Tenure and Academic Freedom: Times are changing.

Last week I asked if academic librarians should be faculty. The issue of academic freedom came up, as faculty status (and tenure) should protect librarians. Is that really the case though? Is tenure the only way to achieve that? According to the American Association of University Professors it is.

The bottom line is that librarians (academic or otherwise) are unwilling, through their premier professional association, to shame those involved in the most egregious violations of intellectual freedom when the violations occur within the profession. This unwillingness to engage academic and intellectual freedom within libraries has resulted in a serious bifurcation: such protections exist for the users of libraries and in building, maintaining, preserving, and providing access to library collections of all types, but they do not cross the desk in practice to the professionals who must stock those collections and serve those users. Academic and intellectual freedom in the library workplace is, primarily, a rhetorical value and an object lesson to those who take academic freedom for granted or misunderstand it. It is a reality only for those librarians fortunate enough to be faculty members—and to be taken seriously as such.

John Buschman makes some good points in that article, such as the role of ALA in advocating for the rights of librarians (and how they may have let them down), but ultimately, I don’t agree with his point. He represents the broader interests of faculty and tenure, and as long as many institutions consider librarians faculty, they have to keep that line.

Tara Murrary linked to this Chronicle blog post about the broader issue of tenure and academic freedom. Is this going to be the end of tenure? The implications for professors seems to be more uncertain, but for librarians we’ve been doing this for years. I think this is a great time to reflect on what we do and what academic freedom actually means for librarians, rather than just invoking it in name.

I have a hard time even thinking what academic freedom means to me. Does this mean the freedom to pursue projects and initiatives? I have that. What about research? Well, I could if I had time and money. That has more to do with the staffing and funding constraints of my workplace (which is practically a universal), that I don’t think my lack of tenure has anything to do with it. I feel fortunate that the institute I work for values the library’s missions and what we do, even if we are examining things that won’t immediately affect our users. I think library administrations need to do a more effective job communicating the needs of librarians to campus administration, but that’s a whole other issue. (Maybe I should examine the trend of library administrators not being librarians?)

So what does tenure really protect? It might make people feel comfortable to exercise their academic freedom, but really it’s just the job security. Mess with tenure and people freak out, “Oh no! You can fire me!” Was tenure intended to protect people who weren’t doing their job? It shouldn’t be a shield for incompetence or an unwillingness to perform. For professors, I’m not sure what that means, but for librarians it’s very clear. You don’t want to change what you do to meet the needs of your users? That’s not a tenure issue. This is why I see them as two separate issues.