September 23, 2017

Connecting Higher Ed Trends to the Academic Library | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellHigher education is in a state of flux, and the key shifts taking place may create opportunities for the academic library. If these are higher ed’s most pressing problems, academic librarians are part of the solutions.

While the experts struggle to find common ground on what American higher education needs to do to fix itself, there’s no dearth of opinions on why it’s breaking. For the last few years, a multitude of essays and books have questioned nearly every aspect of the way in which colleges and universities operate. Starting with the most fundamental of questions, what is the purpose of college and do all citizens need to graduate from one, we have seen everything—from what happens in the classroom to the locker room— about higher education being poked at or outright attacked, not to mention why it all costs so much and keeps getting costlier.

Good to be Confronted

The latest to rile academe is Kevin Carey, whose new book, The End of College, is described as being both “apocalyptic and idealistic.” When Carey gets to the part about libraries being an unnecessary frill, that’s where most academic librarians see it as mostly apocalyptic and not so idealistic. The library is hardly the only aspect of the modern college or university that Carey and others believe needs radical change—and he’s hardly the first one to question whether colleges and universities need libraries. When we are confronted by such ideas it may actually be good for academic librarians. It should serve as a reminder that not everyone who works in higher education is our friend. Assuming that everyone thinks the library is the heart of the university could be our biggest miscalculation. We should always be questioning that assumption by paying attention to what’s happening in higher education, where it’s headed, and how academic libraries fit into the big picture—and what problems are being ignored—because that is often our best opportunity to take a leadership position on campus.

Trends and Academic Librarians

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s special report on key trends is a good starting point. The report acknowledges the ways in which higher education is under attack on multiple fronts, from degree completion to excessive cost to alternate paths. One reason to keep track of trends is to analyze and prepare for change, and the report acknowledges that higher education institutions are notoriously resistant to change. The report is designed with change in mind, exposing faculty and administrators to possible solutions that will support adapting to change. Below are the trends the Chronicle thought were most significant. What the Chronicle didn’t consider was where the library fits into the changing landscape of higher education. I’m going to try to correct that oversight.

  1. Retention
    Hardly news to academic librarians, colleges and universities are still trying to figure out what happens when declining enrollment meets dropouts. Add them up and lost students mean revenue declines for higher education institutions and debt problems for students. Our institutions need all the help they can get with retention, and academic librarians are ready to help. But what do we do? Anything that helps students succeed academically is a good start, but students stay when they are engaged as members of the academic community. This is an area in which the academic library contributes. We need to do a better job of documenting it.
  2. Reimagine the Career Office
    Not to suggest that college should evolve into a vocational education experience, but there’s no denying that more students and their parents expect the time spent at college to lead to a job and budding career. Many academic libraries, usually through their business librarian or liaison, already work with the Career Office to support student efforts to secure good jobs. There’s opportunity where this isn’t happening, but to succeed it requires the library to reach out to the Career Office and for the Career Office to believe that what librarians can offer to students about company research and interview preparation is of great value.
  3. Governing Board Tensions
    Individual institutions are increasingly challenged to demonstrate value, be accountable for student success, hold their own against new forms of competition, and cope with shaky budgets and declining enrollments. That puts great pressure on trustees to develop solutions and lead their institution through troubling times. Academic librarians will rarely be involved in trustee matters—not even the dean or director. What the dean or director needs to do is stay alert to trustee issues and how they might impact the library. At some level, as demonstrated by Virginia’s Sweet Briar College, it’s just not possible to always know what’s happening.
  4. Academic Freedom and Social Media
    Higher ed is seeing more cases of faculty under attack by the public and even from their own administrations for voicing their opinions on social media. Academic librarians have been relatively free from the entanglements experienced by multiple faculty, particularly when students share captured emails or video on social media. Academic librarians need to stand united with faculty in advocating for their right to express opinions freely and to have the protections of academic freedom. I suspect that, owing to a less public profile at their institutions, academic librarians will continue to be less of a target than faculty for social media condemnation, but any given controversy could prove that wrong.
  5. Unbundling of Higher Education
    Obtaining a college degree no longer requires a linear journey from freshman to senior at a single institution. That model still exists and is used by many students, but for those who want to opt for a nonlinear postsecondary education, the unbundled options are rapidly expanding: on campus, online, public university, community college, MOOC, for-profit, etc. Students can move from one to another as their needs change. The big question for academic librarians is how they will serve swirling students who move among institutions and programs, often online and beyond the reach of traditional library services. Some sort of transferable access privilege that accompanies students wherever they go? Expanding our services to this demographic enhances our value to the institution.
  6. Adjuncts Demand Better Working Conditions
    Adjuncts are pushing for better pay, benefits, and treatment. As the professoriat continues to move in the direction of adjuncts over full-time faculty, higher education institutions can no longer ignore the low pay, lack of benefits, and generally poor treatment of their adjuncts—or they’ll face increasing efforts at unionization. Academic librarians find it hard to collaborate with adjunct faculty who are rarely seen on campus beyond class times and often are hired with little notice and therefore have little chance to become knowledgeable about information literacy outcomes. Improved conditions for adjuncts could greatly benefit academic librarians by creating new collaborative partners.
  7. Rise of Team Science
    Facing the likelihood of declining research funding and greater competition for awards, higher education institutions are hoping to be more competitive by encouraging their scientists to work together and in more interdisciplinary ways. Faculty, though, can be frustrated trying to find colleagues with similar interests in other departments with whom they can team up. Academic librarians can help facilitate team science in two ways. First, they can help their faculty members find colleagues with the implementation of researcher network software. Second, librarians’ own liaison contacts can help bring faculty together. Teams need a range of players, and academic librarians can embed themselves into research teams to contribute to the productivity of the research enterprise.
  8. Higher Profile for Teaching
    Everyone wants to know what students are learning and if learning outcomes are being met. More attention is being paid to what happens in the classroom and helping faculty at all levels and disciplines to become savvy educators, whether they choose to be flippers, stage sages, or side guides. That means more active learning, more attention to plagiarism avoidance, transforming large lecture courses, and, yes, more learning analytics. Academic librarians are educators at heart. We really care about helping students learn to become thinkers who can research. If our institutions want to raise the bar on learning this is a golden opportunity for academic librarians to help lead the way. Let’s not sit on the sidelines waiting to be asked.
  9. Millennials as Future Donors
    Academic libraries are competing with everyone else for donor dollars. Higher education faces a big problem because its Millennial alumni seem to have no interest in giving back to the institution. When the traditional and boomer generations are gone, this will be a big problem. Higher education can’t wait that long to get Millennials engaged as donors. It’s not a strength area for academic librarians, and we know the library has no alumni the way disciplines do (or rather everyone is our alum), but we may be able to make some headway with our own student workers, those who attend our events, and the students who seem to live in our buildings. We know Millennials want to get behind causes for which they are passionate, not just write checks to their alma mater. Let’s make sure they know the library is a good cause.
  10. Navigate in a Culture of Change
    They saved the big one for last. Change. It’s all changing. The trick is to avoid allowing external forces over which there is no control to push change on the institution. Academic leaders need proactively to manage change and become an institution that is differentiated from the competition. Sustainable colleges and universities are able to make a strong case for why they should exist and why they deserve funding—and to demonstrate to students, parents, critics, and legislators that this is where students learn, grow, and go on to succeed in life. Our academic libraries must be in the right state of both mind and preparation so that we are always at the ready to change with our institutions—and even help lead the way.

If you made it this far, try going a bit further. Navigate over to the more detailed reports on each trend and find out what different higher education institutions are doing to manage these trends and the change they bring. That’s the starting point for exploring how the academic library can contribute to our institution’s progress and future.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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