University Senate April 24, 1998

 

 

COMMITTEE ON LIBRARIES AND ACADEMIC COMPUTING FACILITIES:

1997-98 ANNUAL REPORT

The Committee's initial objective this year, which took a surprisingly long time to realize, was to make known to the university community the critique and recommendations of the outside review committee (the "Frye Committee") which investigated the libraries and AcIS in March 1997. Our main aim, however, has been to persuade the administration to implement the Frye Committee's recommendations. That is not to say that that the Frye Report gave a comprehensive account of the deficiencies of the system, and the Senate committee has taken note of a number of important issues which the Frye Report did not address. However the Frye Report served as the basis for the committee's action, not least because that document has been generally accepted by all concerned at Columbia as a fair overview of our situation, its only weakness being a shortage of detail on certain topics.

The Frye Report is a scathing document which lists a host of deficiencies, and calls on the Columbia administration in thirteen recommendations to commit large capital sums to the library and AcIS systems, to increase their operating budgets sharply and forthwith, and to give a symbolic indication that the library is at the center of its concerns. The alternative, in the Frye Committee's view, is (1) an AcIS system likely to become seriously dysfunctional in the near future, and (2) a library system which will steadily and rather quickly sink from its present inadequate condition to being entirely incapable of sustaining a major research university.

This committee has repeatedly pointed out and protested against the policies which have created this crisis: see, for instance, the committee's annual report of 1994.

In response to the Frye Report the administration has taken a number of positive steps. We note with pleasure that the libraries and AcIS are now treated as a separate element in the university's budget and not as a part of the administration. This was a necessary reform, and constitutes some new recognition of the importance of the libraries and AcIS for the health of the university. We also commend the Provost for appointing and working with a news Advisory Committee. The academic community has not, on the other hand, yet seen proof that the administration has assigned the libraries a significantly higher place in its order of its long-term priorities.

The Committee conducted a public hearing to discuss the Frye Report and all the problems of the libraries and AcIS in November. This meeting was relatively well attended and benefited from statements by a number of leading faculty and library officers. The overall judgement was that the Frye Report understated the seriousness of the problems, and many speakers expressed an intense sense of frustration and pessimism about the administration's willingness to take the necessary remedial actions.

At about the same time the administration made available an Action Plan prepared by Vice-President Sloan and her staff, and this document subsequently served as a basis for wide-ranging discussions among faculty and administration. It was and is a very useful document, and we certainly thank Vice-President Sloan and the plan's other authors for their efforts.

The Action Plan called for some expenditures in FY 98, which have not been forthcoming. It called for substantial increases in the operating budgets of both the libraries and AcIS for the fiscal years beginning in 1999. The Committee hoped that the administration would commit itself to funding these objectives, and indeed to funding the whole Action Plan, but it declined to do so. In consequence the Committee brought the following resolution to the Senate at its March meeting (friendly amendments offered from the floor by the student caucus are shown here in italics).

 

RESOLUTION ON UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES AND AcIS

BE IT RESOLVED that the Senate, while thanking the Provost and his Advisory Committee for their efforts to resolve the problems of the Libraries and AcIS,

--regrets that the administration has not funded the initiatives proposed by the Frye Report for fiscal year 1998;

--calls on the administration to fund Vice President Sloan's Action Plan fully, which we view as a first step in responding to the Frye report;

--requests the Provost to report at the April meeting of the Senate on the Libraries and AcIS budget for fiscal year 1999; and

--requests the President to arrange a meeting between the Trustees' Committee on Educational Policy and the Senate Libraries Committee or its representatives in June. As part of this meeting, attendees should discuss additional areas of improvement called for by the Frye Report but not addressed in the Action Plan. The Libraries Committee should then report its recommendations for further action to the Senate at its first meeting in the fall of 1998.

 

This resolution was passed unanimously as amended.

Our overall judgement of the present situation, based on among other things the budgetary predictions kindly made available by the Provost on April 16, is as follows.

In the area of capital expenditure, the university is certainly making a serious effort to address the enormous needs of both the libraries and AcIS. Crucial will of course be the successful completion of the Butler renovation, and the realization of an efficient off-site storage facility. Some of the other capital projects listed are clearly more urgent than others. While it is obvious that to some extent the time-table for these projects will be determined by the success of particular fund-raising efforts, further thought must be given (by this committee, among others) to priorities. It can be said at once that there will be considerable disappointment when it is learned that (e.g.) the retrospective conversion cannot yet be funded. But we note with satisfaction the assurance given by the Provost to the Advisory Committee that a number of other capital projects, including the urgently-needed renovation of Avery Library, will be funded as soon as possible.

The operating budget gives more cause for disquiet. As far as AcIS is concerned the FY99 budget and the projections for subsequent years have increased dramatically, in part however because of a much-needed rationalization which has shifted some items from the capital budget to the operating budget. Whether these changes will be sufficient to take care of the pressure on programmers' salaries, the future will tell us; on this score we are at least confident that the administration has a serious will to solve the problem. With regard to the operating budget of the libraries, however, the increases now budgeted are quite insufficient. To put it briefly, we do not believe that the Action Plan asked for enough, for example under the headings "additional staff" and "merit-pool adjustments", and we now see that for the period FY98 to FY04 the administration expects to fund only 49.7% and 54.9% of what was asked for under these headings. We note that some of the initiatives which the administration has declined to fund at any time in the FY99 to FY04 period, such as extra shelf-reading in Butler, are among those which have the greatest day-to-day impact on the users of the library.

The operating budget was effectively decreased by a substantial amount in the early 1990s. For various reasons it is difficult to compare the substantial injections of funds projected for FY99 and FY00, but the committee's view is that we shall not have made up all the lost ground, and that it is therefore vital to make a commitment now to larger increases in the operating budget in the period FY01 to FY04. We are sure that this advice will be unwelcome, equally sure that the crisis will still be with us in six years' time -- in an intensified form -- if this advice is ignored.

Finally we strongly suggest that in order to monitor the progress of this rescue operation the university should organize a sampling of faculty opinion about the state of the libraries and AcIS, with a follow-up in say two years' time.

William Harris, Chair