Academic Librarians in the Breach

Even in the heat of the attacks on collective bargaining, we need to understand the distinct issues that smaller groups face.
By Steve Aby

As you read this article, public employees in Ohio have had their collective bargaining rights gutted, and faculty members there have been “Yeshiva’d.” Yet another noun becomes a verb: this usually bodes ill.

Now defined as “managers” by Senate Bill 5, faculty members in Ohio cannot be represented by a union for purposes of collective bargaining. In Wisconsin, faculty unions have been stripped of their collective bargaining rights, despite a robust higher education unionization effort under way by the American Federation of Teachers. Those unions are now reduced to the begging that is allowed by “meet-and-confer” arrangements in union-hostile states, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The impact on all faculty members in Wisconsin and Ohio is immediate. Those who had a voice thanks to the union will have none. Those who had contractual protections for due process, academic freedom, and shared governance will lose them. Nor are the threats limited to attacks on collective bargaining. The fiscal crisis, corporatization in the academy, and the attacks on collective bargaining all undermine the voice that faculty and academic professionals can and should be exercising.

I would like to make the case for turning our attention to a seemingly small threat: the short- and long-term challenges of academic librarians in this increasingly hostile environment and the ways in which these challenges reflect our broader struggles as faculty and professionals. What we are experiencing across the country—in the context of corporatization, the elimination of collective bargaining, and the fiscal crisis—is a thoroughgoing erosion of the rightful role of faculty and academic professionals in the educational decisions made on campus. Lack of shared governance has always been the root problem. With the failure of collegial mechanisms of shared governance, faculty members have increasingly turned to collective bargaining. Legislatures and university administrations are thus fighting this last vestige of checks and balances on their corporatizing agenda—an agenda that manifests itself in every corner of the university, from science labs to classrooms to computer centers to libraries. The struggles of academic librarians are, in microcosm, the struggles of all of us.

Looking at academic librarians’ circumstances in a nuanced way might seem to be a luxury, given current events. I am reminded of an old professor’s response to a hot chili recipe that included a small amount of paprika: “In the inferno, who would notice?” Yet, the paprika matters. It is precisely because the academic community is under such attack that we should redouble our efforts to understand the distinct and unique issues that can affect any one group among us. In fact, these are the concerns to which an empowered faculty or group of academic professionals, through unionization or other organizing, should respond. Yes, our cause is a common one, but it is reflected differently in various academic settings.

Status of Librarians

Challenges to our academic library colleagues are immediate as well as long-standing and structural. In my home state of Ohio, the fiscal crisis and the government’s response to it have led to policies and practices that others—like our university colleagues in California—have already experienced, such as budget cuts, furloughs, and wage concessions. California faculty and staff, including library faculty, suffered 10 percent furloughs, which amounted to salary reductions, in 2009–10. In Ohio, where, according to reports, fifty-three thousand state employees took furloughs in 2009–10 and made $250 million in wage concessions, the budget crisis led Bowling Green State University’s administration to implement furloughs of five hundred employees in 2009–10. Among them, the only nonadministrative faculty members to be furloughed were librarians, who were twelve-month employees and thus in the targeted group. It was subsequently discovered, and reported by the campus AAUP chapter, that the furlough savings went to a new enrollment initiative.

For librarians in those collective bargaining units that include them, the losses are not insubstantial. Many AAUP contracts include provisions for minimum salaries per rank, setting a reasonable floor for salaries and helping to address salary compression. These provisions, which had not existed before collective bargaining, also include minimum salaries for twelve- and nine-month appointments. Such provisions afford some equity, given that academic librarians often work twelve-month contracts. These protections very likely will be lost.

Herein lies a structural challenge for academic librarians. Many of them are categorized as academic professionals, not as library faculty. Their status across campuses—though not their work—is inconsistent, despite the fact that in 1972 the AAUP, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL), and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) issued their joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians, which recommended faculty status for academic librarians. The inconsistencies in how colleges and universities categorize librarians fuel numerous problems. Those who are not considered faculty members, and therefore are not included in faculty bargaining units, miss out on salary-equity provisions such as those described above. The AAUP’s Annual Report on the Economic Status of the Profession excludes many academic librarians because of their lack of consistent faculty status. The College and University Personnel Association’s salary data do not include academic librarians with faculty rank. Nor do the salary data reported by the Association of Research Libraries include faculty rank.

Any effort by an institution to create a market study of salaries of faculty-rank librarians is hampered by the lack of data. Without good data, let alone the right to bargain, academic librarians may confront recalcitrant administrators who resist efforts to provide salary equity or market corrections for librarians. (This happened recently to librarians in negotiations at the University of New Hampshire.) Furthermore, the inconsistency of faculty status for librarians can affect the job market. As a librarian, would one ever seriously consider giving up faculty rank and tenure at one university for a position as an at-will employee at another?

Related structural challenges exist. Whether they are faculty members or academic professionals, academic librarians are often twelve-month employees. This has a profound impact on their ability to dedicate free time to research and scholarship and related endeavors. Of course, all faculty members are expected to work a full week; most serious studies show that the average faculty work week is more than fifty hours. But while teaching faculty often have the opportunity to dedicate themselves to research projects in the summer, most academic librarians do not. When does one conduct research and scholarship, especially projects that take an extended and intensive investment of time? So long as academic librarian positions are not accompanied by a structure that allows or supports needed time to engage in scholarship, the professional status of librarians will be limited. If they are given faculty rank, as recommended by the joint statement, librarians must have both structural support for scholarly endeavors and discipline-specific tenure guidelines.

Shared Governance

Like other faculty members and academic professionals, academic librarians should have the right to engage in shared governance and oversight. Librarians should have the opportunity to review administrators, for example, as well as the ability to engage meaningfully in the crafting and oversight of policies on the delivery of library services and the structure of an increasingly complicated information environment.

Yet the corporatization of the academy has found its way into libraries. The growing lack of state support for higher education leads to the foisting of costs onto students. These costs have included not just tuition increases but also, in some cases, increased student library fees. Once upon a time, library materials were free to students as part of their tuition; they were seen as part of the necessary infrastructure of learning. Now, library fees can be assessed to allow the library to acquire books or electronic materials for students. What was once a crucial and integral part of the learning environment has become yet another à la carte fee for service. At the University of Akron, for example, a fee of $2 or $3 per enrolled credit hour has been assessed for a number of years. Without this fee, because of budget cuts, the library would not have been able to buy books. At the University of Toledo, the imposition of a similar student fee ($36 to $48 per semester) for electronic resources has led to allegations of misuse of funds. A growing scandal alleges that student library fees have been redirected by the administration into the general fund. Lucy Duhon and Walt Olson, writing on behalf of the campus AAUP chapter in February 2011, reported that this movement of funds amounts to a few million dollars from fall 2009 through the 2010–11 academic year. Here, library and other faculty members have common cause to protect students and the integrity of the academic mission. Were there real shared governance, these interests might have been protected.

The new Ohio budget—with its inclusion of a charter university proposal that could give some institutions more autonomy (and the ability to raise tuition and fees sharply) in exchange for reduced state support—promises vastly diminished public disclosure requirements. It threatens to harm oversight further within those universities that avail themselves of charter status.

Intellectual and Academic Freedom

Academic librarians, and indeed all librarians, have rightly earned the reputation of being intellectual freedom hawks. That reputation fits well within an academic environment devoted, in theory, to academic freedom and the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Yet numerous developments within academic libraries now suggest the grim hand of corporatization, the loss of academic discretion, and the growing view of students as consumers. With shrinking materials budgets and drastically inflating journal costs, libraries have moved to full-text journal aggregator databases. These provide discounts, particularly for consortia purchases, and they save space in libraries that cannot afford to grow.

But there is a critical trade-off. Database vendors make the decisions about which journals are included in the aggregation and which ones are full-text. Much like cable television service, the consumer buys the package. Nobody can pick channels à la carte. Likewise, with our journal collections, librarians and other faculty members are increasingly restricted in the right to select materials for their use. Large corporations make the decisions, albeit sometimes with librarian input. A university library could cancel print copies of journals, thinking they were available electronically, only to have them disappear from the article database later.

Beyond this, corporate information vendors can impose conditions on the acquisition of their materials that are not competitive. In 2009, the Association of Research Libraries argued for full disclosure of prices paid by libraries for aggregated journal collections, contrary to the confidentiality agreements that some vendors were imposing. In March, Cornell University announced that in the future it would not agree to any such confidentiality agreement on pricing. Remember, too, that the academic freedom of academic librarians is not limited to the protection of access to information of others. They have their own academic interests that must be nurtured and protected as well.

These small and large appropriations of the voice and decision making of academic employees reflect a growing trend across diverse fields of work. As can be seen at the capitol buildings in Madison and Columbus, the agendas of legislatures and administrations have brought together all manner of public employees. Schoolteachers, university faculty members, graduate assistants, police, firefighters, and other public employees all need and deserve the right to speak for themselves in the workplace. The workplace will be better for it, as will the public that is being served.

The silver lining in this cloud is that the assault on the collective bargaining rights of public employees has united us all in ways unimagined only six months ago. In Wisconsin, there are massive recall campaigns under way to reshape the legislature. In Ohio, there is a veto referendum initiative to allow the voters to overturn Senate Bill 5 and to restore the right to bargain. Union brothers and sisters from all walks of life are in this together. The unintended consequence of the attack on union rights is that we now really are one big union, and the voice of all employees will be enhanced with our success.

Steve Aby is professor and education bibliographer at the University of Akron. He is a past president of the Akron-AAUP, a recent member of the national AAUP Council, and a current chair of the Ohio Conference AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure as well as a member of the AAUP’s Special Committee on the Status of Librarians in the Academy. His e-mail address is [email protected].