Librarians as Faculty? It’s a Red Herring.



Faculty, 1893, originally uploaded by Michigan State University Archives.

The “academic librarians as faculty” debate has been swirling the internet this month. The discussion was renewed by the change in status of librarians at the University of Virginia and East Carolina University which was met with protests. There have been thoughtful responses on both sides of the issue, such as Chris Bourg and Meredith Farkas, though there has also been a fair amount of the predictable gnashing of the teeth.

“If we aren’t faculty, we won’t be respected by our institutions! How are we expected to engage with faculty here if we aren’t equal status?” If you need faculty status to be that engaged with your place of work, then your work culture is kind of fucked.

This morning somebody sent me a link to a discussion on the subject from the Tennessee Library Association listerv that made me roll my eyes again.

“It has come to my attention recently that Maureen Sullivan, ALA President, is deliberately and consciously undermining both faculty status and tenure-track status for academic librarians. In what seems like a obvious conflict of interest, she continues to serve as ALA President even while her consultant firm is doing everything it can to have academic librarian faculty status and tenure-track status undermined at colleges and universities. She has already undermined librarians at Occidental, and now she is helping ECU administration to penny pinch its academic librarians into staff status, stripping them of all faculty-status academic freedoms and benefits, such as travel and professional development, and she has stripped their tenure-track protections.”

Did that make your eyes roll? I’m not an ALA or ACRL member, so I don’t have quite the same stake in this as most, but I do work for a university. Take this for what you will.

I’ll repeat it: If you need faculty status to be that engaged with your place of work, then your work culture is kind of fucked.

There are three main points being argued: Respect, academic freedom, and support. Let’s tackle them like Joey Barton.

Respect: Faculty status will make other faculty respect you as peers. I don’t buy it. First of all, I know very few academic librarians with faculty status who actually teach and research like most professors. Not saying that library instruction isn’t work or worthwhile. It is! But teaching instruction sessions is not the same as teaching a semester long course for credit. The same is true for a lot of the research that is published in journals. Case studies are hugely valuable, and I think there’s a need for scholarship, but there’s also a lot of publishing for tenure’s sake. We should research and write for the good of the profession, not because we have to tick boxes to keep our contracts of get a raise. So if you want to be respected, you have to do good work and show your value. Not by talking about how awesome you are, but by actually serving the people you’re meant to serve. Yes… this is a service industry. I engage my research community in addressing their issues and showing that I have their back. That’s why they respect me.

Academic freedom: This is a tricky one because often the only way to really be assured of academic freedom is to have some sort of faculty status. But it’s not guaranteed and academic freedom is eroding across the board. External pressures on higher education (read: money) are making this a sensitive subject for all faculty. It’s not a librarian problem. What I will concede is that a lot of it has to do with your institutional culture – if you work in an environment that values research and exploration and will have your back when things get tough, they would probably have your back regardless of your status. I also find it somewhat elitist to think academic freedom can only afforded to people of faculty rank. (Then again… academics and librarians love elitism…)

Support: This is the area that I think makes the best case for faculty status, but then again it goes back to overall culture. It’s common that all faculty have access to professional development funds not accessible to staff. This is no doubt in part since faculty must publish and present research. Again though… a lot of this also goes back to the culture and attitudes of the institution. Whether or not professional development is paid for really varies on where you go. I’m very fortunate to work for an institute that really values my professional engagement, and they support me even though our budget has been decimated in recent years. I know there are some universities where librarians have faculty status but only get $700 a year in professional development funding. That’s barely one conference. Faculty status is no guarantee for funding.

So really this all comes down to the culture of where you work. The faculty status issue is a red herring and I don’t think this is the hill we should be dying on. Use it as a platform to discuss largely cultural issues and the changing roles of libraries on universities. Don’t lose sight of what librarians do well – serve, protect, and research. Research, presenting, publishing are all valuable, but you have to actually communicate the value – don’t just act entitled to it. (This is where I think the stereotype of academic librarians as PhD dropouts is relevant.) Just having an MLS or some other degree doesn’t automatically earn you respect, so stop bleating for it.

8 thoughts on Librarians as Faculty? It’s a Red Herring.

  1. “If you need faculty status to be that engaged with your place of work, then your work culture is kind of fucked.”

    “I don’t think this is the hill we should be dying on.”

    YES and YES! Thanks for adding another thoughtful post to this conversation. We need to focus on being informed, involved and integral at our institutions, not insular and obsessed with titles and ranks. It’s being seen as a helpful partner that will get us what we need, not faculty status.

  2. Good read. I agree with most of what you have to say. Although, cursing makes Jesus cry. I find that faculty rank is not an auto-complete for respect. I know plenty of tenured professors and librarians that get zero respect because they have not earned it. You earn respect in the 21st century. I do not have tenure. I engage my community and the respect I get from the people in the education department is amazing. No one has ever asked me about my status as we initiate a project. They know my work history and the drive I have to get things done and they appreciate that. I get respect because I earn it.
    One thing that I will say about faculty status (as my library is currently seeking to implement this for librarians) and its importance on my campus is that it helps in securing a known pay raise. (Well, as much as anything can be known in this economy.) With tenure, we are eligible for a pay increase as we work up the promotion and tenure levels. Without this, we get very small incremental increases that barely keep up with inflation.
    In the words of the Pink Floyd “Money. It’s a gas.”

  3. I definitely agree with your point that, “If you need faculty status to be that engaged with your place of work, then your work culture is kind of fucked”. Very true!

    However, it’s worth pointing out that at some institutions with faculty status librarians do teach semester long classes. At my institution we teach in our first year seminar program (other children’s lit, censorship, or tech themed) and we have a library science minor. Lots of other universities have for-credit infolit type courses as well. While, I might still do scholarship outside of work, having it be part of my job (15%) provides the type of support (institutional culture and time) that really makes it feasible.

  4. I agree that the three arguments you present are insufficient justification for librarians having faculty status, but what of the argument that faculty status is necessary so that librarians have an equal voice in campus governance? Faculty status might be a red herring, but leaving out the argument from self-governance is a straw man. Thoughts?

    • Not all universities are structured the same way. Some places have a University Senate in which faculty and staff participate as the body for campus governance, while others have just a Faculty Senate and others may have yet another structure that I’m not aware of. This is another of those areas where the considerations of a specific campus structure and culture have to be considered. You can’t generalize that because at your institution you need to be faculty to be part of that system (I don’t know if that’s the case at your workplace or not) then that holds true for all institutions.

  5. Lane, I would say that having a voice campus governance is also dependent on your campus culture. On my campus, we have a faculty senate and a staff council. They provide the opportunity for faculty and staff to participate in shared governance on our campus.

    • And on my campus professional staff are included in the faculty senate as full members, and valued for the quality of their contributions (not their status). That’s far too local an argument to be universally applied or discussed.

      • Excellent thoughts all around; I totally agree that the governance issue is relative to the size and/or organizational structure of an institution. Like I said, I was just wondering why it wasn’t included in the original post. Though, Jenica, I respectfully disagree with your claim that it’s too local of an issue to be discussed.

        As for my own take, I’d argue that it’s wrong to think that all academic librarians need faculty status…and just as wrong to think that no academic librarians need faculty status. This is not an issue that admits of universals.

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