And, You Thought It Was Just Us

It’s become pretty commonplace to discuss the pace of change in libraries and in the academic library profession – how quick it’s coming, how significant it is for us to manage effectively, etc. – so it’s nice (I suppose) to see that it’s not just us.

This morning’s IHE has an article on a new book on the faculty profession that “argues that we are experiencing ‘a revolution’ in academic life that will be equal in its lasting significance to such events as the importation of the research university model to the United States in the late 19th century or the “massification” of higher education after World War II.” Among the changes to the profession that the authors note are the recruitment and retention patterns, which, if memory serves, are among our “Top Issues,” as well.

For those who want the whole story, you can find The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers at your favorite vendor.

Talk of change has been popping up all over for 10 (20?) years in libraryland, but what this book should help us all to see is that talking about “change” is not simply a management fad, nor is it simply about innovations in technology. The library and the university are among the oldest and most stable social institutions the world has ever seen, and, for both, “the pace of change has accelerated dramatically.”

The question for all of us is how well we deal with it.

Reference Librarian At Center Of Controversy Over Common Reading Experience

You would think that including the head of your reference department on the commitee that’s selecting the common book for a freshman reading experience would promote better relations between the academic library and faculty. But that’s hardly been the case at Ohio State University at Mansfield where Scott Savage, the head reference librarian, has become the subject of harassment charges filed by several faculty members. The controversy at Mansfield is detailed in a report that appears in today’s Inside Higher Ed.

How did Savage land himself into hot water with the faculty? It seems that after suggesting the book Freakonomics, as a non-ideological and less controversial book, faculty rejected the suggestion because it lacked the sort of controversy that would engage students in debate. Savage then suggested four additional books all of which were decidedly conservative (e.g., from authors such as Rick Santorum and David Horowitz), including one title that clearly contained anti-gay content. One needs only to read some of the e-mail that went back and forth between the committee members (see the document from the Alliance Defense Fund – a conservative organization – which has threatened to sue OSU if they don’t drop the harassment charges against Savage) to get a sense of the enmity this has caused between the conflicted parties.

I don’t know if the librarians at Mansfield have faculty status along with full tenure rights, but we often debate if academic librarians actually need the protection of tenure. This may be a case for us to watch closely. Shouldn’t having faculty status give librarians the right to express unpopular views or to recommend controversial or conservative books for community reading programs without fear of retaliation. Or must we be deferential to teaching faculty for fear that we will offend them and cause them to, as one of the faculty at Mansfield indicated he would, stop using the services of the library and encourage students to do the same. Savage did not respond to requests to be interviewed so we really don’t know what he was thinking. Having faculty status and the rights guaranteed by academic freedom and tenure does not give carte blanche to act in ways that are sure to be perceived as unreasonable and insensitive to one’s colleagues. Did Savage not see the firestorm he’d be creating with his suggestions? Did he intend to provoke his faculty colleagues because they rejected his initial suggestion as lacking controversy? I suppose we’ll need to watch this story as it develops to better understand the case against Savage. But I suspect that there will be some important lessons to be learned for academic librarians, both those with and without the rights afforded by tenure.

“There is more to life than work” – Gen X Faculty and U

This morning’s IHE brings us a report on emergent characteristics of Gen X professors, which brings some of the familiar characterizations of my generation into the study of faculty life. It turns out, for example, that we value transparency in the tenure and promotion process and the teaching component of academic life. Radical ideas!

As I read this report, I had two thoughts:

  1. this study seems somewhat “behind” the discussions we’ve had in the library community about Gen X professionals – likely because it takes longer to become credentialed and employed in an academic department than it does to do so in the library world; and,
  2. the fact that this study seems to bring key elements of the characterization of Gen X students into that of Gen X faculty members reinforces the importance of how we relate to the current generation of undergraduate students.

That is, if many of the characterizations that we (and others) have made about Millennial students and their relationship to the library (and, more broadly, to their information environment) carry forward in the same way, then we had really better focus our efforts on thoughtful transformation if we don’t want to read a report in 5-8 years telling us how Gen Y professors do or do not value the library.

Don’t use the Summers model of building faculty relationships

I once asked a librarian who was retiring his secret to getting along with teaching faculty. “Never criticize them, never tell them they’re wrong, do all you can to get them everything they want.” I nodded, but I remember being amused by what seemed to be an overly deferential approach. Of course there is a certain wisdom here, apparently not followed by the recently resigned president of Harvard Lawrence Summers.

Camille Paglia is no bootlicker, but even she notes Summers’ failures in this regard in a recent scorching editorial for the New York Times:

As president, he had a duty to research the tribal creeds and customs of those he wished to convert. Foolishly thinking plain speech and common sense would suffice, he flunked Academic Anthropology 101.

As academic librarians, we don’t need to be cowering apple polishers to have productive relationships with our faculty colleagues, but like Larry Summers, if you seek to form collaborative partnerships with them, you aren’t going to get far with conflict and confrontation.