Sunday, January 07, 2007

On Being Faculty -- Thoughts on tenure After AALS

Law school library directors have a distinctive additional role in their profession. Many (I think, most), are members of the law school faculty as well as being librarians. Very few other librarians are full-fledged members of the faculty they serve. This was the origin of academic librarians, long ago, when the librarian was an equal among a group of scholars. We might ask why only this one narrow type of librarian still has that status. Why not offer faculty status to non-directors who meet standards? Why not consider if medical librarians should be part of medical school faculties? And so forth, reconsidering librarians as members of the faculty through all the academic libraries.

Why is the existing status of law school library directors as full members of their faculties being challenged now? It is tempting just to excoriate the ALDA deans as enemies of faculty diversity and possibly of faculty governance generally, with the "weak links" of clinicians, writing faculty and librarians as just the leading wedge of their general attack on tenure for all faculty. But there are some more subtle and thought-provoking reasons we should discuss.

In recent times, there have been several high-profile law library directors who, because of tenure, could not be fired from their positions. Their stories vary widely, but all offer food for uncomfortable self-reflection. There have been instances of directors who did not do their job, did it badly, did not get on with faculty and deans. These individuals, having been tenured to the full faculty, could be removed from the library but not from the faculty without great uproar. We should curse those who, by selfishly holding onto a tenured position without doing the work demanded by it, have made faculty and deans alike consider whether they want to tenure future library directors at all, or just as librarians, not law faculty. BUT consider, how rarely these problems arise with a tenured director of law libraries. Consider, by contrast, how many members of your law school's substantive faculty stopped producing, caring about students or law school service once they received tenure. The faculty tenure problem is MUCH more common. It is not rational for librarians to be singled out for this attack! It is, however, much less dangerous, as there is a smaller group, and it may be easy for substantive colleagues to dismiss the attack on tenure if it begins with outlier populations like librarians, clinicians and writing faculty.

The issue of problematic tenure is more complicated than malfeasance in a few instances. Bernie Reams, for instance, may be misunderstood to belong in the first category. I have been informed, however, by a former colleague that Bernie's problems arose from challenging an abusive dean. Here is the story as told me, and as best as I can verify, it seems true: Bernie wanted to teach in the school's over-seas program. He was told by the dean he could not participate as he was the librarian. Bernie then told the dean he would resign as librarian, and continue as tenured faculty member. I think this is a good example of why faculty cherish tenure. It frees one from fear of this sort of managerial abuse. It frees you to be creative in your research, in your teaching and in your management of the library. When it works correctly, tenure gives the faculty wings, not a shell.

This sort of power to challenge a dean is what may be the crux of the ALDA deans' attack on tenure. It is certainly inconvenient to have to negotiate with faculty rather than mandate. It may interfere with the dean's plans. But the balance of power between faculty members, (and law librarians) and their deans is a crucial one in American legal education.

The dean-faculty balance of power is becoming more important now than before. There is a class of professional deans developing, who move from school to school, rarely remaining as permanent members of a faculty after their deanships. This development is undoubtedly driven by the increased demands and complexity of deaning. There is a learning curve to being a dean, like everything else, and just being a faculty member does not do very much to prepare a brilliant teacher for the very different demands of deaning. I do not object to the peripatetic professional deans. But consider the difference in judgement, commitment and experience to a school between a faculty member (or librarian) who is there for 15-35 years or more compared to that of a portable, fungible professional dean. There is a great breadth of experience in the professional dean, having seen many different schools, and developed a specialized set of skills. But there is a great depth of experience in long-time members of the law school community. A modern law school needs both types of experience, and both groups need a balanced share of decision-making in the school.

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