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UNC-Chapel Hill faculty push back against repeated library cuts

Faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill are pushing back against $5 million in budget cuts to its libraries over the next two years — and questioning why they weren’t part of that decision making.

In an October 15 letter to Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and other top administrators, more than 45 faculty members said the cuts “will be devastating to the research mission of UNC, into the future and in unknowable ways.”

The decision to once again cut library budgets is “particularly bewildering” given the emphasis on research in the school’s strategic plan, the faculty members wrote in the letter.

“A well-sourced library is critical to our mission of scholarship and research and grant development, and is vital for maintaining competitive graduate programs,” they wrote. “It is also essential in attracting faculty and graduate students and retaining faculty. The library is the bedrock of our reputation and status as a top-tier research university. Investment in the library is essential. Such investment should be recognized as one of the university’s necessary operational costs, including in a climate where the library’s operating costs increase at a rate of upwards of $1 million per year on inflation alone. “

Cuts to libraries at the UNC System’s flagship campus are nothing new, the faculty members wrote. But the ongoing trend is disturbing and poses a serious threat to the university’s mission, they said.

Instead of being supported and expanded, for a decade or more the UNC Libraries have been subject to contraction, taking budget cuts every year on the order of 1-3%. University Librarian Sarah Michalak’s 2012 report noted that ‘As state allocations to the University dropped, the Library budget was cut by nearly $4 million over three years.’ Reductions in service of this type have the insidious effect of making the libraries meaningfully less relevant to the work of the university, and, as such, an attractive target for future cuts. In business school, one studies this vicious cycle in the context of businesses that make up for revenue declines by cutting things like quality or advertising, which further reduces revenue, leading to more cuts, and so on. The for-profit world has an apt name for this: the death spiral.”

So far, faculty members say, they’ve gotten no response to their letter. That’s disappointing, they say, but indicative of a lack of shared governance and decision making at many UNC system schools.

“I think we’re disappointed not to be consulted at all on that question of priorities before they’re already telling us about cuts and this first round of cuts is being instituted ,” said Emily Baragwanath, an associate professor and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Classics. “There was no consultation at all and to my mind the faculty, we’re this untapped resource that could be being deployed to find creative solutions, make arguments that will help raise the money we need. Because we’re absolutely united in our conviction that the libraries are the key to it all, it’s absolutely crucial.”

A lot of funds are now being poured into peripheral, research-related endeavors like maker spaces and creativity hubs, Baragwanath said.

“It’s not that we’re ignorant or not interested in the financial difficulties the university might be dealing with,” she said. “There’s a sense that the priorities might be wrong.”

The planned cuts to the collections budget will mean less access to papers and journals essential to the research of faculty and students across disciplines, said Elizabeth Havice, associate professor and associate chair of the Department of Geography. A plan to make up for that access with inter-library loans won’t do, Havice said.

“Access to these journals and this research is absolutely essential to our research mission,” Havice said. “These cuts are sending a really clear message that the university isn’t going to support us in that mission.”

The university is now making operating budget cuts of 7.5 percent across the board in an attempt to rein in a budget that hasn’t been balanced in more than a decade. But with schools across the nation having a record year in endowment performance, North Carolina’s $6.5 billion state tax surplus and Chapel Hill’s record-breaking $1 billion in federal research grant dollars, Havice said it’s difficult for faculty to understand why repeated cuts to essential academic resources seem always to be the go-to move a budget crunch. It’s not something school administrators seem eager to explain to faculty and students either, Havice said.

“These top-down decisions about things that affect us most are really demoralizing,” Havice said

Read the full letter from UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members below.

To: Kevin Guskiewicz, Chancellor
Bob Blouin, Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost
Terry Rhodes, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences 

 Cc: Terry Magnuson, Vice Chancellor for Research
Joyce Tan, Vice Chancellor for Research
Kate Henz, Senior Associate Dean for Operations and Strategy
Elaine Westbrooks, Vice Provost for University Libraries and University Librarian 

15 October 2021 

Re:  Operational cuts to the University libraries  

We write as faculty across five units of the University and across all three divisions of the college of Arts and Sciences, each of us representing dozens of other UNC-Chapel Hill faculty members, who are astonished and alarmed by the recent announcement of profound operational cuts to the university libraries. The amount to be cut from the library budget is small change in the context of the expenses of the research university, but these cuts will be devastating to the research mission of UNC, into the future and in unknowable ways.  

This is an especially bewildering development given the prominence of “Research and Discovery” in the University’s strategic plan, Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good.  A well-sourced library is critical to our mission of scholarship and research and grant development, and is vital for maintaining competitive graduate programs. It is also essential in attracting faculty and graduate students and retaining faculty. The library is the bedrock of our reputation and status as a top-tier research university. Investment in the library is essential. Such investment should be recognized as one of the university’s necessary operational costs, including in a climate where the library’s operating costs increase at a rate of upwards of $1 million per year on inflation alone. 

Instead of being supported and expanded, for a decade or more the UNC Libraries have been subject to contraction, taking budget cuts every year on the order of 1-3%.?University Librarian Sarah Michalak’s 2012 report noted that “As state allocations to the University dropped, the Library budget was cut by nearly $4 million over three years.” Reductions in service of this type have the insidious effect of making the libraries meaningfully less relevant to the work of the university, and, as such, an attractive target for future cuts. In business school, one studies this vicious cycle in the context of businesses that make up for revenue declines by cutting things like quality or advertising, which further reduces revenue, leading to more cuts, and so on. The for-profit world has an apt name for this: the death spiral.  

 To sustain UNC as a top-tier research university, university leaders should work to expand and update the libraries’ collections and subscriptions of books and journals. Just as a lab working to discover a cure for AIDS or a vaccination for COVID must be kept up-to-date in its resources, so too does the University’s library. Unlike a lab or any other unit on campus, the library is unique in serving everyone: it is crucial to research projects across the university’s departments and divisions.  

Although it is a vital resource to us all, we would like to draw your attention to the particular importance of the library to our graduate students, who supply essential labor, teaching thousands of our undergraduate students, while being remunerated at levels well below the poverty line. The least the University can do in return is to support their research and fulfill the promises made to them upon their admission. Nor will undergraduates be able to conduct research effectively and efficiently without a properly supported research library, a touchstone of the new IDEAs in Action Curriculum. The whole of the state of North Carolina also has a stake in the library as members of the community can borrow books and use the facilities.     

As our University leaders, we implore you to recognize the value of this critical resource, and to put your talents and energies into finding ways for the University to properly support its library. Right now there is an urgent need to find funds to cover immediate expenses. We understand that discretionary funds are available where needed; in the case of the settlement with the Sons of Confederate Veterans regarding Silent Sam, the Interim Chancellor was able to move the required funds quickly from UNC-CH endowment to the UNC System.  

In the longer-term, we ask you to think creatively of ways of supporting the library and its mission by fundraising. Could we follow Duke’s model of adding a dollar, or $5, to every athletic event ticket sold? Can we make the library and its vital role central to funding campaigns for the university? Can we find donors to endow the libraries?  Given the library’s unique dependence on legislative budgets, we ask you also to set yourselves to educating our state legislators about the value of the library within the university and the state of North Carolina. We stand ready to help you articulate a compelling vision of the library’s crucial role: an outward-looking, winning vision, couched in terms of solutions (not problems), plainly articulated, and more obviously demonstrated value to the people of the state. 

We are tasked with inter-generational transference of knowledge – this is the role of the research library – and there is no more important investment for our state. 

We respectfully ask to meet with you in person or on zoom as a matter of urgency to discuss this critical situation. 

Sincerely, 

Emily Baragwanath (Associate Professor, Department of Classics)
William Sturkey (Associate Professor, Department of History)
William H. Race (George L. Paddison Professor of Classics, Emeritus, Department of Classics)
Thomas B. Clegg (V. Lee Bounds Professor of Physics Emeritus, Department of Physics & Astronomy)
Brandi C. Brimmer (Associate Professor and Morehead-Cain Alumni Scholar, African, African American and Diaspora Studies)
William L. Andrews (E. Maynard Adams Professor of English Emeritus, Former Senior Associate Dean for Fine Arts and     Humanities, Former Chair, Department of English and Comparative Literature)
Mary-Rose Papandrea (Samuel Ashe Distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law, UNC School of Law)
Daniel J. Sherman (Lineberger Distinguished Professor, Art History and History)
Robert V.F. Janssens (Edward G. Bilpuch Professor Physics & Astronomy, Department of Physics & Astronomy)
Jonathan Engel (Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Department of Physics & Astronomy)
Hérica Valladares (Associate Professor, Department of Classics)
Paul W. Leslie (Pardue Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Chair, Environment, Ecology, and Energy Program (E3P))
Todd Ramón Ochoa (Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies)
Carissa Byrne Hessick (Ransdell Distinguished Professor of Law, UNC School of Law)
Meenu Tewari (Associate Professor of Economic Development, Department of City and Regional Planning)
Joan H. Krause (Dan K. Moore Distinguished Professor of Law, UNC School of Law, Professor (Secondary Appointment), Social Medicine, UNC School of Medicine, Adjunct Professor, Health Policy & Management, Gillings School of Global Public Health)
Connie Eble (Professor Emerita, Department of English and Comparative Literature)
Margaret J. Wiener (Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology)
Patricia L. Sullivan (Associate Professor, Department of Public Policy)
Christopher T. Nelson (Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology)
Elizabeth A. Olson (Professor and Chair, Department of Geography)
Elizabeth Havice (Associate Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Geography)
Sarah D. Shields (Professor, Department of History)
Susan Bickford (Associate Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Political Science)
George Lensing (Mann Family Distinguished Professor of English Emeritus, English and Comparative Literature)
Robin L. Visser (Associate Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies)
Brigitte Seim (Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Department of Public Policy)
Sheila Kannappan (Professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy)
Richard Andrews (Professor Emeritus, Department of Public Policy)

Kerry S. Bloom (Thad L. Beyle Distinguished Professor and Chair, Department of Biology)
Thomas Kelley (James Dickson Phillips, Jr. Distinguished Professor, UNC School of Law)
Victoria Rovine (Professor of Art History, Department of Art and Art History, Co-Director of Center for African Studies)
Elaine Yeh (Research Professor, Department of Biology)
Patricia E. Sawin (Associate Professor, Department of American Studies)
Tim Crothers (Adjunct Instructor, Hussman School of Journalism and Media)
Amy Oldenburg (Professor of Physics & Astronomy, Biomedical Research Imaging Center)
Donna Falvo (Professor of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling Emerita, School of Medicine)
Carol Magee (Associate Professor and Department Chair, Department of Art and Art History)
Tamlin M. Pevelsky (Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Earth, Marine and Environmental Sciences)
Sharon L. James (Professor of Classics, Department of Classics, Affiliated Faculty in Comparative Literature, and Women’s and Gender Studies)
Edward Donald Kennedy (Professor Emeritus, Department of English and Comparative Literature)
Janet Downie (Associate Professor of Classics, Department of Classics)
Stephen E. Gent (Professor, Department of Political Science)
Jordynn Jack (Professor of English and Comparative Literature)
Douglas MacKay (Associate Professor, Department of Public Policy)
Michael Gerhardt (Burton Craige Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence, UNC School of Law) 

Subsequent signatories: 

Trudier Harris (J. Carlyle Sitterson Distinguished Professor Emerita, Department of English and Comparative Literature)
Donald M. Nonini (Professor Emeritus of Anthropology)

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