I was surprised when I read a couple of weeks ago that the University of Virginia was taking faculty status away from its librarians. Even more surprising was the fact that it was at the behest of the University Librarian (it seems like these challenges come, more often, from outside of the library). It appears from reports that many of those in the library with faculty status are up in arms about it. The decision library administration made at UVa was a big one; to create a system where people who’ve been there for years have faculty status and new hires do not could create all sorts of friction and issues for the next couple of decades. I try to imagine this at my own institution. One librarian will be able to sit on faculty senate committees and another (perhaps in a more key position) will not. As a result, those with faculty status will be more keyed into the institution than their counterparts. I’m sure this was considered and, somehow, the decision was made that this was still in the best interests of the institution. Wowza.

I’ll preface this piece by saying that I don’t know anything about the culture of the library at the University of Virginia. I don’t know if the culture there is so broken that this seemed like the only option to fix it. I don’t know if many more in the library are for this change than against it. I believe that the library faculty at UVa did not have tenure, which will make the change slightly less jarring than it otherwise could have been.

I personally am not a huge believer in tenure for librarians although I am on the tenure track and have seen the benefits of my position. But, I’d also say that I’m not a big believer in tenure at all. While I’m a huge advocate for academic freedom (obviously, being the pain-in-the-ass contrarian I am), I don’t think a system that only protects that for a minority of faculty (what about contingent faculty???) is a solid system. I think union-representation and union contracts could be key for the protection of academic freedom in the academy for all. That being said, I do think it’s helpful for librarians to be faculty, if only so that they can serve on faculty senate and faculty committees. We are partners in supporting student success and need to have a seat at the table so that we can better understand student and faculty needs and the direction in which the institution is going. Then again, I’d probably say the same of many student affairs positions. Whether we need faculty status or simply a seat at the table is debatable.

University Librarian Karin Wittenborg argues that getting rid of faculty status “is an important step to take to recognize the work all library staff does.” I don’t know that getting rid of faculty status will achieve that. Academia is stratified. You have tenure-track faculty, full-time faculty who are not tenure-track, adjuncts, clinical faculty, academic professionals, and staff all contributing to the success of students at the institution, but not being treated as equally important. Getting rid of tenure or faculty status for librarians or for all teaching faculty will not change this. Even when I was a social worker, there was a definite caste system. The psychotherapists were “more important” than the case workers, since they focused on the deeper, less mundane problems. At libraries without faculty status, you still have the professional vs. paraprofessional issue or the MLS vs. non-MLS issue. Valuing the work of all library workers is a cultural issue that will not be fixed simply by removing faculty status. In fact, I see much more value placed on our non-faculty counterparts at my current tenure-track job than in my previous non-tenure-track one. It has everything to do with organizational culture.

I’ve seen first-hand that the way librarians are seen by faculty is more of a cultural issue than one mitigated by librarian status. At my previous institution, we had nominal faculty status. We had access to faculty development funds but were called staff with faculty rank (makes a lot of sense, right?). I built many strong relationships with the faculty in my liaison areas. While my Director tried to make us true faculty in the Senate and Assembly, and largely succeeded around the time I was leaving, any changes would not have changed the way we were seen by faculty. I didn’t find it to be any barrier as the Head of Instruction or a liaison and actually had a far easier time building information literacy into curricula there than I have at Portland State (which has nothing to do with faculty-ness and everything to do with the culture at the individual institutions).

But I looked forward to seeing what collaboration would look like as a true tenure-track faculty member. I do feel much more like a partner here in some ways and I love working with the teaching faculty at Portland State. I serve on faculty senate committees here and don’t feel like I’m seen as being “less than” other faculty. However, just like when we were essentially staff at my last institution, there are faculty who we teach for who see us as equal partners (and thus are open to true collaboration) and then there are faculty who see us as someone to teach what they want us to in their classes without any conversation or collaboration. In fact, I found it much easier to do interesting things like flipping the classroom (though this was before it had a trendy name) at Norwich than I have at PSU, though that might just be because I haven’t been here as long.

In my view, the best thing to come from our faculty status is the fact that we are much more plugged into what is happening in the University and can thus better align library priorities to the direction in which the institution is going. If we could not serve on things like the Curriculum Committee, the Educational Policy Committee, the University Studies Council, the Budget Committee, and the Faculty Senate itself, we might not be as plugged in. We also would not be able to advocate as well for the needs of the library and how it can support initiatives as things are being planned without being on these committees. Do you need to be faculty to be plugged into the University? No. But it does make it easier.

The contention made in this article, that very few libraries have faculty status, is false and I’m surprised that Wittenborg would have said that. In the survey on libraries building a culture of assessment (for which we got a 41% response rate), we found that 37% of the responding academic libraries had tenure-track faculty status, 29% had faculty status without tenure, and 35% have no faculty status. When you limit it just to PhD/Research institutions, 43% have tenure-track faculty status, 23% have faculty status without tenure, and 34% have no faculty status. That makes faculty status seem much less like the exception Wittenborg made it out to be.

Also in the survey that I’ll be presenting the results of at ACRL, I learned something very surprising about the impact of faculty status on libraries’ likelihood of having a culture of assessment and their likelihood of being involved in a campus-wide assessment initiative. Given that we got results from 41% of all academic libraries in the U.S., I feel pretty confident that our results are representative of the population. Want to know what we learned? Come to our presentation at ACRL (Friday at 8:30 in Wabash 2-3 at the ICC). Not going to ACRL? We’ll be publishing our results as well.

I agree with Karin Wittenborg 100% that all library workers should be valued, regardless of their title or designation. If that was her goal in taking this action, it’s a noble one. I question whether removing faculty status from librarians will achieve that, since the stratification issue is usually cultural and not just a faculty vs. non-faculty one. If I were at UVa, would worry about the rift this act would create for decades until all those with grandfathered-in faculty status retire. However, I don’t buy the library faculty assembly assumption that librarians will not be as professionally engaged if they’re not faculty. Part of being a good librarian (not just good faculty) is being engaged in our profession, aware of emerging trends in our areas, learning from the successes and failures of other libraries, and sharing our own successes and failures. If your librarians aren’t engaged (and there are many different ways to do this, not just publishing peer-reviewed articles, attending ACRL, and serving on ALA committees), they should be fired. That should be part of the job of everyone working in a library, not just faculty. And it also should be supported for everyone in a library.

In the end, I don’t think our being faculty or not being faculty has any bearing on whether faculty and students value us. It’s what we do that matters. Being a fantastic liaison. Meeting emerging faculty and student needs. Making faculty members’ lives easier (whether it’s helping them with the data management part of a grant app, helping with a lit review, helping them develop great research assignments, etc.). Supporting students at their points of need. These are the things that will make faculty and students value us. In general, I think libraries should be much less focused internally and much more focused externally than they currently are.

Those of you without faculty status: are you able to serve on key committees with faculty? Do you feel plugged into what the University is doing? Do you feel like the library’s position suffers on-campus as a result of your not having faculty status?