Essential, Yet Disposable: How the Career Faculty FTE Cuts Impact Librarians
By Ann Shaffer, June 4th 2020
UO Libraries Browsing Room
Like many colleges and universities, the University of Oregon is anticipating a potential budgetary shortfall as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, due to expected cuts to the university’s state funding and a projected drop in enrollment for fall term. Without yet having any reliable data on the status of either funding stream, UO has opted to preemptively cut costs by targeting 211 Career non-tenure-track faculty whose contracts happened to be up for renewal this spring; these faculty have had their FTE for the 2020-21 academic year cut in half, and have received 1-year contracts in lieu of the 2- or 3-year contracts they would normally expect. Among those 211 faculty who are bearing the brunt of the university’s savings plan are 14 faculty librarians who have received notice that their positions will be reduced from full-time to 0.55 FTE. Another 5 librarians who were up for promotion this year faced the choice between receiving a similar reduction in FTE with their new contracts upon promotion, or pulling their promotion applications to retain their full FTE under their current contracts.
Most recently, we have received notice from the Provost’s office that 12-month Career faculty affected by these contract reductions (primarily library faculty, as well as faculty members in LERC) will have their FTE raised to full-time for the summer. While this is welcome news, it brings some alarming new concerns to the table: the university does not intend to consider raising library faculty FTE for the fall term until September, once final enrollment numbers are known. Moreover, we have been informed that for the next academic year, our individual FTEs will be evaluated prior to the start of each term; not only might our employment fluctuate from term to term, but we will have at most a few weeks’ notice prior to each fluctuation.
As 12-month faculty, librarians work year-round, during breaks and intersessions as well as when classes are in session. Historically, we have had stable full-time FTE appointments for all 12 months of the year. Our work load does not change from term to term; core elements of our work such as collection management, student supervision, digital scholarship services, reference consultations, and cataloging remain constant throughout the year. In this sense, our work differs dramatically from that of our 9-month teaching colleagues, whose teaching loads might vary from term to term. Additionally, librarians’ workloads do not wax and wane in response to enrollment fluctuations or academic program adjustments. It simply does not make sense to tie the librarians’ FTE appointments to enrollment levels from term to term.
Much of the labor of librarians is invisible to our patrons. Our students and faculty often speak positively of the public-oriented service points where they interact with the library: getting research help through chat or at a reference desk; learning about information literacy or specialized research tools from a librarian guest-teaching in their class; or receiving timely and skilled assistance from our knowledgeable classified staff and OA colleagues who staff the main checkout desks and facilitate ILL and Summit requests. Those interactions and services are important, but are merely the tip of the iceberg of what we do. Skillfully and accurately cataloging library materials (particularly unique archival and rare materials) means that our patrons can find what they’re looking for in the catalog, and determine if it’s relevant to their needs. Negotiating licenses for our electronic resources, and managing the integration of those resources into the catalog and research guides, means that our researchers have access to thousands of scholarly articles, e-books, streaming video and sound recordings, and digitized archival material. Managing collections in each subject area–acquiring new materials and carefully weeding out the outdated ones–means that our library collections remain current, relevant, flexible, and robust enough to support the teaching and research needs of continually evolving academic programs. Advocating for open access resources, creating digital humanities resources that shine a light on hidden collections and information sources, and collaborating on projects at the consortial, state, regional, and national levels all further the ways we are able to support researchers across the university, state, and country to find and access critical information resources for their work.
Just twelve weeks ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S., UO’s administration closed numerous campus buildings but insisted that the library facilities remain open because the libraries were considered essential to university operations. (The library buildings did not close until Governor Brown issued the stay-at-home order on March 23.) The university misunderstood what the “essential” element of the UO Libraries is– not the buildings and the stuff within, but the library employees whose expertise, dedication, and creativity made it possible for the UO Libraries to continue offering most services to our patrons while the buildings were closed. From the start of Spring term, librarians and library staff worked harder than ever to support faculty and students making a rapid pivot to remote learning. We purchased hundreds of e-books and located open access resources to ensure that students would be able to keep up with course assignments without interruption. We negotiated free temporary access to over one hundred databases to significantly expand our electronic resources for faculty and students working in a fully online learning environment. We created and updated numerous research guides to embed in Canvas course sites and adapted our library instruction sessions to virtual formats. We engaged in higher numbers of one-on-one research consultations than ever, despite holding all of those consultations via webchat and video meetings. We cataloged new items, both physical and electronic, and found new ways to provide virtual access to archival and special collections. We continued to provide inter-library loans, and we found ways to provide access to print books, scores, and other physical resources via postal mail and a curbside pickup window. We developed new remote projects and workflows so that our student employees could continue to work without loss of income during the pandemic. Little, if any, of that would have been possible with nearly half of our library faculty working at half their usual FTE.
As we look towards Fall term and the probability of a new hybrid learning environment, we need to be able to plan for many possible scenarios, including contingency planning for how to deliver core services with numerous librarians at reduced FTE. The news that FTE appointments will vary from term to term, and may even fall below half-time in a given term due to the complexities of annualized FTE, makes contingency planning more challenging, but also more necessary. Unfortunately, both university and library administration have rejected requests from library faculty to begin such planning. The librarians impacted by the FTE reductions need to be able to plan for their commitments to instruction sessions, service roles, grant-funded projects, and supervision of both student and full-time employees. Perhaps more importantly, they also need to be able to plan how to meet their personal and family needs in the coming year: the questions of eligibility for unemployment benefits, whether and when to seek additional employment, and how to plan for childcare are all pressing concerns in the face of such precarity.
In the era of COVID-19, much has been written about the effect of supply chain disruptions, and their impact on the U.S. and world economies. At UO, these FTE cuts to so many Career faculty librarians will create a disruption in the information supply chain for the entire university, risking student success, slowing faculty research progress–thereby weakening tenure and promotion cases–and eroding management of resources such as the Historic Oregon Newspaper Project that are used by researchers statewide. The university cannot afford to undermine its central mission by hamstringing the Libraries and cutting off the academic units from such core support for their teaching and research.
We recognize the realities of the coming financial strains created by the pandemic, and we support the notion of the full university community coming together in solidarity to share that burden, but to do so must mean that it is shared equitably. Putting the burden of cost savings on a group of people selected arbitrarily because they happened to be up for contract renewal this year is not equitable. It targets the lowest-earning faculty, who can least afford to lose income at this time. It disproportionately targets female faculty: 58% of the 211 Career faculty affected are women, but within the UO Libraries, 76% of those affected are women. It punishes workers for their dedicated service and years of commitment to the university, showing them instead that the university regards them as disposable bargaining chips instead of valued professionals. We believe that UO can do better than this plan. We call on university administration to restore the 211 Career faculty affected by these cuts to their full FTE appointments, and to work in a good-faith cooperative effort with United Academics, SEIU, and the GTFF to develop a truly equitable solution to this potential budget shortfall. A shared burden requires shared governance.