Late last month, the announcement that libraries at the University of North Texas (UNT) in Denton would have to cut $1.7 million from the materials budget sent staff and students around the campus into an uproar, with students and faculty flocking to defend a library system that they see as key to their success as scholars. While UNT Provost Warren Burrgren has walked those statements back in recent days and laid immediate concerns about budget cuts to rest, the controversy started a conversation on the campus about how the library should be funded that isn’t dying down, even as cuts to the library budget are halted or postponed.
Earlier this month, UNT dean of libraries Martin Halbert received an email informing him that the library would need to find $1.7 million in its budget to cover the costs of employee benefits. Those costs, it was explained, would no longer be paid from UNT’s general fund, but be the responsibility of the library, a decision that Halbert was informed would be retroactive to September 1of this year. The email prompted Halbert to meet with faculty members to explain why UNT’s libraries—which had a budget of $16.1 million in 2012—would have to make serious cuts to the materials budget to cover the new costs.
However, according to UNT Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Warren Burrgren, the email was sent by a mid-level finance employee who didn’t have the authority to make that determination. “Only the provost can add to or cut academic unit budgets,” Burrgren told LJ. “This was an unauthorized communication. There has been no discussion to this point about any budget cuts to the library.”
While the budget is safe for the time being, it doesn’t mean that UNT’s library will never be expected to take on the $1.7 million in employee benefits that are at issue here—just that the conversation on how to make that happen hasn’t taken place yet.
Paying employee benefits from departmental coffers is a policy that’s been in place at UNT for some time in areas like food service and housing, and one that will continue to expand, said Burrgren, who describes the practice as a matter of truth in accounting that more accurately reflects the cost of various services on campus.
Since UNT’s library system is funded by a student library fee, though, its budget already shifts quite a bit from year to year, depending on what enrollment numbers look like. That instability makes a hit like the $1.7 million proposed here—more than 10 percent of the library’s budget last year—impossible to absorb without impacting the services it can provide.
The near-instantaneous reaction from students and faculty show how important those services are, Burrgren said. Masood Raja, a UNT English professor, agrees on that point. The point person for the blog Save the UNT Library, Raja told LJ that his work as a scholar would be severely impacted by cuts to, for example, the library’s journal subscriptions. “I study postcolonialism,” said Raja. “So I have to have access to journals published all over the world, and only the library can provide that access.”
Of course, students use the UNT libraries as much or more as faculty do, and they’ve been quick to draw a line in the sand with regards to budget cuts as well. UNT students have set up a Facebook page that has so far garnered over 7,500 likes to raise awareness of the issues facing the library, and have staged protests over potential cuts on campus as well. One demonstrator, senior Kelsey Fryman, told the Denton Record-Chronicle that she had been considering UNT to continue her graduate studies, but that the possibility of a cash-strapped library made that prospect less attractive. “Why would I come here, though, if we aren’t going to take care of our library?” she asked a reporter. “It’s a pivotal part of our education.”
Students have also created petitions, both on campus and online at Change.org, to raise the current student library fee of $16.50 per credit hour, which hasn’t seen an increase in nearly a decade. They’re also trying to open debate on the topic of changing how the library budget is funded, a prospect Burrgren said was on the table. “What we want to do is put money into the library from other sources to smooth out those peaks and troughs,” Burrgren said. Where that money will come from, though—raised fees, tuition increases directed toward materials or staff for the library, or some other source, has yet to be worked out. Burrgren said that conversations about what to do with the library’s budget may begin as soon as this week, and he’s hoping to make significant process on the matter by the spring.
Whatever the fate of UNT’s library, though, the students and faculty who have raised concerns over recent events don’t seem likely to go away anytime soon. “What has happened with this small scale movement is that no decision about library funding can be made without engaging the larger UNT community,” said Raja. “We’re part of the conversation now.”