me, were caught off-guard by how emotional we felt.  That Discomfort You’re Feeling Is Grief was published just a few days after we began working from home and it helped us to discuss this weird, chaotic situation we find ourselves in.

2. Asking your direct reports. It can be tempting to make plans and develop policies and procedures on your own, but your colleagues should be part of the process of creating the new normal. What is succeeding for them?  What is challenging? What would they like to see more or less of?  What have they seen at other workplaces they think we should try?

3. Offering- but not requiring- lots of Zoom check-ins. We are a pretty social group; we often gather in the morning to chat over that first cup of caffeine, and we are always popping in and out of each other’s offices.  We began with daily Zoom huddles, then added in optional daily morning check-ins. We now cancel the huddles occasionally, but I’ve  also reinstated monthly one-on-ones so I can talk with individuals more consistently. Zoom fatigue is a thing, though, so we also communicate regularly via Teams and Slack.

4. Offering- but not requiring- team building opportunities.  I am a big fan of team building but am cognizant that some abhore “compulsory fun.”  My direct reports’ threshold for these types of activities is pretty high, but I make it very low stakes.  About once a week, we will spend some of our meeting time playing a quick game like ‘yuk or yum’ or ‘2 truths and a lie’. Once, we chose a color and all either wore that color, brought an object that color, or changed our Zoom background to that color for a meeting.  Sometimes we’ll have an informal chat in our Slack channel on a random topic, like how we take our tea or coffee.  Speaking of coffee, I also organized a virtual #randomcoffee for the library. My colleague Liz Bellamy has written about our library’s efforts to retain community.

5. Being transparent as possible with what I know about the larger organization’s plans and decision making. My university’s administration has been very communicative about its handling of the crisis, and library administrators sit on the emergency planning committee. I share the news I hear in various meetings with my team. Everyone would prefer if we had less uncertainty (When will we return to campus? How will we do so safely? Will we hold classes in person in the fall? How will the budget shortfall be addressed?) but my anxiety is lessened by knowing how the university is approaching the crisis and what it is prioritizing. I hope that my colleagues feel the same.

6. Providing flexibility in hours and days. People are working while also homeschooling, taking care of children and relatives, and coping with the onslaught of dire news related to Covid-19, the economy, and the future of higher education. It’s not the time to micromanage employees’ schedules or insist people be as available between 8-5. As long as the essential work is completed, I trust my reports to figure out the how and when- and to let me know if they need help.

7. Encouraging people to focus on their health. At the beginning, we spent a lot of time talking about self-care strategies and the importance of putting mental and physical health first. Work can be a welcome distraction or it can be a burden, sometimes in the same day. I’ve tried to emphasize that the “life” part of work/life balance needs to be everyone’s focus, and model it by talking about the Virtual Wellness classes I’ve attended, the neighborhood walking breaks I take in between meetings, and my attempts at meditation (a definite work in progress). Articles we’ve shared with each other in Slack include Coronavirus Has Upended Our World. It’s Okay To Grieve and Brene Brown’s 4 Tips for Navigating Anxiety During the Coronavirus. I also remind them of the Employee Assistance Program, which includes 4 free sessions with a therapist (hurray for telemedicine!), and that they can take vacation days as needed. We’ve also designated Fridays as meeting-free and check-in free, so people can get away from their computers.

8. Explicitly and consistently saying productivity will look different now- and my expectations are very flexible. At the beginning of the quarantine, I confessed to my manager, “I just feel like getting out of bed is an accomplishment some days.” I was ashamed because I had always been a fast, productive worker.  I was comforted by articles like You’re Not Lazy- Self-isolating is Exhausting and Why You Should Ignore All That Coronavirus-Inspired Productivity Pressure, which I shared with my team.  As a library, we’ve talked about how this is a marathon, not a sprint, and we need to be gentle with ourselves and each other. 

9. Advocating for my team. At first, this was logistical. Does everyone have the equipment they need to work from home? Our library supervisors arranged for staff to check out laptops and MiFi devices, and bring home computer monitors and office chairs. Now, it’s finding ways to make visible the work my team does every day and help my supervisors share our successes with the campus community. 

10. Taking care of myself.  I can find it difficult to take my own advice; sometimes I work through lunch, skip exercising, and read too many news stories.  In the past few weeks, I’ve reconnected with old friends, attended Zoom happy hours and trivia games, and cut myself some slack.  This is exhausting and I need to extend grace to myself as well as others.

So those are my top 10 tips for remote managing during a pandemic! What has been helpful for you and your colleagues?

Thank you to my colleagues in the Research & Instruction Team at William & Mary Libraries: Liz Bellamy, Morgan Davis, Alexandra Flores, Natasha McFarland, Katherine McKenzie, Mary Oberlies, Jessica Ramey, and Paul Showalter for helping me to develop these practices and to edit this piece.

Seven years later

Since 2008, ACRLog’s “First Year Academic Librarian (FYAL) Experience” series has annually featured 1-2 academic librarians in their first year on the job in an academic library. This new series, “Where Are They Now? Former FYALs Reflect,” features posts from past FYAL bloggers as they look back on their trajectories since their first year. This month, we welcome a post from Ian McCullough, Physical Sciences Librarian and Associate Professor of Bibliography at the University of Akron.

In 2012 I had the distinct pleasure of being a First Year Academic Librarian blogger for ACRLog. As part of this “where are they now” series, let’s talk about the years since I last blogged here.

One of the reasons I originally wanted to blog is I had absolutely no professional network as a new librarian. Librarianship was a second career and I worked in a lab while taking courses online at night. We had class meetups in Nashville, but the department was in Knoxville and things like collaboration, mentoring, and research opportunities were a step removed from campus. ACRLog got me the attention of people I still call friends. As a new and rootless academic librarian on the tenure trail, the blogging experience was incredibly helpful to me.

Since I stopped blogging in 2013, a lot of things have happened at University of Akron, many for the bad. Our enrollment has dropped by about 10,000 students total which caused predictable Survivor-style winnowing of the workforce via layoffs, not filling positions, and buyouts. There are about half the library faculty as when I arrived and a liaison system seems unrealistic given staffing levels that cannot support the number of subject librarians one would need to do the idea justice. I personally am liaison to nine departments, about 120 faculty and around 1,900 students. I remember being at a conference and someone saying they had 700 students they were liaison for and the room gasped. I was jealous.

I have had, as of now, five university presidents, three provosts, and two library deans. There were many retirements, one of which was my direct supervisor who retired at the end of 2015. I was asked if I would be interim head of the Science & Technology Library, which I agreed to and began in January 2016. A colleague who was more experienced turned down the opportunity, and I was the only other faculty in the branch at that moment. I took the job and had absolutely no reduction in my liaison librarian duties as physical sciences librarian.

I had more than five years of management experience going into the job, so the mechanical parts of management (budgeting and HR stuff) were pretty easy. But it was difficult to leave the faculty bargaining unit, my spot on Faculty Senate, and in general go over to “the other side”. I maintain that my most significant accomplishments as Interim head of the S&T Library are helping relocate the engineering tutoring program physically within the library and getting snack machines put outside the library entrance so students wouldn’t have to leave the building after hours for food. I believe students are more appreciative of the latter accomplishment. After a calm and relatively successful time in this position, another colleague left library management at University of Akron for library management at Harvard University – a career downgrade I still don’t understand. (Don’t send that email, it’s a joke.) Given the particular personal and professional dynamics of the workgroup, I was offered the opportunity to take over leadership of yet another unit. I accepted and became an assistant dean (“ass dean” of course) in December of 2017. If you are following along at home, this is lab rat to assistant dean in less than five and a half years. At the beginning of this position I had two staff, two contract professionals, and seven faculty librarians as direct reports.

When I took this new role, there was absolutely no reduction in my liaison librarian or interim department head duties. I was, quite simply, doing what had once been three jobs (actually more than three jobs, as the S&T Head had absorbed a third of a job before retirement). Also, I was on the tenure clock trying to produce an appropriate number of articles, presentations, and accomplishments in professional service to meet our promotion benchmarks. In this I was successful – I got tenure and promotion in July 2018. I would be curious to learn of other tenure track assistant deans who had the position without tenure yet. I gather it’s a very rare occurrence, but is also a sign of how much upheaval was happening at my place of work.

This is when burnout started to set in. I could do the job, or the three jobs, but I could not do the three jobs well. I was spinning plates, putting out fires, and other notable metaphors for spasmodic action. This period really sucked because working hard to be adequate is a poor trade. Department chairs had a group that met regularly and talked about common issues, not so with assistant deans. I felt my social world constrain at work, and being a manager is hard emotional labor. I learned about the fears, difficulties, illnesses, and family situations of my colleagues at a deeper level than I really wanted. Shouldering all that personal grief and pain for everyone was difficult, more so because the universe of people I could talk to about it was so, so small.

I also started having clashes with coworkers – sometimes about performance issues, sometimes about claims unbacked by facts, sometimes about the direction of the university and the library. It was honestly a miserable experience that I stayed in too long because of money (pro-tip – you make extra money in administration) and not wanting to abandon my dean who also has a huge workload. The final breaking point was an interim president seemingly hell-bent on making the worst decision possible, implemented and communicated in the worst and most aggressive way possible. I mulled it over for many months and asked to step down at the end of July 2019. When I told my wife about the decision, in part to apologize because we would be living leaner, she said, “Oh thank God.” The person who knows me best had been wishing for me to get out of the situation for months and was overjoyed.

The classic union song, “Which Side Are You On” was written by Florence Reece in 1931. My dad was an autoworker and union activist and I remember seeing Pete Seeger sing this evergreen tune live in Detroit. To say that unionism is part of my life is an understatement – it’s a bedrock element of my identity. Increasingly, while a dean, I felt that I was on the wrong side. The university response to economic crisis was, to me, authoritarian and inexplicable, explanations didn’t make sense and discussion was not welcome. The herky-jerky management led to a lot of wasted effort around the university as plans had to be discarded almost as fast as you could attempt implementation. If you do go into academic leadership, you are carrying water for the upper leadership and their decisions – you don’t get to hide when you disagree and leaving the position is the most honest thing you can do if you don’t like what’s happening. I think the only thing I really miss is the occasional (and very flattering) head hunter emails I used to get. Right after I left management, we hired a new university president who is, so far, “pinch yourself, am I dreaming” good. His wizardly move? Running the university like other institutions.

Since leaving management I have become union liaison for University Libraries and was then elected to the Akron-AAUP executive committee. Guess I just like being in the middle of things. I’ve been able to refocus on my librarianship, which I only had three years to figure out before taking on managerial duties, and reconnect with faculty friends. I’ve been able to refocus on previous projects I had to drop before – like learning more about data. I am happier and get more enjoyment from my job. Ultimately, my stint as an assistant dean didn’t suit my values and that internal conflict started leaking out in my disposition. I don’t think the state of Ohio or the university is well-served by eliminating traditional majors and steering students into class delivery modes, and possibly majors, they don’t really prefer. Right now there’s a risk of universities outsourcing their teaching to a cyborg nightmare of Pearson, Cengage, and Blackboard due to financial desperation. That is a future worth fighting against.

Which side are you on?