The Once and Future Faculty Status of Academic Librarians at the University of Virginia

A flexible "library track" may be a model for other types of faculty work.
By Keith Weimer

Many academic librarians in the United States have long been accustomed to a role in their colleges or universities as faculty members. A 2017 survey conducted by the Association of College and Research Libraries found that librarians at roughly half of academic libraries were categorized as faculty members, with nearly one-fifth of libraries categorizing librarians as non-tenure-track faculty members. Faculty status, whether on or off the tenure track, typically affords librarians an opportunity to participate in the governance of their institutions, teach for-credit courses, and serve as primary investigators on grants. It also affords them other privileges, like flexibility in structuring their schedules and academic freedom protections in conducting research and publishing. Librarians with non-tenure-track faculty status do not face the same pressures as do tenure-track faculty members and perhaps even some non-tenure-track faculty members in other fields—an “up-or-out,” “publish-or-perish” research pathway, specific teaching loads, and other requirements of service to the institution—but also do not enjoy the same protections as librarians with tenured faculty status. Non-tenure-track faculty status also typically leaves criteria for promotion in rank in the hands of the library, freeing the library to develop an internal promotion pathway encompassing the diverse nature of library work.

Differences from the work carried out by other faculty members and in the criteria for promotion have led some nonlibrary faculty members, as well as some library staff—especially university and library administrators—to question the appropriateness of granting faculty status to librarians. In addition to arguments that the research and teaching model traditionally understood as constituting “faculty work” simply does not fit the work of librarians, there are claims that the research reflected in the scholarly library literature is typically descriptive of library practices and less rigorous than that in most academic disciplines and that the promotion process is also less rigorous, based as it is primarily on job performance and lacking external review. Within the university and especially within the library, questions also exist about how the work of library faculty significantly differs from that of other staff—especially staff who engage in research, teaching, or other kinds of creative intellectual work that supports the academic mission of the university. Strong negative connotations are attached even to the word status, which some see as a marker of superiority to other staff and of a desire to be on the same level as teaching and research faculty outside the library whose work is regarded as more rigorous.

Of course, faculty status is less about “status” than about a designation within higher education that emphasizes teaching, research, and service, but that status also entails the freedom to fulfill those roles in ways mutually beneficial to the faculty member and the institution. For librarians, faculty status is less important as a way of placing librarians on the same level as other faculty members than as a means of securing for librarians the right to participate in governance at their institutions; help make decisions about curricula; and teach, conduct research, or otherwise collaborate with the faculty members and students who represent their primary constituencies. Models of non-tenure-track faculty librarianship that allow librarians greater latitude in organizing their work—like those that have existed at my institution, the University of Virginia—can have implications for the work of other non-tenure-track faculty members. Between 2008, when UVA began to develop new employment policies intended to distinguish various kinds of staff and faculty work, and the early 2020s, when the provost’s office approved the creation of a separate “library track” for librarians as a category of academic general faculty, issues of faculty status were at the heart of debates about library work.

Restructuring Employment Categories

UVA is a large public university with more than eighteen thousand undergraduates and more than nine thousand graduate students. Famed for its founding in 1817 as Thomas Jefferson’s brainchild, it is classified as a Research I university in the Carnegie Classification system, denoting “very high research activity.” Over the course of its history, UVA has developed a complicated structure of employment categories that distinguishes tenure-track faculty—a category emphasizing teaching and research and, secondarily, service to the university and community—from other categories such as nontenured “academic general faculty,” who perform work similar to tenure-track faculty but with greater emphasis on research, teaching, or service, depending on individual job requirements; “administrative and professional faculty,” a broad category of responsible positions ranging from librarians to employees who engage in little if any research or teaching, including various administrators, coaches, and the university’s full-time lobbyist with the Virginia General Assembly; and “classified staff”—salaried, nonfaculty employees.

Librarians at UVA were granted “administrative and professional faculty” status in the late 1960s by vote of the faculty senate in recognition of the broadly academic work they performed and based on a belief that this status would be mutually beneficial for librarians and for teaching and research faculty in their work together to support the academic mission of the university. The library developed its own pathway for promotion in rank based on a combination of job performance (especially innovation in job performance), leadership in professional associations, and research. The ladder ascended from the entry level of affiliate librarian through assistant librarian, associate librarian, and librarian. The rank of affiliate, applied to newcomers to the library profession, was the only “up-or-out” category. This promotion pathway was not available for other library staff, nor was it always clear why some library employees were designated as faculty and others as staff. The faculty designation was applied primarily to positions involving a high degree of autonomy and responsibility, especially in working directly with faculty members and students.

Library faculty have one elected seat on the General Faculty Council, which represents non-tenure-track academic faculty, administrative and professional faculty, and professional research staff at UVA. Nonfaculty library staff hold three seats on the Provost Employee Communication Council, one of four staff councils. Only full-time academic faculty and academic general faculty holding the rank of assistant professor, associate professor, or professor may be elected to the faculty senate, but non-senators (including administrative and professional faculty and staff) may participate as members of faculty senate task forces and standing committees. The university librarian is an ex officio member of the faculty senate’s executive committee, providing a voice but no vote. The chair of the General Faculty Council occupies a similar position on the faculty senate’s executive committee.

In 2008, the university created a new category of employment, university staff, intended to clarify faculty work and emphasize teaching and research. Administrative and professional faculty and classified staff employees of the library were offered incentives like the opportunity to accrue annual leave and (for classified staff) privatized investment opportunities outside the state retirement system if they opted to become university staff. Faculty members were reluctant to become university staff, however. They saw the new category as limiting their ability to organize their own work (by requiring them to submit a timecard and report use of annual and sick leave, for example) and potentially reducing their opportunities to teach and pursue research opportunities (institutional research board protocols, grants, and proposals for credit-bearing courses all require faculty sponsorship).

In 2013 the dean of the university library decided to end faculty status for new library appointees into positions previously designated as faculty. Those librarians with faculty status retained their designation as administrative and professional faculty. The dean argued that opportunities to teach for-credit courses and serve as a primary investigator in pursuit of grants were open to university staff, albeit with faculty sponsorship, and that there was no clear evidence that faculty status enhanced or facilitated librarians’ work with other faculty members or faculty perceptions of librarians. The Library Faculty Assembly’s arguments in favor of continued faculty status centered on provisions in the Joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians and other statements by the Association of College and Research Libraries and the AAUP affirming that librarians perform faculty work by engaging in teaching and research and therefore should have faculty status. Librarians had fears about the future, including a potential loss of opportunities for teaching, research, and participation in governance as well as the general freedoms and perceived leverage that came with faculty status. Not all faculty librarians agreed with these arguments, or with the idea that any library staff should be designated as faculty members. Library administrators did not discuss the criteria for designating some library positions as “faculty” and similar positions as “staff” or how faculty status hindered or helped in the performance of these duties.

The dean’s decision aligned closely with the university priorities described above. The creation of “university staff” as a job category was intended to distinguish faculty work from the work of staff in roles possessing high levels of autonomy and responsibility. Library faculty represented one of the largest concentrations of administrative and professional faculty, an employment category that would be discontinued throughout the university for new hires. 

Toward a Library Track

In 2016, the provost’s office took a further step to define different kinds of faculty work at UVA by issuing “PROV-004,” a new policy on employment of academic general faculty, which provided that henceforth new appointees into all positions formerly designated as “administrative and professional faculty” would be designated university staff. This policy categorized the work of non-tenure-track, academic general faculty into three distinct tracks: teaching, research, and practice. Faculty members on the teaching and research tracks were expected to devote “generally 60–100% of their effort” to teaching or research, respectively. The tracks reflected major types of academic general faculty employment at UVA, distinguishing between faculty members who teach specific courses in academic departments and those working in laboratory or clinical settings. Faculty members on the “practice” track, meanwhile, would “focus on integrating professional experience with the academic mission of the school, as well as providing service to the University.” This category was a variant of the teaching track intended primarily for business professionals, writers, public servants, and others, many of them without advanced degrees but with significant practical experience relevant to a given discipline.

The library administration learned that the provost’s office was receptive to the idea of librarians becoming academic general faculty under the new policy. The university library by this time had a new dean, who began working with the Promotion Review Board, the library body that supervised promotion in rank for administrative and professional faculty librarians, to craft a policy for library faculty based on PROV-004 and submit it to the provost’s office for review.

The board struggled to develop a policy that aligned library work with any of the existing tracks. With library instruction at UVA largely dependent on requests from individual university faculty, few members of the library’s staff could definitively say that they devoted 60 percent or more of their time to teaching, and none devoted 60 percent or more of their time to research. However, the provost’s office did accept the wide range of activities that the Promotion Review Board listed as characterizing “teaching” (including individual consultations with library users, preparation for instruction sessions, and training to improve one’s teaching) and “research” (including building research tools and products and collaboration on products that are not formally published, like bibliographies, research guides, and physical or virtual exhibits) as well as the notion that such lists “are non-proscriptive.”

This level of agreement led the board to press for a separate “library track” that would more accurately reflect the diverse work of librarians. In February 2020, after continued refinements of the policy by the Promotion Review Board, the provost’s office approved the creation of a “library track” in a revised version of PROV-004. The language describing the track stated, “All librarians at the University make significant professional contributions by providing research support to faculty and students, maintaining and expanding library collections, and serving patrons. In addition to these important professional undertakings, some librarian positions primarily involve the production of original scholarship and other similar endeavors that support designation as Academic General Faculty Members. Faculty Librarians are individuals whose primary responsibilities (at least 60%), as defined in an appointment letter or position statement, involve the production of original scholarship for publication, teaching, or innovation in research methods.” The new track thus offered the most flexible combination of responsibilities for any track of academic general faculty at the University of Virginia and shifted to a combination of teaching, research, and “innovation in research methods” as a model for faculty work.

Members of the library’s Promotion Review Board—including this author—and a representative from the potential pool of new faculty librarians developed internal policies and a promotion ladder for the new library track. The pathway emphasized the production of original scholarship as well as external review to a much higher degree than in the administrative and professional faculty pathway. The dean and the rest of the library’s senior leadership team began working to clearly demarcate those positions that would be designated as academic general faculty, seeking to eliminate the confusion that attended faculty designations prior to 2013. Librarians in the identified positions would be able to convert from administrative and professional faculty or university staff to library-track academic general faculty during an opt-in period, though no current employee would be required to change status.

As of this writing, this redesignation of positions initiated in 2019 has not been carried out. Even with the greater flexibility, difficulties remain in identifying library staff who can demonstrate that 60 percent of their responsibilities are centered on “the production of original scholarship for publication, teaching, or innovation in research methods.” In addition, finding appropriate external reviewers presents a challenge, since typical structures for tenure-track and non-tenure-track library faculty at other universities are significantly different from those applying to library-track academic general faculty. Despite the careful and nonprescriptive delineation of a wide range of activities as constitutive of teaching or research, defining “the production of original scholarship for publication, teaching, or innovation in research methods” remains a challenge, both for prospective library faculty and for reviewers from other disciplines. (Library promotion packets will also be reviewed by a promotion and review committee composed of academic general faculty from a variety of disciplines, which typically is not the case with administrative and professional faculty packets.) The library has now developed a promotion ladder for university staff closely modeled on that for administrative and professional faculty, making the new track less attractive than it otherwise might have been. PROV-004 states that “schools will abide by the University’s statement on academic freedom when making decisions about a faculty member’s employment contract,” a provision not found in the university’s policy governing the employment of university staff. But the concept of academic freedom has been a less pressing concern in discussions about faculty designation.

In December 2021, the UVA General Faculty Council hosted a town hall with members of the academic general faculty and representatives of the provost’s office to discuss the practical impact of PROV-004. The conversation revealed that the distribution of teaching, research, and service can vary widely at times across positions and over the course of a career and that flexibility has been vital in maximizing value to the university of faculty work in pursuit of these responsibilities. The conversation also indicated that service, while often a significant part of a faculty member’s time, tends to be devalued in comparison with teaching and research. (Tenure-track faculty members are not subject to the formal “60 percent requirement” for teaching, research, or even a combination of duties as are academic general faculty.) A broader understanding of “faculty work” than one that presumes a tenure-track model as an ideal type thus may be needed. The discussion further suggested that an understanding of library work as faculty work rooted in the broader framework of flexibility available under the university’s earlier definitions of administrative and professional faculty and academic general faculty could be mutually beneficial to institutions of higher learning as well as to library employees. The library track for new academic general faculty could represent a starting point for future movement toward flexibility.


The administrative and professional faculty model that became deprecated after 2013 provided a flexible framework that encompassed a wide range of library work. On the one hand, it assumed an understanding of what constituted library faculty work, instead of clearly explaining it or distinguishing it from other types of library work. Library faculty work was too dissimilar to other types of faculty work that emphasize teaching and research. On the other hand, the university staff model potentially excludes librarians from shared governance and an ability to collaborate easily with other faculty members on grants, in coteaching, or in emerging work open to traditional faculty members. The academic general faculty model aligns library faculty work and promotion criteria more closely with those of other faculty members. It acknowledges the value of scholarship by librarians as well as library teaching and “innovation in research,” and it offers a degree of flexibility that recognizes the varied nature of library work. It also establishes a platform for expansion or revision of the policy. However, the prescriptive quantification of responsibilities remains a potential barrier in classifying library positions, for encouraging staff to opt into the new status, and for developing a broadly inclusive work environment.

Interestingly, the new model proposed and in development for library faculty—allowing non-tenure-track faculty members broad flexibility in balancing research, teaching, and service over time—has also been identified as potentially beneficial for some nonlibrary faculty members. It would give these faculty members time to focus on teaching, research, and service in response to changing circumstances and allow them, much like library faculty, to take advantage of emerging opportunities in these areas. While many higher education institutions are drastically reducing tenure protections for faculty and faculty-like positions and dividing these employees into simple buckets of “haves and have-nots,” UVA has adopted a nuanced and flexible framework that tries to clarify, account for, and protect a wide range of highly variable work. The experience of the library and its employees as this approach unfolded at UVA is rich with potential takeaways for other higher education leaders far beyond this particular institution.

Keith Weimer is librarian for history and religious studies at the University of Virginia. From 2015 to 2021, he served as the university library representative to the UVA General Faculty Council, serving as chair of the council from 2018 to 2019. He also served as chair of the library’s Promotion Review Board from 2016 to 2018. His email address is [email protected].