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.

Weaving It Together

Image from "Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving" by E.A. Posselt is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.
Image from “Technology of textile design. Being a practical treatise on the construction and application of weaves for all textile fabrics, with minute reference to the latest inventions for weaving” by E.A. Posselt (1899) is in the public domain. Courtesy of the Internet Archive via Flickr.

I recently finished writing my narrative statement for my second year tenure review file. It felt like pulling teeth. The statement required me to weave together the aspects of my work as well as my research and service to tell a meaningful personal story about my professional purpose and goals. The other sections of the file–the description of accomplishments, presentations and publications, committee work, etc.–were a piece of cake by comparison. I’m not sure why the statement felt quite so difficult, but, boy, did it ever.

All my teeth-gnashing about my narrative statement made me think about a program I developed with colleagues this semester, a series of panel discussions that we called “From Concept to Creation: Uncovering the Making of Scholarly and Creative Accomplishments.” We developed this program in order to celebrate the work of our faculty and staff. Even more importantly, though, the idea for this series grew out of a desire to share stories within our campus community about how we engage in research and creative work. We wanted to host conversations about process, not just product. In sharing a behind-the-scenes look at their work, we were hoping panelists would reveal their steps and stages, but also the information literacy and digital literacy skills, habits, and attitudes that were important to each project. I was excited about the potential of this panel series because I think uncovering process is not just interesting, but empowering. And by increasing the transparency of their component parts, we hoped these kinds of research experiences might feel more approachable to our students.

In conversations with panelists as we prepared for the series, we offered guiding questions they might consider as they prepared their remarks like the following: How did you take your first steps?, How did you ask questions?, How did you identify a path for your research?, How did you engage with other scholars’ work on the topic to develop your own?, How did your work change course during the process?, What attitudes were important to your process?, What skills and tools were key to your process?, How did you gather/organize/analyze data?, How did you draw conclusions?, and What did you learn along the way?.

I had imagined panelists would likely select a particular publication or project and discuss some aspects of its development. Instead, most chose to talk about their undergraduate experiences and their entry into graduate work or their field. Panelists described choices they made, challenges they encountered, and how their paths changed over time. Embedded in each of their stories, too, were practices and perspectives related to information literacy that seemed to me to have been crucial to their process.

What strikes me most now, though, is how each panelist interpreted the program theme and the guiding questions and how they chose to tell the story of their work. When my collaborator and I asked our colleagues to talk about their research processes, I didn’t give much thought to how personal their stories might be. As I reflect on the difficulty I felt in drafting my narrative statement, I’m thinking about the balance I, too, was trying to strike. I’m thinking now about how we weave together process and purpose, personal and professional to help focus and understand our work.

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?

Taming Tenure as a Newbrarian

Please welcome our new First Year Academic Librarian Experience blogger Dylan Burns, Digital Scholarship Librarian at Utah State University.

This month I’ll end my first “year” at Utah State University, only about 3 months in real human time. That is when my tenure calendar, which trudged on before I was a glint in the eye of my search committee, ends the first year. Given the short amount of time I’ve been in Logan I believe I’ve done well in my position as Digital Scholarship Librarian, but the tenure dossier and meeting I schedule in few weeks still makes me think about the tenure process and what it means for librarians.

How am I approaching tenure?

A common refrain amongst faculty librarians is the “failed academic” route to our success. Many of us dreamed of being on campus albeit as research or teaching faculty rather than where we landed in the library. This doesn’t mean that the library wasn’t ultimately the spot in academia that fit my interests and goals the best; In fact, I will say that I should have been shooting for librarianship for a longer time that I actually was. We all hear stories from kids in library school (I can say that now right? Since I’m library #adulting?) where they knew from a young age that librarianship was their be-all end-all, but I wasn’t one of them.

What this means is that in my prior grad school life, I had a completely different set of research interests and projects which may or may not fit in my life as a librarian (depending on how much you squint). In my previous program I presented and published on gendered bananas in advertising and American diplomacy as well as the end of the world in country music. While the end products of my research, strange discussions of cultural politics of bananas aside, fit well in many humanities departments across the country, these aren’t the research projects that librarians need to make themselves better and improve the larger discipline.

What I do think these prior flights of fancy in scholarship give me is a larger context for the work I ultimately am doing as an academic librarian. In my meetings with faculty I can share these experiences with them and draw from my own previous life as a researcher to better design a digital scholarship unit at Utah State which confronts problems and assuages fears.

In a larger context though, I find that academic librarianship allows us to see the larger picture of both the University but the entire scholarly world. Scholars on campus are brilliantly narrow in their pursuits, a necessity of the current state of academia. Librarians, on the other hand, are interdisciplinary to their core.

This leads to a potential pitfall that all of us face. With the new brand of freedom granted by not having to take classes or read assigned texts I’m left with the burden of this freedom. I guide my own path, with the guidance of experienced librarians and my committee. I chose what to read and what skills to learn. This is a great freedom but also a deep frustration: What I am going to do now? In a lot of ways we are experts in gaining expertise. We guide researchers to their own information needs and goals. How do we do this for ourselves?

With my short year concluding I felt a lot of pressure to hit the ground running. I think that is a burden that all first year librarians feel. We see colleagues doing great work and we judge ourselves against what they’ve been able to do in years rather than weeks. Remembering that we’re new and these connections and projects take time to develop is key to early success. Sometimes we come to our jobs with projects in mind, I have some on the backburner, but when confronted with new environments and new colleagues it is imperative that we jettison those projects if new ones come along. I have taken every single opportunity to work with my new friends and colleagues on projects essential to the future of our library.

What I idealized as the Baudelairian scholar or poet in the tower who worked on scholarship as a singular and lonely force is ultimately the wrong approach. Librarianship is one where we can all work on projects together to further the field. Being open to collaborations and being interested in forming these connections has been one of the most important things I’ve learned thus far.

Furthermore, after decades of school, I think I tend to view most of interactions as competitions. Competitions for grads or grants or for articles or conferences or graduate assistantships and jobs. It is easy to carry this competitive edge into the job and tenure does not discourage that kind of thinking. But I remind myself every day that I am in competition only with myself and any opportunity to cooperate and collaborate carries everyone forward together.

In some ways tenure in library circles mirror current debates about accreditation for library schools, in that these are larger discussions over the professionalization of our occupation. How do we as academic librarians view our status at the university? There are some librarians who believe that we are second class citizens at the university, and I think this, unfortunately, might be more reality than fiction at some schools. What tenure and faculty status allows is a gravitas to our work and our status at the university.

As a first year faculty member, I have been attending workshops and classes with new teaching faculty, and I must pause and take heart that while I’m not a doctor I have the same role in the larger university machine. This is a hard thing for faculty librarians, including myself, to fully cure. But there are opportunities to find common minds in these interactions and I am thankful that faculty status allows me this kind of in with new professors. I research and they research. I teach and they teach. Even in my short time at Utah State some of my most rewarding experiences have been with working with faculty members as equals in the university’s mission.

A Tip of the Hat to Tenure: Realizations in my First Year

Recently, I’m discovering more and more that there are certain advantages to being tenure-track, and this affects my professional identity in multiple ways. It is causing me to take on responsibilities that I wouldn’t normally volunteer for, and allowing me to do research that is challenging and significant. I’m realizing that my decision to apply for a tenure-track position was really a great decision for me personally.

One thing I’ll note before diving in is that I realize tenure is not for everybody, and non-tenure-track positions have their own advantages. For more on the advantages and disadvantages of being tenure-track, read Meredith Farkas’s blog post on the topic. I just hope that this particular post will prompt others to consider how their roles and responsibilities are unique and exciting, whether or not they are tenure-track. I also hope that this might add something to LIS students’ and early or mid-career librarians’ discussions and decision-making processes when it comes to applying for tenure-track jobs or switching from a non-tenure-track position to a tenure-track position. There is such a vast range of opportunities and types of positions in librarianship, and tenure is one factor that one must seriously consider when choosing what types of academic positions for which to apply. I realize not everyone may share my perspective.

So, to begin, there’s that adage that if you’re tenure-track, you say yes to everything. Now some might perceive this to be a disadvantage of being tenure-track, as you can get roped into things you wouldn’t otherwise do or might not like. However, I see it as a positive thing, because I am forced to do work outside of my comfort zone – work that my supervisors and other more senior librarians believe might benefit me and help me grow as a professional, work that also is suited to my specific liaison role and my unique skill sets and areas of interest and expertise. For example, I recently began the planning process for a couple political events for the fall. Along with a Political Science faculty member, I’m going to be co-moderating a student panel in the fall called “Your Vote, Your Voice” on what (and who) is on the ballot in Nevada, as well as how the students themselves are involved in the political process. The context for this event is that UNLV will be the site of the final presidential debate, which will be a monumental event for the campus, bringing in millions of dollars of free advertising and putting us in the national spotlight. This student panel will be a campus Debate event, attracting the attention of national media.

I will also be the representative librarian co-moderating a presidential election event – an expert panel gathered by Brookings Mountain West, a partnership between UNLV and the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. The event, “Why Las Vegas Matters in National Elections,” will reflect our metro region’s significance in a swing state. Las Vegas is the largest metropolitan area in Nevada, and is ranked 29th in the U.S. Issues important to Las Vegas are relevant to other large, diverse metros in the region and the nation. The 2 million people in the Las Vegas metro area includes a diverse population, and UNLV is the second most diverse public university in the nation. Panelists will address local and national issues important to Las Vegas, with consideration of their national implications.

How did my involvement in these events come to be? Well, essentially I got roped into it. My direct supervisor had the idea that the Libraries should be involved in some political events for the fall, which aligns with our mission of empowering students and other campus community members, encouraging them to vote and providing access to knowledge they need in order to be educated voters. As political science liaison, naturally I should be involved. So I went to an expert on campaigns and elections in the Political Science department on campus and got some ideas from him, then ran with them. One outcome of this is that it has allowed me the opportunity to collaborate with faculty in one of my departments, as well faculty from Brookings Mountain West on campus and experts from the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Normally, I would probably never volunteer for such events. I’m not really political – at least when it comes to the electoral process – and I’m really intimidated by the body of knowledge of experts in this area. My justification and rationale for my disinterestedness in politics was based on my belief that electoral politics is a poor substitute for direct democracy, which interests me more, in addition to political theory. However, now I’m developing an interest in practical politics and seeing more intersections between political theory and practical politics. I have a Twitter feed of political scientists and political news sources that I’m keeping up with. I’m reading the books and articles by the experts who will be on the expert panel. I’m showing an interest, because I have to, and because now I live in a swing state which makes the process a lot more interesting, too. What I’m learning is proving to be quite fascinating, and it is stuff that I wouldn’t have otherwise cared too much to learn about. And this is all because of tenure.

There are other things I couldn’t say no to, that I’m now very passionate and excited about. For instance, I’m curating an exhibit for the Libraries on student activism on campus, especially through the media – specifically the Rebel Yell, the campus newspaper (which is incidentally undergoing a name change presently – a student decision). For this exhibit, I’m doing extensive research through which a very interesting narrative about UNLV students is emerging. I’m getting to exercise my creativity and innovativeness in giving voice to this narrative. I’m learning a lot about current students and am making connections with current and former students, senior faculty on campus, and community members to acquire memorabilia and learn about student experiences. Normally I wouldn’t seek out such opportunities. I’m not an archivist. I’ve never done anything like this before; I’ve never even done research with archives or special collections. This particular project was initially intimidating to me, and I knew it would be extremely time consuming. I might not have said yes quite so immediately and eagerly had I not felt a sense of obligation because of tenure. Yet this is a real opportunity – to do research for the first time in special collections and archives, contributing to my professional growth; to have my own research featured in an exhibit; and to highlight the amazing work of student activists here, both current and historical – All because of tenure.

Then, of course, there’s the research requirement for tenure. This means I’m supported to do research that challenges me and makes me learn, as a scholar and a librarian. I definitely wouldn’t do research if there wasn’t this kind of support for it – I’m too much in favor of work-life balance to even do much of any reading when I’m not working, so I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be motivated to do research if this 20 percent of my time on the job wasn’t devoted to it. And I’m so excited about these opportunities. My exhibit will count as a creative activity in my tenure case. I’m also collaborating with a Sociology faculty member long-term doing research on teaching, providing library support, and assessing student learning in a course with a heavy critical service learning component. The students’ library research for this course is really impactful. They are using library sources to support advocacy work and things like providing trainings and annotated bibliographies for refugee women representing themselves in their own asylum cases. The students are all using different types of library resources and legal resources for this work. They are also learning first-hand about information privilege, with licensing agreements oftentimes prohibiting them from giving resources directly to community members, considered to be third parties unaffiliated with the university. Anna (Dr. Anna C. Smedley-López) – the Sociology professor and I – are going to do some writing about this aspect of the students’ education for this course. Our first project will be to write a book chapter for a new ACRL-published book called: Disciplinary Applications of Information Literacy Threshold Concepts (edited by Samantha Godbey, Sue Wainscott, and Xan Goodman of UNLV). Our chapter, the proposal for which was recently accepted for this publication, is called “Serving Up Library Resources?: Information Privilege in the Context of Community Engagement in Sociology.” What an opportunity this is for me – to be a research partner with a faculty member in one of my disciplines and to be essentially embedded in this service learning program and course in which students are doing truly significant, social-justice oriented library research. Again, all because of tenure.

I feel exhausted just writing this. I’ve definitely got my work cut out for me. These opportunities will challenge me and make me grow as a professional, as a librarian and scholar. And I have tenure to thank.