Tenured Library Faculty Laid Off at St. Cloud State U.

Four librarians were among the eight tenured faculty members laid off from St. Cloud State University, MN, at the beginning of the 2019–20 academic year. Final notices to those impacted, who also included three philosophy professors and a theater professor, were delivered on September 16. Their contracts will be terminated effective May 13, 2020. Laying off four full-time librarians would cut the library’s faculty by one-quarter; currently 13 full-time library faculty serve a student body of over 13,000, as well as members of the St. Cloud community.

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Four librarians were among the eight tenured faculty members laid off from St. Cloud State University (SCSU), MN, at the beginning of the 2019–20 academic year. Final notices to those impacted, who also included three philosophy professors and a theater professor, were delivered on September 16, the contractual deadline for the fall semester. Their contracts will be terminated effective May 13, 2020.

Laying off four full-time librarians would cut the library’s faculty by one-quarter; currently 13 full-time library faculty serve a student body of over 13,000, as well as members of the St. Cloud community.

In a memo released by SCSU in August, President Robbyn Wacker cited the layoffs, referred to as retrenchments in the Minnesota State system, as efforts to manage the university’s budget in the face of a budget shortfall and a 31 percent drop in enrollment since 2011. However, the library statistics given by university administration as part of its considerations for retrenchments—including declines in reference inquiries, print circulation, and spending on print materials—are misleading, according to a response from library faculty, and are instead indicative of a reduction in reference desk service hours due to previous layoffs, an increase in the use of electronic resources, and cuts to the library’s collection budget, respectively.

The retrenchments will save the university about $840,000—still not enough to meet the FY20 deficit, which has been estimated by administration to be between $3.7 million and $6.1 million. At the same time, SCSU plans to hire another 30 faculty members “in departments and programs with stable or growing enrollments.”

SCSU’s Faculty Association and the Inter Faculty Organization (IFO), the faculty bargaining unit, have criticized the university’s decision; the IFO plans to file a grievance. According to a response submitted to the administration by the Faculty Association on September 3, the university did not follow Minnesota State policy for the retrenchment process.

The 52-page response also cited lack of transparency from administration, particularly in regard to the metrics used to justify laying off four library faculty members, as well as timing that didn’t conform to contract policy; Wacker first raised the possibility of faculty retrenchments at the end of the previous academic year, as most faculty were leaving campus for summer break. The document states, “Given that the administration waited until just weeks before the deadline for layoff notices to provide any data in support of retrenchment and a specific rationale for retrenchment in Philosophy, Theatre and the Library, there is precious little time for faculty to prepare data requests, to receive and analyze data, to provide well-considered responses and input, and for the administration to review and consider faculty input before layoff notices.” Initial talk about retrenchment began in May, and the specific positions slated for layoffs were released to the Faculty Association in August.

 

INACCURATE STATS

The notices of retrenchment were not a complete surprise, said professor Robin Ewing, who serves as research librarian and chair of library faculty. What did come as a shock was the severity of the library layoffs. “Retrenchment was in the air,” Ewing told LJ. “We're not blind to the fact that enrollment is down substantially over the last eight years.” Staff had thought that perhaps one librarian would be terminated, she said. “And then to find out that it was four librarians was just a gut punch."

The retrenchments were allocated in reverse order of seniority, with the most recent hires being let go. “Recent,” in this case, is a relative term, however; only one current faculty librarian has been hired since 2008 (the most recent hire, who joined the library in 2014, left SCSU last fall).

Library faculty and their supporters were angered not only at the scope of the layoffs, but the metrics cited by the administration as justification. Although the decrease in student enrollment and FTE faculty (down 23 percent since 2011, much of that by attrition) were accurate, other numbers were taken out of context.

The total number of reference inquiries decreased 20.5 percent from FY18, but this is a result of the reduced number of faculty who are able to provide desk service, including the elimination of summer duty days, according to the rebuttal issued by library faculty—three library technicians were laid off in 2017 and 2018, and other staff members who have left or retired have not been replaced. “Not included in this statistic are the many other ways library faculty teach students how to research,” the document notes, including research consultations and online/chat reference services offered around the clock.

The fact that print book circulation has decreased by 90 percent since 1993 reflects the growth in electronic resources—which still require librarian administration and oversight. And while spending on print resources did decrease by more than 94 percent since FY13, this was not due to “diminishing demand,” but rather a series of severe budget cuts over the past five years.

The library spent only $8,000 on books last year, said Ewing. “For an academic library supporting a student population of over 13,000, that's nothing. To then say that [a lack of] demand was why we didn't order books—we didn't order books because we didn't have any money. All of our money is dedicated to our ongoing electronic resources, and we've had to cut those too."

Although the retrenched faculty members were each given the opportunity to meet with Wacker and Provost Daniel Gregory, there have been no formal meetings between SCSU administration and the library as a whole. “We will continue to support our librarians through their professional development and teaching opportunities,” said SCSU Executive Director of Marketing and Communications Adam Hammer. “We recognize that libraries and librarians play critical roles in the research, scholarship, collections, and archives for the campus, as well as serve on committees that support curricula, strategic planning, and student success initiatives. And thus, are critical to our future success.”

 

IMPACT BEYOND THE LIBRARY

The retrenchments represent not only a loss of front-line librarians, but a deep level of expertise.

Associate Professor and Collection Management Librarian Rachel Wexelbaum, one of the four targeted for layoffs, has been helping the library and the campus transition to digital media resources. She has done extensive work helping develop open educational resources (OER), including the first OER LGBT studies textbook—she is part of an International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) task force conducting a survey of LGBTQ library resources, services, programming, and spaces worldwide to help create international guidelines—and has worked to raise awareness about open access materials. Wexelbaum has taken over the lead on the campus institutional repository, encouraging faculty and students to deposit their scholarly work.

A second librarian slated for retrenchment, Associate Professor and Cataloging Librarian Tina Gross, has been with the library since 2007. In addition to her work at SCSU—most recently helping the library transition to a new ILS—Gross has had an impact on a national scale with her involvement in the push to convince the Library of Congress to remove the term “Illegal alien” from its subject heading system. She has recently been attending screenings of the film Change the Subject (2009), a documentary about the subject heading campaign. Doing Q&As for the film, she said, has been “a welcome distraction right now, and something that at least makes me feel valued.”

When she met with the president and provost, Gross told LJ, they were unable to give her a satisfactory answer as to how they arrived at the number of four librarians to terminate. Gregory did note that the library had not previously seen the same attrition as other departments over the years, said Gross.

“I was shocked by that,” she said. “I didn't have the numbers at my fingertips, but it was bizarre that he would assert that there hasn't been attrition in the library, because every position that has been vacated by someone retiring or going somewhere else, with the exception of one, has been lost."

The deep cuts to library faculty represent SCSU’s current economic hardships, said the librarians LJ spoke with, but they are also indicative of a lack of understanding, on the part of administration, of the role an academic library plays within a university. Gross said that she had twice seen Gregory, in meetings with library staff, hold up his cell phone and say “something to the effect of, 'This is the library now,' or 'this is the library of the future.’” Other faculty members have reported hearing similar comments. "I think a response that we should have made is that there are people who think that about the whole university, too," said Gross. (Ironically, she added, due to cuts, the library doesn't have adequate staffing and expertise to focus on improving the delivery of library resources and services via mobile device.)

“I feel like there's this narrative [from the administration] that the library is stuck in the past, that we're clinging to 'traditional' services without moving forward,” added Gross, noting that the arguments citing drops in circulation and reference interactions in the retrenchment considerations point to that as well. “"There's this cycle of lack of support and cuts, and then the effect of those cuts are pointed to as a justification that the services aren't needed or wanted, and are cut even more."

"We're going to have to change everything,” said Ewing. “I don't what that will look like. I don't know how we'll go forward with four fewer people, including two from our collections department."

In addition, two of the librarians slated to lose their jobs (who requested that their names not be used) are the only faculty of color at the library. As the university’s demographics change to reflect the diversity of the local community and the state, faculty and staff need to reflect the student body, said Ewing. "This takes us backwards. That's a concern. And we don't know when we're going to be able to hire again.”

 

CANARY IN THE COAL MINE

For now, until the IFO files its grievance, there is little for library faculty to do but continue to serve the campus and community. Their jobs are secure until the end of the school year. A successful challenge on the part of the IFO could potentially result in the administration rescinding the retrenchment notices before the end of the academic year. A round of about 20 retrenchment letters sent in 2009 were ultimately rescinded, save one. But faculty are not optimistic. "There is a slim chance,” said Ewing. “But I think it's unlikely that that's going to happen."

"My personal sense is that the administration views these retrenchments as a test run, and a test case, for retrenchments in the future,” said Gross, noting that these layoffs would save only about eight percent of the deficit. “That gap is so huge that it seems a little odd to argue that these eight retrenchments are absolutely central and critical, and that we absolutely can't avoid doing them, yet in no way do they solve the larger crisis."

The union reportedly plans to challenge the retrenchment based on both SCSU and Minnesota state procedure that it believes was not followed—in particular, the required documentation of steps taken to arrive at the decision, and measures that were considered to avoid it.

“As far as I know, that requirement hasn't even come close to being met,” Gross told LJ. “I think one of the things that perhaps the administration is testing is whether they can get away with that. If it goes through this time, then they'll probably feel freer to do that again in the future."

Faculty, staff, and students across campus have been supportive, packing meetings, sending letters of support for the retrenched faculty to SCSU administration, and posting on social media under the hashtag #savescsu_library. A “March to Reject the Notion of Disposable Education” has been planned for October 1.

"The library is the canary in the coal mine,” one faculty member told LJ. “If a university is cutting back on its library resources and services, and cutting back on its library people, they're going to start cutting other things. The library is the center of the university.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Cindy Harper

Only the result of a computer algorithm would call this one of "the most popular" articles that we've "enjoyed" in the last month.

Posted : Oct 22, 2019 02:38


Raquel Donahue

University: “The library is performing poorly! We need to cut their budget.” ~ Librarians: “True. But only because you already did.”

Posted : Sep 26, 2019 10:55


Carlene Schoenfeld

Libraries are important core to universities /colleges. Staff at the library are supportive core to the students using the library . Without the core library staff the learning, research, support, and on-going students educational paths will be affected.

Posted : Sep 26, 2019 10:00


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