My Thoughts on Faculty Status for Academic Librarians

I’ve been kicking around the idea of sharing my thoughts on this topic for some time. And, from time to time, have chimed in via Twitter and have also had this conversation with various librarian friends. My own feelings towards faculty status for academic librarians  has certainly changed as my career path moved along its trajectory. But, really, I can see it as both a good and bad thing.

This is not a manifesto for or against faculty status for librarians. It’s just merely my thoughts on why I can see it both ways.

When I was a brand new, shiny librarian, I was dead set on landing a job with faculty status. I did not apply for any that didn’t have it, in fact. (The job market was way different back then.) After all, I was a SCHOLARLY librarian. I had a Masters in History. I intended to research and publish and add to all of the fabulous conversations in academia and libraries forever and ever amen. In my first job, I was super productive. Published articles, did some research, did presentations. I was pretty fabulous early on in this biz. I had idols. I had mentors. I loved serving on committees with other faculty. I was at a place where the librarians were pretty respected and had good reputations. I had never heard the question, “Do the librarians here really *deserve* faculty status?” (Well, maybe only a couple of times.) What I did observe about faculty status early on though was that it did lead some people to professionally atrophy. Well, because they couldn’t be fired. It was certainly not the majority of the people there though, so I really had no preconceived ideas that that sort of thing was happening everywhere else in libraries. I mean, faculty status or not, doesn’t EVERYONE want to keep learning?

In my second job, I earned tenure and a promotion to Associate Professor and was even more productive. While I had heard some rumblings on campus about faculty status for the librarians and my then Director was not a huge fan, I knew the faculty I worked with closely never questioned my status. I watched two librarians be denied tenure there. They were decent librarians, I think, but they were not in the mold that the new Director wanted. She wanted hip hotshots (ahem) and they didn’t fit. But, me? I was a productive committee member, taught First-Year Seminar, worked my butt off in the library, and represented their departments well. Privately, they had asked if *all* of the librarians should be faculty. They just simply wondered if the work was the same or if some didn’t want to publish and present, maybe there should be a non-tenure track option. My own Director almost tried to push that sort of dual track that I know does exist in other places, but when I left there, there had been no change.

Eventually, I landed at my previous job, which did not have faculty status. The librarians who worked for me there were fabulous librarians and unphased by their status. I encouraged them to be and do their best and they presented at national conferences and wrote articles. Thye did outreach to faculty and taught classes (credit and library instruction). They were no different and no less respected by the teaching faculty on campus in my view than at the previous institutions where I had faculty status.

Currently, my librarians have faculty status. That has pluses and minuses. It’s never been a question here of faculty status or not, which is fine. But I have personally seen the other side of the faculty status thing and I don’t always like it. (For one, the faculty calendar is not the same as the library calendar and it interferes with workflow.)

One of my professor friends once said to me: You librarians do all of the work of the faculty to have your faculty status but get none of the perks (because we were on 12 month contracts and made less money). So true. Also? We were forced to go to every Faculty Senate meeting, volunteer above and beyond, and basically we had to prove over and over again that yes, we really should and could be faculty.

I will agree that there are a number of librarians who are very productive with their research and scholarship and really serve the universities and colleges where they work in a similar way to faculty, in that respect. But, as an administrator, I wonder now what faculty status is holding us back from? What really is the percentage of faculty that atrophy once they receive their tenure? What’s the percentage that push the boundaries in technology, teaching, or assessment and say, “well, I am going to try all of these new things because I have tenure and can’t be fired.” I mean, couldn’t we do those things without the status?

I often hear the argument, “Well, faculty status gets us a seat at the table with the teaching faculty. We are in the conversation and respected.” Really? Are you? If there were funds up for grabs for a Study-Abroad Program run by teaching faculty versus an Integrated Information Literacy Program run by faculty librarians, would the faculty be on your side? And if they were, would it be because you were faculty? Or because they thought you were good librarians. Personally, I can’t think of anything I’ve earned as a librarian that I got because I had faculty status. I earned the respect of my teaching faculty colleagues because of my enthusiasm and my eagerness to help their students learn and to be a good librarian.

As for our scholarship, we often have great ideas in posters and panels at conferences, which does not really mirror academic discipline conferences and discourse. But what about our journal literature? Are we adding to the literature for the sake of publishing or perishing or are we adding really new ideas to our body of literature? I often wonder this every time I pick up a journal. There is no doubt good research is going on and there are solid publications, but are those all being doing by tenured or tenure track librarians? Or are they being done by librarians who just really want to be able to measure the impact they are having on their students? What really is the benefit of faculty status and what really is the cost?

As an administrator, I find it hard to be supportive of a system that allows people to keep their jobs indefinitely whether or not they continue to meet expectations. This isn’t about MPOW, but just generally speaking, I see it differently now. Especially in a field that is so rapidly changing and so pivotal, I think, to student success.

I have no answers, but I enjoy the conversation and the spirit of the debate. I don’t write this or bring it up to sway anyone one way or another, merely to point out that maybe it’s not the most important thing you need to have in a job, though.

11 thoughts on “My Thoughts on Faculty Status for Academic Librarians

  1. I’m a tenure-track librarian and have asked myself these same questions during my first two years. I posted this to my Facebook page to elicit a conversation, because I really want to know what other academic librarians think about this.

  2. I just spoke in a panel at my state’s library conference about this very thing, in fact the day you posted this. I am faculty without tenure track, and being a good librarian to my institution trumps scholarship in their eyes. Being faculty allows me to better understand the needs of my users. Now I am thinking over what you’ve written about becoming professionally lazy. Will mull this over for a while because it is something I had not thought of.

  3. all valid points, but the same standards should apply to “teaching faculty” as they “keep their jobs indefinitely whether or not they continue to meet expectations.” do away with faculty status for librarians, then do away with it for ALL faculty.

    1. Sure, but we are also in a rapidly, constantly changing field. Also, I’m not in charge of teaching faculty and that’s not my area of expertise within the university. But, if someone were to ask me if tenure should exist anywhere, I’d be likely to say no.

  4. So well said. Another angle on this (particularly for those of us in small private institutions) is the issue of whether in the quest for tenure and the all-elusive status we are separating ourselves politically from other administrative units who frankly are our peers and who we need to operate effectively. I brought this up on a guest blog post for ACRL a while back.

  5. I totally disagree with the opinions expressed here. I have witnessed tremendous growth in librarians with faculty status. We have many examples of excellent librarians who continue on to become full professors and continue to contribute as librarians and scholars.

    1. You are completely entitled to disagree. They are my opinions on my blog. I’ve seen more who do nothing than I have grow and excel. I’ve seen lots of librarians without faculty status grow and excel as well. It’s not the status that compels professional growth.

  6. I’m so glad you raised this question as I’ve had experience as tenured faculty, non-tenured faculty, and non-faculty. I think so much depends on the individual. If you want to grow and develop and contribute to the profession, you will do so regardless of your status.
    My experience with other faculty has been that if I am competent, professional, collegial, and can bring something of value to the table, I am invited whether I am faculty or not.
    The longer I’ve been in the profession, the more I see that faculty status can force unrealistic expectations on librarians who are judged by the same criteria as nine-month faculty but are working twelve months at lower salary and with fewer opportunities and less time to spend doing research and writing.

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