Sydni Dunn

Staff Reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education

Do Librarians Need Tenure? Depends on Which Ones You Ask.

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When East Carolina University announced last week that it will no longer offer tenure to its librarians, it joined a growing list of colleges that have tweaked their library models and, in turn, the job descriptions of library employees.

It also provided new fodder for an ongoing debate over the value and purpose of tenure. At issue: Do librarians need long-term security to do their jobs?

Taking librarians off the tenure track—or stripping them of their faculty status—is by no means a new idea. In fact, when East Carolina decided to do away with tenure, it didn’t have to look very far for models: North Carolina State and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte have classified librarians as untenured faculty members for more than 25 years and about four years, respectively.

But rethinking library models has become something of a trend in recent years, according to leaders in the field, who recalled recent shifts at the University of Virginia, the Alamo Community College District in San Antonio, and Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, Ore.

The uptick in tenure eliminations has left some librarians feeling that their work is being devalued. And it has led to speculation that changes in the library are foreshadowing what’s to come in the classroom. (Read my Chronicle story from the spring for more on those concerns.)

“I don’t look at it as any sort of singling out,” says Stanley Wilder, head librarian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “Tenure as an institution is whittling all the time. We’re just the low-hanging fruit.”

Untenured—but Still Faculty

Under East Carolina’s new model, librarians who have already earned tenure will keep it, and those who are on the tenure track can continue their pursuit. But all new employees will be hired on contract. Those contracts will likely vary among one-, three- and five-year terms, says Marilyn Sheerer, provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs.

The university actually considered more sweeping changes, Sheerer says. Administrators weighed reverting librarians to staff status, but ultimately decided against a change in title.

The news didn’t come as a shock to librarians at East Carolina. For nearly two years, administrators have worked on a plan to redefine the library model.

Sheerer says the university’s two libraries—the main library and a health-sciences library—hired Maureen Sullivan, an independent consultant who is also the former president of the American Library Association, to review the situation at East Carolina and to make a recommendation on how to mold a “library of the 21st Century.”

Sullivan’s report outlined models at other universities, some with tenure and some without, but it avoided making a strong recommendation that East Carolina lean either way. To help move the decision along, administrators turned to the approaches of other schools in the University of North Carolina system, such as North Carolina State and UNC-Charlotte.

“After talking with them, we became more convinced we wanted to move forward,” Sheerer says. “We wanted to align our system with librarians’ actual job responsibilities.

Librarians “don’t get student feedback, prepare syllabi,” she says. “They do not parallel an assistant, associate, or full professor.”

The Value of Turnover

There are librarians, of course, who would argue that point.

“We’re all pretty disgusted,” says one librarian at East Carolina, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. “Basically, the provost said our research is not as significant.”

The elimination of future tenure lines has lowered morale, the librarian says, adding that some employees are already “warming up their resumes.”

And if those employees leave, there’s the matter of replacing them. “It becomes instantly harder to recruit,” the librarian says. “Even though we’re the second-largest in the system, it’s difficult to get people to come here. Before, we at least had the possibility of tenure. Now, that’s swept away.”

But the directors at North Carolina State and UNC-Charlotte say their institutions demonstrate that libraries can operate perfectly well without tenure.

Wilder, who has worked in every type of library model, says the lack of tenure hasn’t affected morale or recruitment at UNC-Charlotte. “I simply never hear people pining for tenure,” he says. “It just simply doesn’t come up.”

Susan Nutter, vice provost and director of libraries at North Carolina State, agrees that her library employees are generally happy with the contract system. In fact, she argues that the absence of tenure is one of her library’s great assets.

“I was never interested in going to a university that had tenure,” she says. “Once people get tenure, they usually stay throughout their careers. I think that works well for faculty who are teaching and doing research, but not for faculty who have to be responsive to a changing environment.”

In other words: The turnover is a feature, not a bug. Nutter, who works on an at-will contract, says the way students and teaching faculty use the library has changed dramatically in recent years, and librarians must adapt quickly. The contracts, she argues, “keep you on your toes.”

Multi-year contracts also help produce a varied employee base, she says: “We have a whole range of ages, and people are coming from different environments and experiences.”

But that’s not to say that bypassing tenure is an easy decision. Even the library leaders agree that there are clear downsides to the non-tenure model.

For one thing, East Carolina’s two libraries will now have a mix of haves and have-nots, at least in terms of job security. Overall there are about 60 library employees, Sheerer said. At the main library, 19 employees are tenured and nine are on the tenure-track. At the health-sciences library, three employees are tenured and one is on the tenure track. The rest work on contract.

“One potential area of concern is the culture in the library in relation to having professionals who operate on different terms,” Wilder said. “Having tenure, tenure-track and non-tenure is a potential cultural problem.”

And then there’s the question likely to be asked at any college that revises its policy: What’s the motivation for making a change?

“One thing you want to be sure is the administration above the library isn’t thinking about it in terms of financial flexibility,” Nutter says, noting that it’s easier to scale back workers who are on contract. “Those that are trying to save themselves costs and trying to get the most for their money will ultimately hurt their institutions.”

Unfortunately, Nutter said, this is precisely what’s happening at many institutions.

“I was in a meeting earlier today where we were talking about the percentage of faculty that were tenured,” she says. “It used to be well over 50 percent, and now it’s more like 30 percent. Are we hurting the profession by doing some of these things? And is this going to happen with the tenured faculty?”

For Wilder, the question isn’t if the changes that have come to libraries will spread to the professoriate; it’s when those shifts will happen. “This,” he says, “is the evolution of higher ed.”

Photos: East Carolina University’s J.Y. Joyner library, then and now. Left: A 1972 postcard. Right: The library’s clock tower, today. (Photo by Luca Masters)

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