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.

Shared Governance and Library Faculty: Jazzing Academic Community

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Sue Wiegand, Periodicals Librarian at St. Mary’s College in Notre Dame, IN.

As Commencement season draws near, I thought again of lines from Dana Goia’s poem: “Praise to the rituals that celebrate change…Because it is not the rituals we honor/but our trust in what they signify…” It’s been two years now since I served as Chair of our Faculty Assembly, the first librarian here to be elected to this role. Commencement is a ritual celebrating academic community — when we come together to celebrate the culmination of the academic year and our successful graduates. I think the ideal of academic community — all of our voices blending to make plans and create respectful discourse for mission-based decision-making — is what “shared governance” is all about. It’s a kind of jazz — a participatory blend of traditions, always changing — as well as a shared trust.

How many librarians participate in jazzing shared governance at their institutions, given the disparity of appointment categories at academic libraries? My “historic” 2009 election to be Chair-Elect of our shared governance body, Faculty Assembly, made me think more about this. I may be incredibly idealistic to be thinking in terms of academic community and shared governance at all, let alone as a librarian, a profession still subject to debate on its status, still sometimes considered a woman’s profession (well-behaved librarians don’t make history, right?). Higher education itself is on the very precipice of change in many of its hallowed traditions, and can ill afford more confusion. Could shared governance survive a librarian leading Faculty Assembly? Well, I had a lot to learn, but yes, we survived, with a lot of support from my faculty friends. Jazz is improvisational, after all. It absorbs and transforms tradition, and gives a participatory voice to all.

Are librarians faculty? Yes — in some academic institutions. Are we tenure-track? Yes — again, in some places. Can we earn promotion? You guessed it — maybe, maybe not, depends on where you are.

According to the Joint Committee on College Library Problems (including ACRL, AACU: American Association of American Colleges and Universities, and AAUP: American Association of University Professors), in a report issued in 2012: “Faculty status entails for librarians the same rights and responsibilities as for other members of the faculty. They should have corresponding entitlement to rank, promotion, tenure, compensation, leaves, and research funds.” I like the dual reference to rights and responsibilities. ALA and ACRL have also weighed in with their guidelines, the Standard for the Appointment, Promotion, and Tenure of Academic Librarians. The Chronicle of Higher Education has covered the question periodically; two examples are from 2008 and 2013. The comments sections often show a nice variety of perspectives on the subject, and incidentally on the academic tenure system in general.

Obviously, mileage varies a great deal on this one, and each tradition has its adherents. For me, having faculty status and earning tenure was a valuable experience that led to increased collaboration with classroom faculty, in both collection development of library resources and library research instruction. These include my favorite topic of conversation, scholarly communication — how it informs collection development as well as guiding research instruction for library resources — leading to informative discussions. The bittersweet part for me is that librarians here earn tenure, but are not eligible for promotion. It seems as though every place has its own ethos — its own distinctive style — about what seems to work best for them. Tradition rules.

Should librarians participate in shared governance? In my experience, the answer to that is an unequivocal yes — the experience is so rich, and the opportunities for interaction with classroom faculty so rewarding, I think librarians should let their voices be heard in their academic communities whenever possible. Shared governance and faculty status lets the librarian voice be heard, lest students enter the library to do research and find “there’s nothing there to support it,” says Deanna Wood, quoted on Inside Higher Ed. Yet, opportunities to contribute to shared governance and partnering with faculty vary as much as the opinions about librarian status. Should librarians stay in their place, the library? Which committees should they be eligible for? Does faculty status matter? How might the faculty status of librarians and their contributions to scholarship and shared governance enhance the educational mission and improve student learning in the academy? More research is definitely needed.

Still, for me, sharing the anxiety of figuring out what to do to be a full academic citizen involved getting to know my fellow faculty travelers on that uneasy road in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. After a fair amount of committee service over the years, when the question arose of putting my name on the slate for Chair-Elect, the first of my many protests was that I didn’t want to be Chair of Faculty Assembly — I was told that that was the first criteria! A Philosophy professor answered another protest of mine — that no one would vote for me — making me see that it wasn’t about me, but about being willing to make the commitment that underlies the “academic community/citizenship” rhetoric (I’m not a philosopher, so I’m paraphrasing here — what he actually said started with “So what?”). So I put my ego on the line, and was surprised and pleased to find that even a librarian could be elected to lead the Faculty Assembly at my academic institution.

Transformation — can the rituals that celebrate change and tradition encompass jazz harmony in shared governance and even librarian participation? Does our trust in the significance of academic citizenship invite us to think more deeply about the role and opportunities of librarians in the academy? I’m thinking about this as we prepare for Commencement here. Do we, to quote Goia again, “…dream of a future so fitting and so just/that our desire will bring it into being?” How do librarian status, service, and shared governance play out at in your academic community?