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.