Monday, January 16, 2006

Can Tulane Law Library Survive?

Joe Hodnicki at Law Librarian Blog has a very disturbing post about the situation at Tulane Law Library, which I quote here in full:

On the Current (and Future) State of the Tulane Law Library

One has to read through some 23 paragraphs of Shiny Happy People text in Jodi S. Cohen's Back to books in the bayou article published in yesterday's Chicago Tribune before coming across the following:

Among Tulane's losses are some 1,000 employees, about half of whom were laid off while the rest didn't return. What's more, university officials last month announced plans for the largest reinvention of the college in history, the full effects of which won't be known for years.

The graduate school lost several PhD programs, the medical school lost 180 doctors, the engineering school lost several majors, the athletic department lost eight teams, and the now-merged Newcomb College lost its all-female identity.

Frankly, I would expect more from the Chicago Tribune's higher education reporter because the real story lies is the issues surrounding this so-called "reinvention" of Tulane. See the University's plans.

First, we need to find answers to this question: Is the University restructuring mostly Katrina-related? Partially Katrina-related? "Vaguely" Katrine-related? Or is the University using "Katrina" to implement goals and plans that otherwise would have been difficult to execute without having a convenient excuse?

Second, what will the impact of this restructuring be on the quality of education offered by the University once this "reinvention" is complete? "Why, excellent of course!"

Third, what are the consequences to the University's workforce?

Relative to the consequences to the Law Library staff, here is what one person posted on a library listserv yesterday:

I just got off the phone with a friend from Tulane (who was in tears) and [the] news is true. I believe that 9 people were fired from the law library and 12 are left. It is definitely a campus-wide situation and many from Tulane's main library have been fired also. People are scrambling to get health insurance and make other important life decisions. They have been told that all non-essential personnel are being fired; length of service has nothing to do with the decision! How sad for us all.

Non-essential. Pleading poverty. This situation just does not pass my smell test.

The Law Library Before Katrina
The Law Library lost its director in 2004. The committee, under the recommendation of one of its members, the University Librarian, declared its search a failure and appointed said University Librarian to run the operations of the Law Library, removing the law library's then-Head of Public Services as acting director.

The University Librarian's management has not been pro forma--leaving the law library to be run by the law librarians--but rather he has taken the opportunity to institute many changes. Morale at the law library has been very low, which is very well known. All this was before Katrina.

Immediately before Katrina, the Law Library had extended an job offer to a new head of access services, which it then withdrew. It has since eliminated every department head, to wit: it now lacks its Director, Head of Public Services, Head of Access Services, and Head of Technical Services. There appears to be no commitment to fill any of these positions. Moreover, the University Librarian has decided to outsource all binding operations for all libraries (hence the firing of all those personnel), and there is talk about merging the cataloging and technical services.

So my question is do the actions at Tulane reasonably represent a sub rasa determination by relevant powers to subsume the law library into the operations of the University library, demoting it from an independent entity and transforming it into a subordinated department? The recent spate of firings looks to be designed to preshape the structure of the law library for insertion into the main library's organization.

I believe this matter requires investigation by AALL with or without but hopefully with the cooperation of AALS. Don't you?

I was hesitant to post anything about the Tulane situation since I do not know all the facts and have not spoken with any of the staff, neither those who have been laid off nor those who remain. However, as someone who has written at length about law library autonomy, and whose comments could be misinterpreted as advocating a diminishment of such autonomy, I felt that I needed to say something in response.

(1) My immediate reaction on hearing of the layoffs was to consider how we law librarians could band together to help our colleagues find new jobs and relocate to other law libraries. I still think that is a good idea. But what about the thousands of Louisiana and Mississippi residents who lack even the support of a network of professional colleagues? Is it fair--is it even humane--to go all out to help certain victims of Katrina find professional employment when thousands who lost everything remain homeless? I think whatever effort we undertake, as individual law librarians or as an association, must somehow take place in the context of support for all the residents of the hurricane-affected areas. If we are able to help our colleagues, we should try to help strangers as well.

(2) Tulane University, like most institutions in New Orleans and throughout the region affected by Hurricane Katrina, is clearly in dire financial straits. One can hardly expect the University to return to business as usual, when the very question of the continued viability of the city remains in doubt. It seems obvious that cuts in programs are necessary for Tulane to survive and to resume its status as a leading university. Other programs are being cut more severely, and in ways that could have significant repercussions for the recovery of the city.

(3) Given the hard choices that Tulane must undoubtedly make, I am still seriously concerned about the decision to cut the Law Libary staff in half and to merge services with the University Library. I am the director of one of the handful of "non-autonomous" U.S. law school libraries, but we have always maintained a large degree of independence of the University Libraries: in addition to our reference and public services staff, we have our own acquisitions and technical services departments, all of which we--and, I believe, our faculty--find essential to maintaining the level of service that a good law school expects.

I am unwilling to ascribe ill motives to the director of the Tulane University Libraries. It always seems more efficient to centralize library services, at least when you are sitting at the center. However, the director seems at best uninformed about the likely outcome of such a move. The ABA accreditation standards still require that a law school library have "sufficient administrative autonomy to direct the growth and development of the law library and to control the use of its resources." Tulane's next accreditation visit is scheduled for 2008-2009. If the law library's services are in fact merged into the University Library, the Law School will be at risk of losing its accreditation.

(4) I would place some share of the responsibility for the slashing of law library staff and possible merger into the University Library on the Tulane Law School's faculty and administration. In fact, I worry for the survival of the school. A law school that will allow its library to be taken away lacks one of two things, if not both: a serious commitment to scholarship and teaching, or the weight within the university to maintain its own autonomy and survive predatory cost-cutting measures. A law school can operate without ABA accreditation--some states allow graduates of in-state law schools to sit for the bar exam--but I doubt that Tulane wants to lose its national standing and become only a local school.

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