Monday, February 25, 2013

A Failure of Imagination

I have just finished the last chapter of my book on the closing of the University of Minnesota library school. All that remains, in terms of the writing, is an epilogue. And then finding a publisher. And then securing permissions. All right, there's more than a little bit left to do.

But in the meantime--and at the suggestion of a colleague long-steeped in the publishing world--I'm posting a small excerpt from the beginning of the book. I've framed the entire work as a four-act play (calling it a "biblio-tragedy"). Although not a play in the strict sense, I found the structure of acts and scenes conducive to the narrative I wished to create. Some editor down the road may wish to disabuse me of this structure, but for the moment this is what I've settled on as a means to express the story.

Here, then, is a segment from the "Prologue" to A Failure of Imagination: The Closing of the University of Minnesota Library School (my working title).

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass: for the which supply, Admit me Chorus to this history; Who prologue-like your humble patience pray, Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play. —William Shakespeare, Henry V

The weather forecast for the last day of April 1982 was not promising. Winter still hugged the countryside, reluctant to let go, cloaking the ground ten days earlier with two inches of snow. The following days brought enough warmth to melt the wet slush. But rain—mixed with flurries and gusty winds—was predicted for month’s end. The Mississippi River, colored by the sky a gunmetal blue, clove a channel through the Minneapolis campus of the University of Minnesota. Students—not yet ready to don sandals and shorts but tanned all the same from a recent spring break—hurried to and fro across the pedestrian bridge that connected the East and West Bank campuses. The academic quarter was winding down. Minds were slowly turning towards warmer thoughts and an escape from the grind of the last eight months. It was a typical spring day in the upper Midwest.

For some at the University this last day in April was anything but normal. Three weeks earlier a hearing had taken place of the “Budget Executive”

to consider the priority of the Library School in comparison with the other programs of the University and to develop a set of recommendations on the actions to be taken with respect to the future of the School. In addition to the members of the Budget Executive, Dr. Warren E. Ibele, Dean of the Graduate School, was present, as were Professors Joan Leigh and Wesley Simonton, who represented the Library School. The hearing process consisted of a presentation by Professor Simonton based upon materials distributed in advance, questions and discussion involving all participants, and a final opportunity for Professors Leigh and Simonton to present any other information they considered relevant to the issues under discussion. The meeting lasted approximately two hours.
There is no indication where this meeting of the Budget Executive took place. Most likely the hearing was held on the East Bank campus in Morrill Hall, a pillared and bricked edifice on the picturesque northeast corner of Northrop Mall—and home to University administrators.

On this dreary last day of April the Budget Executive published its findings from the hearing. The report appeared on plain paper, unadorned by any official letterhead from the University that to a casual observer might link its findings to an office or administrator. Later documents would connect this report to the Budget Advisory Committee of the College of Liberal Arts. Titled “Report on Library School Hearing” and broken into four sections—Introduction, Supporting Information, Evaluation, and Recommendations—the three page document in essence marked the end of the fifty-four-year-old school. The evaluation section was devastating, but it was the recommendations section with its four points that sounded the death knell.

1. Admission of new students to Library Science programs should be suspended indefinitely effective with the Summer Session, 1982.
2. The Library School courses necessary for completion of the M.A. degree should be continued for three years and students in progress should be counseled to concentrate their registrations in their major courses so that they can complete them during those three years. It should be noted that all students can complete their major requirements in that time even if they register for only one course per quarter. The total time available to complete all other degree requirements would continue to be defined by Graduate School policy.
3. A task force should be formed to examine the feasibility of developing a substantially restructured program that would provide opportunities for curricular and research activities in information processing and management as well as in the more classical aspects of librarianship. This task force, which should include representation from the Library School faculty as well as others, should determine whether the interest and expertise exists at the University to provide such a program and should consider how such a program could be supported and where it should be located in the organizational structure of the University. This task force should make its report by June, 1983.
4. If and when the restructured program is approved by the Board of Regents on the recommendation of the President, the admission of students can be resumed.

The program was not restructured and therefore never approved by the President or Board of Regents. No new students were admitted. The library school was dead.

This is not an impartial account of the school’s closing. I was accepted into the University of Minnesota program in the summer of 1980 and graduated, in absentia, in December 1982. I was present when the visiting team for the Committee on Accreditation (COA) of the American Library Association (ALA) made its site visit in 1980 and issued its reaccreditation report in 1981. I participated in formal and informal discussions with fellow students, faculty, and administrators on the status of the school. Part of my second year in the program was spent lobbying administrators and regents to keep the school open. Three days after my final oral examination, in late September 1982, I left the university for my first professional position. Since then, over three decades of experience, I occasionally received appeals from the University’s alumni association for donations. In many of those cases I offered a polite reply: when the university could tell me why they closed my school I would then consider making a donation. Not surprisingly, they never provided an answer.

I had my own suspicions on why the school closed, based on my own experience, but never felt compelled until recently to search further for more definitive answers. My experience told me that the school closed because of internal university politics. The dean of the College of Liberal Arts, by his own admission in my presence, could not understand why he and the college were saddled with the library school. The director of the library school did not have collegial or productive relationships with the dean or other administrators; there was a clash of personalities between the dean and the director. Some members of the faculty had been characterized by the dean and others outside the school (and perhaps a few within) as “dead wood.” The library school faculty did not have a strong record of bringing in outside grant funding. A strong relationship did not exist between the library school faculty and practicing professionals within the university library system; indeed, in some cases these relationships were antagonistic. The school, although well enrolled, was behind the times when it came to new technologies and the impact computers were having on the information environment. A sizeable state budget deficit, passed on in part to the university, meant that some programs would be targeted for elimination. The school, along with other programs within the university system, was in the budget spotlight.

These were my suspicions, my recollections from the time. Many of them proved true, but it was not until I took a closer look at the history of the program and its interactions with the university and profession that they were in some ways confirmed. This is a record of that confirmation. Thirty years have passed since the Budget Executive issued its report. Many of the principals in the drama are retired or deceased. In my present position I have almost immediate access to most of the primary sources. It is time to tell the story.

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