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.

Grappling with My Faculty Identity

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Melissa DeWitt, Research and Instruction Librarian at the Regis University, Denver, Colorado.

When I began applying for academic library jobs late last year, I was introduced to the wild world of academic personnel classification. First, I figured out what tenure was and what that might mean for my own career. I then discovered that there are tenure track librarians on 9 or 12 month contracts, faculty librarians who are not tenure track, librarians who are not classified as faculty, and everything in between. It was complicated, and I didn’t quite understand what my status might mean in the greater context of the university or college I would work for. In fact, I’m still grappling with my identity on campus, what it means in relation to my colleagues, and how rank influences interactions.

In April, I became a faculty research and instruction librarian at a small university. We do not have tenure, but we are on a rank and promotion track, which means that I have service requirements to students and the university and requirements to contribute to the profession through presentations, publications, and research so that I can be promoted. There are a mix of tenure track and non tenure track positions at my university, and the designation depends heavily on the college. Complicating these designations are the histories behind them. There used to be a faculty union for some of the colleges, but that union dissolved. The library used to have tenure, and some librarians still have tenure, but new librarians do not. I learn new information every day about my university’s history, college structures and classifications, and I’m still confused. It’s like a jumbled bowl of faculty spaghetti. I don’t know if I’ll ever figure it out, and this is just one college campus.

I’m not usually one to care about titles, what I’m called, or what my status is; however, I’m discovering that other people really do care and that has implications for how they interact with me. What I’ve started to care about is how people perceive what I do. It seems that a large part of my job is fixing people’s perceptions of my job and advocating for it in the first place. Veronica Arellano Douglas recently posted an article that helped me reflect on some of my feelings. A lot of times, I think I’m seen as a resource or as something that can be used by others instead of as an educator and expert in my own field of study. There was a conversation on Twitter recently about this idea that librarians are seen as helpers rather than colleagues. This comes across in emails where colleagues ask me to present an impossible list of things in a 20 minute period or introduce me as a magician who can pull resources out of thin air instead of a colleague that studied and practiced and is an expert in her field. Or, there are comments of surprise that the librarians attenda so many events (it’s literally our job and we want to support our students and colleagues), though attending campus events can sometimes be a struggle when we’re left off the invite list.

Which brings me back to labels. What does it mean if I’m classified as faculty but am not always treated as one? What I think it means is that I have to do a bit more work to build relationships and collaborate with other faculty members. When a colleague remarked that it’s nice the library is invited to faculty events, we had a conversation about how librarians are invited because we’re also faculty. If I receive an instruction request that includes too many topics or doesn’t give me enough time to teach, I can push back and inform them how I approach instruction. I’m trying to find my boundaries and tell colleagues “this is what I do” instead of “is it okay if I do this?” because I don’t need permission to do my job. I’m having conversations about my role in educating students, pointing out opportunities for collaboration, and valuing my own skills and expertise. Many of my colleagues are really receptive and great to work with. I’ve had success teaching classes that go beyond the one-shot model because colleagues were open to the idea that we could have more than one class. I’ve also helped colleagues create research projects for students and brainstorm ideas to teach students information literacy topics. Those moments feel like a win.

I’d also like to point out that, as a new librarian, this is all very terrifying. For one, I feel like an imposter half the time, and I’m also a young female that’s mistaken for a student more often than not so talking to seasoned academics is intimidating. However, I’d like to believe, even if I weren’t classified as faculty, that I’d still be having these conversations and building these relationships with my colleagues. I have to remind myself that I know a lot of stuff and I can make a substantial contribution to my university, our students, and the library profession. For now, I’m going to keep learning all that I can about my university, continue building meaningful relationships with my colleagues, and perhaps one day, figure this academia thing out.

How are librarians classified on your campus? What do your relationships with faculty look like?

Agency, Not Use

The body is an agent, not a resource

-Donna Haraway

This quote appeared on a slide during Carrie Wade’s presentation at the Gender and Sexuality in Information Studies Colloquium last month. Her talk, Making the Librarian Body, was a part of a four woman panel, (Re)productive Labor and Information Work, which also included the excellent work of Gina Schlesselman-Tarango, Alanna Aiko Moore, and Chiméne Tucker.

I’ve not read Donna Haraway’s work, but A Cyborg Manifesto and Situated Knowledges are on my TBR list now (thanks, Carrie!). Her words resonated with me, as did all of Carrie’s presentation to be honest, as I thought about the language that we use to describe ourselves as library workers in academia. I’m working on a research project with Joanna Gadsby and Siân Evans on the pedagogical power dynamics between librarians and faculty, and there is so much common language among interview participants. Statements along the lines of…

I just wish faculty would use me in their classes.

I want students and faculty to see me as a resource.

Why won’t they take advantage of me and what I have to offer?

I’ve used words like these before. I’m sure we all have. Until recently I hadn’t stopped to think about the implications of these statements being used in a feminized profession, the gendered roots of those sentiments, and how they imply a problematic use of the body. I am not a resource; I am a person. I am a woman with agency, skill, experience, and talent. I do my work for myself and for my community. I am a teacher who facilitates learning. I do not go to work to be used. I go to work to educate, empower, and learn.

There’s a tendency towards eye-rolling whenever I get too far into the semantic weeds of our professional discourse, but I keep poking at our word choices because I think they matter. They reveal attitudes and reflect internalized values. They show us how we see ourselves and how we present ourselves to be seen by others. What would an empowered discourse of library work look and sound like? Could we replace the above statements with things like…

I am an educator.

I see myself as a facilitator of knowledge, learning and empowerment.

I do my job well for myself and my community.

I value my own expertise and the expertise of students, faculty, and staff.

Our bodies are our own and are a part of our being. We act in our bodies rather than provide them to others as a resource. As library workers we have an opportunity to challenge and change language that reduces our work to only being valuable if taken advantage of by others. Our work is integral, vital, and important. It works in tandem with and reproduces the academy in which we exist. We are agents, not resources.

On Being a New Liaison

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Abby Flanigan, Research Librarian for Music and Performing Arts at the University of Virginia.

Last January, I joined the University of Virginia Libraries as the Research Librarian for Music and Performing Arts. This is my first professional position after graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with my MSLS in May 2016, and I’ve found myself in an entirely new (to me) area of the profession: liaison librarianship. In graduate school, I heeded the advice I’ve seen echoed in every corner of the Internet about LIS programs, which is to get as much work experience as you can, and cobbled together a variety of internships in preservation, digital scholarship, cataloging, and reference services. Despite this list of jobs on my resume, I remember feeling instantly panicked when the first question in my interview was to describe my past experience as a liaison, because, of course, I didn’t have any. Luckily, I managed to collect myself and describe some other capacities in which I had worked with faculty, and ended up getting the job. Now that I’ve been here a few months I wanted to share some of my observations about what makes being a liaison both challenging and exciting as a new professional.

No two liaison positions look exactly alike. Because each academic department has different needs and histories with the library, each liaison I know works differently with their departments. Some are busy all semester teaching classes or doing research consultations with undergraduate students, while other collaborate on grants or do collection development for foreign-language sources. Similarly, liaisons are organized differently at many libraries, so it can also be difficult to directly compare positions or responsibilities with colleagues at peer institutions. At UVA, subject liaison responsibilities are decoupled from collection development, general reference, and first-year teaching responsibilities, so my day-to-day work looks very different than liaisons at other institutions whose responsibilities are split across a variety of areas. This was challenging when I first started because, not knowing exactly what I was supposed to do, my instinct was to model my strategy for engagement on my colleagues’, but it didn’t always transfer or apply.

This brings me to my second point: it takes time to be an effective liaison. Getting comfortable in any new position takes a while, of course, but the liaison model seems to benefit in particular from institutional knowledge. Part of the job is knowing faculty and students in the departments, including their research interests, information needs, and communication habits. Gathering this information can take many meetings, emails, and chance encounters; much of it is tacit knowledge that is built up over time and not necessarily passed on from a predecessor. Many liaisons also rely on the “ripple effect.” By working with a faculty member one semester, they may have more interest the next semester based on word-of-mouth between colleagues. This means that as a new liaison, I am working on laying groundwork for richer collaborations in the future. Building up relationships and projects is a longer process than I was expecting, but I think that’s a good thing because it means this is a job that I can grow into.

Finally, as I build these relationships, I’ve learned just how important communication skills are to this position. Being a liaison requires reaching out cold to people in your departments, and, more importantly, once you are meeting with them, articulating your role and value. It can be intimidating to present yourself as a resource to experts in their respective fields, especially without an advanced degree in the discipline for which you are a liaison, but over the past nine months, I’ve gotten more comfortable and confident doing so. In the beginning, I struggled to define exactly how I could help, and erred on the side of suggesting every possible way in which they might use the library’s resources. Now I try to reach out when I have a specific idea to suggest or information to communicate. After a few successful collaborations, I also have a clearer idea myself about what I bring to the table, so I’m able to more confidently offer my services.

“Liaison” is term which means very little to anyone outside of libraries (I know this from the blank stares I get from friends and family when I try to explain what I do) but can be a source of anxiety for people in them as we rethink and reorganize subject expertise in academic libraries. Being a good liaison or having a strong liaison program seems to be an ever-moving target. Stepping into a role of this nebulous nature as a new librarian can be stressful — it’s hard to know whether you’re doing it right! — but I’m learning to be more comfortable with figuring it out as I go.

Invisibility and Ubiquitousness: How Digital Libraries Should Tell Their Story.

Under pressure from the presumed loss of influence, the contemporary academic library is often in the business of staking claims on campus. We see new technology or innovations as opportunities to ingrained ourselves deeper in the future of the institution. Partially, this is a reaction to the change in the world and a move away from books but also a survival strategy in declining budgets. As the Ithaka survey on “Library Leadership for the Digital Age” last spring told us “All libraries are now digital….  Users think libraries are—or at least should be—digital.” As someone who left the print world for the digital, I can say within my own experience this is true.

What I am finding, though, as a new digital librarian, that our work is still ignorable and invisible. The reasons for this might seem contradictory. One, the digital library is not traditional library work and is seen as outside of the realm of the library’s scope. On the other hand, the internet and technology is ubiquitous which makes the behind the scenes work expected and ingrained with very little work assumed, with high levels of integration and low levels of recognition. Ubiquity, while central to our digital lives, is, perhaps, the most difficult thing to overcome. When user expect things to be there, or that the digital world should just exist around them, it is difficult to ask for their patience or their work in helping build the digital world in the library.

Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man
Abbot and Costello Meet the Invisible Man Wikimedia Commons

And yet we need their input and their work to makes ours possible.

This tug and pull, the pressure to remain a stable part of the institution’s traditional academic world, maintaining print collections and special collections materials and being part of the on campus classroom, while being forced to compete with the google and the always on internet is difficult for our libraries to prosper. The ironic thing being: the better we do at our jobs the less visible we are and vice versa.

Take it from this excellent Futurama episode “Godfellas” 2002 where “the God Entity” explains the realities of omnipresence to Bender:

While the trend towards digital helps libraries stay relevant in this age the difficulty remains in how this information is presented. The same Ithaka report from above continues that, “Libraries are also challenged in a dramatic way to deal with the demands of our users as technology allows them to gain access to information directly rather than without any intermediation from us.”

Unfortunately, intermediation is the only way we are visible to some, and often that comes at the expense of our users. Users want the system to be there without having to feel like they are using the system. Because of google, our faculty and student expect that our services to be available always with little thought to the infrastructures that make it possible. Only when the curtain is pulled back is the process unveiled, usually with disastrous consequences.

If the institutional repository, the center of my work, works as it should, where materials are preserved and promoted with little to zero effort given on the part of individual faculty there is no one to complain or question its existence. This requires the input and the collaboration with faculty across the university. Proving that their buy in is difficult when some search engines make visibility so seamless. As a result, I often tout the visibility of the Institutional Repository in search engines like Google Scholar to show that it is “working.” The same thing exists on the technical end, if our online catalog bridges the gap seamlessly between physical location and online direction, then no one chats to complain they can’t find a book. That book, found via the Online Catalog, is retrieved with very little noise aside from the ding of the barcode scanner.

Only when things are visibly broken does our work become a point of either discussion or contention.But how then do we talk about our roles in the larger campus community if our work is largely behind the scenes?

In someways, we are forced to tell our stories to our Deans and Provosts about what we do for the library and the institution. This can be done in a number of ways, and best practices have yet to be fully established. The Digital Library Federation’s Assessment Interest group is focused on how we can assess the work that we do.

We can count the amount of money that we bring in during digitization projects or we can measure the encounters and shares as part of larger schemas of impact for promotion and tenure purposes. There are  great guides to Google Analytics and Altmetrics through the DLF assessment, but this is reactive instead of proactive. And requires us to justify our existence through outside tools and after things have been posted, not to prove why the initial work is necessary.

Just as the traditional library has been praised for its collections used to foster learning and scholarship, the digital library must be used to show its importance to the larger campus. This goes beyond showing the web analytical impact, but by showing the use of the materials by people on campus. As I wrote in my piece on the library as more than a mausoleum, it is the use of materials that will save us from irrelevancy and invisibility.

There is no simple solution, but a first step is often telling our own story apart from the rest of the library. Perhaps we should be making the case in a way that shows the seams that hold the digital library together with the campus is the way to go. We should use opportunities where ubiquity gives our campus partners feelings that we’ll always be there to tell our story and look for partners. Our seams show not where we are stretched to the limit or where we lack; but where our institutional and collaborative partners can build a larger and better digital community.

We will never have ALL the answers to what our community will need tomorrow  In our stories we should acknowledge both our failures and our successes and what we need to prosper in addition to build on our successes. We should show the people behind the curtain that make the easy to use interfaces and search functions work well, and increase the stake that our users play in decisions.  

Digital collections are unique in our library world. Outreach, like social media or regular media, can put objects at the forefront of the infrastructure and makes it all the more likely for our users to think of us when they think about the library, but it is the structure itself that often needs visibility and part of the narrative. Without this narrative, without selling the good that we do behind the scenes, our value is lost in a sea of other sources of information. The resources do not just appear because there is work done to make them available. It is time that we start making that visible.