Proposed decanal restructuring phases out university librarian

University provost Jeff Ollerhead says contents of proposal are not final

A recent proposal from the provost, Jeff Ollerhead, for the restructuring of Mount Allison’s decanal level attracted attention this week for its suggestion that several positions be consolidated or significantly changed.

Among the potential changes were the proposals that the position of university librarian be phased out, the positions of dean of arts and dean of social sciences be merged, and a dean of business position be created. The proposal discussion document is aimed at determining the best way to organize the decanal levels, as well as exploring ideas that reduce the workload of deans and the resources needed to replace them on a regular basis.

Ollerhead oversees the administration of the University’s academic affairs, including how the academic deans are organized. Ollerhead presented the proposal to the community for discussion in two open meetings on Jan. 8 and 10. He described the document distributed at the meetings as a compilation of “all the ideas that [he has] received for possible change to the structure.” The proposal was intended to test how they would be received, rather than to announce their adoption. Ollerhead also called for feedback from students and staff, accepting suggestions and critiques about the proposal until noon on Jan. 19.

The provost’s office and the library council urged the community to email their feedback on the proposal to the provost. Sylvan Hamburger/Argosy

The restructuring proposal prompted the release of an open letter from the Library Council and a statement from the MASU vice-president of academic affairs on Jan. 16, as well as a student-run petition.

The Library Council’s letter, emailed to all Mt. A staff and students, objected to the phasing-out of the university librarian position. The university librarian would be replaced with a non-academic management position that would not operate at the level of the deans nor require its holder to be a librarian. The letter states that “such a model would contravene professional norms and practices for academic libraries in Canada,” and would “have a detrimental impact on Mount Allison’s reputation in the professional librarian community and broader academic community.”

University archivist David Mawhinney further explained some of the Library Council’s issues with the proposal, saying, “The first concern is that, according to the collective agreement and the way things have been set up, the libraries and archives are an academic unit within the institution. Obviously they would want someone from within the ranks to be in that position to represent them, advocate and manage that particular unit.”

Mawhinney also expressed concern that deprofessionalizing the university librarian position could create a precedent, and potentially cause tension between Mt. A’s library and the libraries of other universities, cutting Mt. A. off from important academic resources. “We have to rely on interlibrary loan or consortial arrangements with regional and national groups to get discounted pricing to be able to acquire the resources that are used by students,” he said. “My fear is all of the other people that are sitting on those groups are university librarians from across the country, and you have no control over what they might decide to do. What if they start to become concerned about ‘Am I next on the chopping block? Where does the deprofessionalization end?’ ”

Mawhinney’s fear, in the event the proposed changes are accepted in their current state, is that other university administrations might make an example of Mt. A in order to protect themselves by cutting the university off from interlibrary and consortial agreements. “If you can’t get an article from another institution, or you have to pay full price for some of the online resources that you currently have, that’s going to affect student fees in the longer term,” he said.

Rachel Howlett, MASU vice-president of academic affairs, had her own concerns about the idea of merging the dean of arts with the dean of social sciences. “I don’t think that’s in the best interest of students for that position to be merged,” she said. “The argument toward that would be to have a dean for a B.A. and a dean for a B.Sc. and a dean for B.Comm, which on paper looks really clean, but when you look at numbers it doesn’t make sense. Roughly two thirds of students, I think, would fall under the social sciences and the arts, and that one dean [would be responsible for them]. And that also goes to faculty.”

Ollerhead described the consultation process as one of “soft lobbying,” where he was given various suggestions and ideas for change over time. On the origin of the idea of merging the deans of arts and social sciences, Ollerhead said, “Right now the dean of social sciences is responsible for commerce and social sciences. And there are those who have said that’s not a great combination, because commerce is this, sociology is this, they’re really not very much the same thing. So, wouldn’t it make more sense if sociology was together with a group that included religious studies and philosophy? So one way to square that circle would be to say, ‘Maybe we should have a dean of arts and social sciences, but then we’ll have a dean of business that would oversee commerce, but maybe commerce and economics.’ ”

Similarly, Ollerhead said that he had received suggestions that the university librarian position be combined with another role and be given new responsibilities, similar to university librarians at other schools.

“It’s not about the money,” said Ollerhead about the motivations for exploring different decanal structures. In reference to the funds the University would save, he said, “If this entire plan were adopted, we’re talking about maybe one hundred, one hundred and thirty-thousand dollars, which to a student sounds like a big number, but for a $45 million budget for the University it’s not a big number.”

Ollerhead was careful to articulate that the proposal was not set in stone. “The only thing I’ve been able to say declaratively is no, I have not made any decisions,” he said. “Ultimately it would be my responsibility to decide how to arrange the decanal-level structure because all those people report to me, but right now no decisions have been made.” Ollerhead said that he would be reading all the feedback he received last week and taking it into account for a second draft of the discussion document that will be shared with the community, likely sometime this week.

Ollerhead, Mawhinney and Howlett all urged students who have thoughts about the proposal to stay engaged and informed about the process, and to be open about their opinions and concerns by giving feedback.

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