February 17, 2018

Responding to an “Open Letter” | From the Bell Tower

A new university president’s “open letter” to his community attracted quite a bit of attention in higher education. Viewed as a challenge to those of us who work in higher education, are academic librarians up to the task?

When more college and university presidents are coming to their jobs from outside of higher education, mostly business people, it’s still somewhat unusual to find a politician taking over the helm. That’s what happened at Purdue University when Mitch Daniels ascended to the presidency after ending two terms as the Governor of Indiana—spurning the call to run for another presidential job. The move caused its share of controversy, as faculty protested that their new president should have a stronger background in academia. Daniels also jumped into the pool late in the search process, and that may have rankled with some campus community members. In the long run, Daniels may fare no better than other failed presidents and CEOs, but he certainly did get his presidency off to a dynamic start by shaking the foundations of his own institution, and possibly delivering an equally important message for all of higher education.

Open letter to the campus

Perhaps it’s because he comes from a completely different background that Daniels took a completely different approach to reach out to the community. Rather than tell the campus that all is well and that the institution is moving in the right direction, Daniels shared a somewhat different message in his “Open Letter to the People of Purdue.” He first shared a laundry list of what’s wrong with American higher education, from high costs and high student debt to poor accountability and a lack of academic rigor. In what must have come as somewhat of a shock at a research university, Daniels expressed concerns that teaching is subordinated to research at Purdue—and that it’s a problem to address. To be sure, Daniels had some great things to say about Purdue, and his letter starts off with the many things he thinks work well at Indiana. A letter like this one might normally be ignored by the higher education community, but because it was from Daniels and because it was his first significant communication to Purdue, it did garner more attention. What really got folks to wake up and pay attention were a set of bold observations and suggestions from this new president.

Librarians are ready to act

When he set down the words in his open letter, I suspect that Daniels gave no thought to where academic librarians fit into the equation for building a better higher education enterprise. Probably nowhere, which is where we usually are when the big issues are brought to the table for conversation. However, looking at the issues to which Daniels called attention in his open letter, I believe there are opportunities for academic librarians. Here’s my response to the open letter:

Excellence: I liked what Daniels had to say about the real value of a university being more about its people than its physical assets. I agree strongly when speaking about the academic library; we are about more than our books and content. He wrote that excellence will “have to be based on something more than reputation.” It will have to be “measured, quantified, and documented.” This is a challenge to our libraries to be more than the proverbial “heart of the university.” It’s an opportunity to build relationships that will make our work about more than the content, but to succeed, we will have to meet Daniels call to assess and document our value. Academic librarians are well on their way to emphasizing the value proposition.

Affordability: He’s hardly the first president to call for greater cost controls to hold down tuition, but Daniels wants his institution to think about the impact of spending on student tuition. He brings attention to “STEs” or Student Tuition Equivalents—the unnecessary expenditures that could have enabled a student to attend Purdue for a full year. Few could point to the academic library as a source of the administrative bloat or reckless spending that contributes to the tuition crisis. While we must acquire the costly publications on which our researchers and learners depend, academic librarians are outspoken about the need to find more open solutions to lower the overall cost of higher education. It certainly helps that we have a long record of resource sharing that creates economies for higher education. In the digital age, we’ll no doubt be asked to do more to cut costs and help keep tuition affordable. Specialized branch libraries may be just one example of a potential target in achieving affordability. Along with our institutions, academic librarians may need to move towards centralized operations. I think we’re up to the task, and also have the capacity to provide campus leadership in helping students get great value for their tuition dollar.

Shared Governance: This is an area in which academic librarians tend to play a lesser role on campus, but at those institutions where they are invited to participate in shared governance, it can strengthen the curriculum and add institutional diversity to the process. Daniels writes that governance means all of us who work in higher education must contribute to improving the institution, not simply expect that others will make the necessary sacrifices. Accountability is everyone’s responsibility. Academic librarians, I believe, are well suited to adapt to that philosophy. Most academic librarians would appreciate participating in shared governance at their institutions, and they are ready to serve.

Engagement: Although here he speaks primarily to the university as an instrument that engages with the community beyond its own borders, this also refers to the value of engaging with students to help them fulfill the mission “to improve human life.” When the academic library is integrated into the curriculum and librarians engage with students and faculty beyond the borders of the building, it creates far more opportunities for academic success at the institution. If our institutions are going to have an impact on society and the world beyond our campus, then it would be beneficial to include academic librarians as an active component of the engagement plan.

Open Inquiry: It’s refreshing to have a university president publicly encourage free speech and open debate on campus, and to do so even when the administration is the target of criticism. I suppose as a governor you develop a thick skin and must deal with political foes on a daily basis. While the academic library plays no direct role in creating a campus environment in which “all feel completely safe in speaking out,” with its core value of defending intellectual freedom and commitment to provide access to information that is fair, balanced, and supports a diversity of viewpoints, the academic library is well positioned to help support a climate of open inquiry on every campus.

Common Purpose: Daniels writes that, while he appreciates the independence of faculty, he also has concerns about Purdue being “less of a university than a federation.” Here is where the academic library can truly promote the goal of having a common institutional purpose. As the campus commons, where all can equally share in the resources and the breadth and depth of the curriculum is reflected in the collections, the academic library demonstrates that, by fulfilling a common purpose, the entire institution can rise to new heights. Presidents and top administrators need to point to the library as an example of how achieving a common purpose brings benefits to all campus constituencies.

Opportunities are there

Daniels open letter became public at a time when the news repeatedly signaled the decline of the higher education. While it acknowledges that higher education is indeed under attack for its failure in costing too much and delivering too little, it offers a vision for better times ahead, when faculty and administrators work together to improve the quality of education and scholarship. Purdue faculty took the letter as a good sign that they can work with Daniels to achieve such improvements, but tension between the faculty and administration always presents a challenge. Daniel’s letter garnered significant attention in higher education for acknowledging that there are many problems to confront. But it also gave much encouragement that, by focusing on the fundamentals of what makes American higher education special, there is hope that we can surmount these barriers to a better future. When that spirit infuses our campuses, it creates new opportunities, and academic librarians must be ready to take advantage when the time comes.



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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  1. Purduped Pete says:

    Frankly, I couldn’t disagree with your comments more. Daniels is quickly establishing himself as an autocrat who is out to transform Purdue into a Republican’s wet dream about the future of higher education. To start with a quick aside, Daniels’ late entry into the applicant pool isn’t what rankled the community – the cronyism of his appointment is. He was appointed by the Board of Trustees he personally appointed. No conflict of interest there, whatsoever.

    Much of the rest of the rest of the piece rings hollow, and to me represents the absolute worst of the corporatized university where we cram information into the heads of consumers as quickly as possible instead of educating students; where intellectual freedom, shared governance, and common purpose are valued as long as they fit the administrative agenda of the autocratic president; and where representation of conservative ideology on campus is viewed as the most important part of diversity (at a campus where racial incidents are common).

    Despite the positive comments from the president of the faculty senate, I think you might find different reactions if you were to dig more deeply.