October 16, 2017

U Conn Faculty, Administration Connect over Library Cuts

Update: Expected FY17 budget cuts to the UConn system have been forestalled, thanks to a large donation. According to the Daily Campus, the anonymous donation roughly covers the projected $600,000 cut. “I’m authorized to say no collections will be cut [for FY 2017],” stated professor Jennifer Terni.

"Homer D Babbidge Library, University of Connecticut  Photo credit: John Phelan, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Homer D Babbidge Library, University of Connecticut
Photo credit: John Phelan, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As the University of Connecticut (UConn) library system braces for a $1.2 million budget cut in 2016, a reduction that will mean the loss of 7.5 FTEs among other disruptions in service, a group of concerned faculty members say they are heartened by the administration’s apparent openness toward exploring new ways of plugging a revenue gap that shows little sign of abating.

Cutting $1.2 million, about 6 percent of UConn’s 2015 library budget, became necessary after the loss of some $80 million in state aid, Vice Provost for University Libraries Martha Bedard told Library Journal. It forced library staff layoffs, she said, along with an $115,552 cut in acquisitions, the first phase in a planned 14 percent reduction in collections spanning FY16–17 that will include a comprehensive review of costs, usage, and priorities. Most of the budget decisions for FY16 have been set in motion, including employee layoffs. In July, as stipulated in the union contract, each of those staff members was given one year’s notice of his or her impending termination. Some of those employees have already left UConn, Bedard confirmed.

Another 3 percent cut—about $600,000—is expected for UConn’s FY17 library budget, Bedard added, although that has not been finalized. “It’s a projection,” she told LJ. “We’re planning for it.” But Bedard also conceded that concerns recently expressed by the faculty could have an impact on those plans.

UConn’s library system operates 11 facilities around the state, including the huge Homer Babbidge Library on the main Storrs, CT, campus.

Faculty support

Instructors and academics at UConn knew budget cuts were inevitable, but the final numbers drew a strong response this fall. A letter protesting the cuts was drafted by several members of the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, with Jennifer Terni, an associate professor of French, as primary author, and forwarded to UConn Provost Mun Choi on October 30 after collecting more than 300 signatures of support.

“The decision to shear the most visible pillar of its research mandate so dramatically threatens to undermine the university’s research profile and puts the university’s ability to attract and retain top researchers and students at risk in the long term,” the letter’s opening paragraph states. The faculty letter of protest noted that prior to the latest round of staff cuts, UConn libraries already had the lowest staff ratio as compared to other comparable universities, a point that Bedard also conceded is accurate.

Collection also remains a source of concern for the faculty. At UConn, this issue involves three facets deemed critical to research and graduate-level work: the purchase of books and other media, renewal of journal and database subscriptions, and requests for document delivery and interlibrary (ILL) borrowing.

As for ILL, the faculty letter noted that loans provided by UConn to other institutions remains steady at about 33,000 per year. But loans requested have jumped from 21,000 in 2006 to 68,154 in 2012. “This is a testament, on the one hand, to the poverty of our collections and, on the other, to the tremendous engagement of our research community,” the letter reads.

Terni’s letter argued that while UConn libraries have weathered steady budget cuts, usage numbers remain strong. In 2006, she wrote, the weekly gate count was 18,660; by 2012 that total had climbed to 53,288. “The point of these numbers is to underscore that while better established libraries like those at the University of Washington or Ohio State…might be able to weather retrenchments on the scale being contemplated here, our already insufficient libraries will be crippled,” the letter stated.

A realistic reply

In his written reply to the faculty letter, Choi wrote, “Our budget situation has been very challenging and prospects for the near future are worrisome with predictions of state deficits as high as $250 million for the current year. In this environment, we’ve all had to make difficult choices and sacrifices.” Choi’s reply to the faculty did contradict a stated claim that book purchases would be eliminated entirely due to budget cuts. He said book acquisitions for FY15 had already been cut by $121,000 as “a stopgap measure” and a comprehensive review was ongoing to determine collection priorities. “Faculty will be fully engaged in the process,” Bedard said, adding that the library system would not stop purchasing books altogether.

The vice provost also stated in her written reply to the faculty letter, “Major electronic journal packages will be examined during the comprehensive review. It is premature to say whether, or which, electronic journal packages may be eliminated. We may elect to retain crucial content outside of the standard publisher package, which increases in cost seven percent per year on average.”

Concern over the layoff of a part-time ILL staffer was also mentioned in the faculty letter, but Bedard replied, “Our capacity to borrow materials will not suffer from this change. We do not believe the reduction in ILL staffing will impact the overall capacity in fulfilling the service mission.”

A meeting of the minds

Choi and Bedard met with six faculty members on November 16 in what sources say turned into a productive discussion about the library system’s value to UConn as a research institution and the need to keep materials in line with the users’ evolving needs. Common ground was also struck as to ideas for generating revenue to plug future budget shortfalls, according to faculty members interviewed for this story.

Asked if she felt UConn administrators truly grasped the faculty’s concern over the library system’s future, Terni said, “I think for the first time they really have.” “I think he’s been very receptive,” Gustavo Nanclares, head of the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages who was also present at the meeting, said of Choi. “The provost is clearly willing to work with faculty. I want to see it happen.”

The goal now, Nanclares and Terni said, is to identify revenue sources that could help stave off future library cuts for FY17 and beyond, even if state aid to UConn continues to drop precipitously. But they declined to elaborate on specific strategies discussed in the meeting with Choi, citing the preliminary nature of these plans and the need to continue a productive dialogue with the administration. Efforts to reach Choi for a comment were unsuccessful.

Bedard described the November 16 meeting as “very respectful,” and said of the faculty, “They certainly don’t want this (budget cuts) to become a trend. They want the provost to understand this is an important resource for them.”

Added Terni, “It was totally not an autocratic proceeding. Everyone understood they were all in the same boat.”

Terni also told LJ, “I also want to stress that I still think that the provost is doing his best to try to fund the library…. He wants us to be successful.”

Note: Jennifer Terni’s title has been corrected to associate professor. It was originally given as associate professor. LJ regrets the error.

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