Libraries and Learning

Take a Chair

July 26, 2017

Matt Reed recently addressed the problem of recruiting reluctant faculty to serve as department chair. It’s an interesting issue in terms of self-governance (which we claim to like), the lack of respect for work that is more often maintenance than developing shiny new objects (though it can be both), and a faulty rewards system that promotes individualism over collective work (T&P processes often fail to reward service work, especially when it’s routine but necessary maintenance). There’s also a tendency to identify with a field rather than with one’s nearest neighbors within the discipline, your local colleagues who in most cases are spread thin to represent different sub-disciplines so may not actually be your people. He points out the risks involved in abandoning the chair role altogether in favor of having managers run departments. Who will become higher ed administrators if academics don’t have a chance to test the waters and see how well that work fits their interests and skill set? More importantly, are academics really so averse to administrative work that outsourcing it to the administration seems a good trade-off? That’s basically surrendering the most fundamental form of shared governance.

I’m thinking about this from an unusual perspective. Nearly all academic libraries are organized differently from academic departments, but not mine. At the Little College on the Prairie the library has always been classified as an academic department rather than an administrative unit and the six librarians have faculty status with the same expectations of teaching, scholarship, and service as other faculty. In the mid-1990s we proposed that we elect a chair using the same procedure as other academic departments, rather than have a library director. This means every three years, we look at each other and ask who’s willing; once we’ve sorted that out, the provost comes to a meeting to ask for nominations and holds an election. The appointment comes from the provost, who has the final word if there’s a split in the department or if a nominee seems clearly a poor choice.

For librarians, this may appear a radical way to organize a library. The leadership pipeline in my field tends to involve applying for positions with greater management responsibilities successively, which usually requires moving multiple times, which makes climbing the ladder difficult for people who have family reasons to be anchored in a particular place. Being good at teaching and research is nice, but service in the form of managing people and library units is what career advancement is made of in academic libraries. Many librarians are more interested in being librarians than in being managers and, while these categories are not exclusive, they can shape whether or not someone decides to approach the ladder and give it a try. That’s too bad, because a lot of librarians may never have a chance to discover that they actually find budgets interesting, that sorting out personnel challenges can be rewarding, or that they’re good at making a case for their library to higher administrators.

Every one of the six librarians at my library signed on to be chair someday. For the four who joined us after our radical departure from the standard library org chart, it was stated in position announcements, and applicants had a chance to ask what was involved before they committed to it. I’m sure some people see that expectation and think “nope, not something that appeals to me” but we’ve had no trouble recruiting great talent. I am not sure if people in other departments on my campus are told they have to be prepared to serve as chair, but it might be a useful thing to discuss during a search if it’s an expectation.

To make this work, being the department chair in our library is not a full time job, unlike being a library director. Responsibilities and decision-making are shared so everyone is contributing to the work and learning the ropes at the same time. We all can read a budget. We all help write plans and reports and position announcements. (This sharing does not take endless meetings. It’s probably no more time-consuming than having top-down decisions explained and implemented.) Like most departments, continuity and nitty-gritty knowledge of how stuff works comes from a staff member who’s in it for the long haul. We all get a crack at department leadership and, once in that chair, we all can look forward to the day someone else is going to do it. We could theoretically reach a moment when nobody wants to take it on because of family responsibilities or sabbatical plans or external professional commitments, but I’m not too worried because support from colleagues is built in. That’s not always the case in other departments, which makes succession planning more difficult.

The other thing that makes it work is that we share a sense of mission for the library. We don’t have deep divisions when it comes to what we should be doing or whether one thing is more important than another. When you’re working together, you want your watches synchronized and your compasses all aligned. We have the trust of faculty in other departments who think we’re doing the best we can and consulting about important stuff as well as the trust of an administration that sees it’s working.

The elephant in the library is that, unlike other academic departments, we have a relatively large number of staff who are not members of the faculty. Negotiating how our new collegial system would include these staff colleagues, who they reported to, and which decisions were rightly theirs and which were faculty responsibilities took a few years, but I think we’ve figured it out though we haven’t been able to pay these employees as much as we feel they deserve or provide the kind of promotion path faculty have. Those decisions are made by higher-ups.

I doubt many libraries will follow our lead. It’s not how most libraries do things. Higher administration may feel they have less control over a unit with a large budget without a consistent direct report and there’s the possibility that librarians will become too independent and ornery. It also may not fit other institutional cultures the way it fits our Scandinavian-flavored egalitarianism. Frankly, at too many institutions, librarians are second-class citizens, seen as the help, not professionals capable of self-organizing wisely.

But if libraries can’t learn from our example, I’m going to be bold enough to suggest maybe other departments can. It’s a lot easier to step into the role of department chair if you know you won’t be on your own, that your colleagues have your back, that they are willing to shoulder some of the responsibility and the occasional angst. That this is respectable work that everyone needs to be willing to do for the good of the department. That it doesn’t matter that you weren’t trained as an administrator, you’re smart enough to figure things out with your colleagues’ help. That important decisions will be collective because that’s how the best decisions are made. That since the work is shared, so is the know-how before you take a seat. That this chair isn’t on a dark side; we’re on the same side. That this is work that needs to be owned by faculty. That it can be interesting and sometimes even fun. That it isn’t inconsistent with the lives academics lead – or their values.


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Babel Fish Bouillabaisse II Copyright © 2019 by Barbara Fister is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.