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The Fight for Academic Freedom: An Interview with UC Librarian & UC-AFT Local 1966 Member Carla Arbagey

***For this interview, James Anderson, who's been an active UC-AFT Local 1966 member and was recently voted VP of Communications for UC-AFT Local 1966, asked questions of Carla Arbagey, a member of Local 1966 who has been involved in the ongoing bargaining sessions between UC Librarians and the university. The interview has been edited, minimally, for clarity.***

James Anderson: At a bargaining meeting in April, UC-AFT presented an article that would guarantee academic freedom to all librarians. I understand that UC negotiators dismissed the proposal at the July 26 bargaining session and said that “Academic Freedom is not a good fit for your unit.” Could you explain, what the article presented would guarantee, what contractually guaranteed academic freedom would mean to UC librarians, and why academic freedom actually is a good fit for your unit?

Carla Arbagey: Our proposal for a new article on academic freedom (AF) guarantees two things: that librarians have academic freedom, and that we are considered “designated academic appointees” as described by the UC Policy on Copyright Ownership (see https://policy.ucop.edu/doc/2100003/CopyrightOwnership). A definitive acknowledgment of librarians’ academic freedom in our contract means that we are afforded the same rights as UC faculty, including lecturers. It means that we would have protection of our freedom of inquiry and research, freedom of teaching, and freedom of expression and publication. In the execution of our job duties, librarians teach, conduct research, participate in our profession, and more – so it is of course a perfect fit that we would have the protections guaranteed through academic freedom! 

Did the UC negotiators offer any explanation as to why they dismissed the academic freedom article out of hand, and/or do you have any ideas as to why they wouldn’t agree to it?

I believe they were more concerned with the way that UC uses the term “academic freedom.”  It’s referred to in the Academic Personnel Manual (APM), which also contains procedures for how claims of misconduct are handled. For faculty, it’s the academic senate that handles the procedure. I think the UCOP negotiators are hung up on this; they keep asking us if we expect to be reviewed by faculty. However, that’s not our position at all. We are proposing that we are reviewed by our peers, i.e. other librarians, through our professional governance organization, the Librarians Association of the University of California, known as LAUC. Currently, librarians’ merit reviews are handled through LAUC, so we see it as the right fit for setting a librarian code of conduct and for handling allegations of misconduct.

Would the new article related to academic freedom that your team presented in April cost the university anything?

Not as far as we can tell – conferring academic freedom costs the University nothing!

joint statement released in 1972 by the American Association of University Professors, the Joint Committee on College Library Problems, and the Association of American Colleges (now the Association of American Colleges and Universities) – a statement reaffirmed several times and adopted in revised form as recently as 2012 – called academic freedom “indispensable to librarians in their roles as teachers and researchers.” It referred to librarians as critical “trustees of knowledge with the responsibility of ensuring the intellectual freedom of the academic community through the availability of information and ideas, no matter how controversial, so that teachers may freely teach and students may freely learn.” And, it averred, “librarians should have latitude in the exercise of their professional judgment within the library, a share in shaping policy within the institution, and adequate opportunities for professional development and appropriate reward.” Do you agree with the statement, and would you say that it offers sufficient justification for the extension of academic freedom protections to university librarians?

Certainly! I think our jobs can sometimes be misunderstood; just about every librarian has a story about how someone has assumed we get to read books all day, or that we spend most of our time re-shelving materials! The truth is that we are highly engaged in instruction, particularly in information literacy. We also conduct research, publish papers and present at conferences, and select materials for library collections. All of these things we do using academic judgment, because we are academic employees of the University of California, and we therefore have academic freedom.

The 2013 Higher Education Employer-Employee Relations Act notes that the people of California “have established a system of higher education under the Constitution of the State of California with the intention of providing an academic community with full freedom of inquiry,” and it states that the policy of the State of California is “to encourage the pursuit of excellence in teaching, research, and learning through the free exchange of ideas among the faculty, students, and staff of the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and the California State University.” The law goes on: “All parties subject to this chapter shall respect and endeavor to preserve academic freedom in the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and the California State University.” To properly abide by HEERA, do you think it necessary for the University of California to formally commit to honoring the academic freedom of UC librarians in a legally binding contract?

Yes – and we previously thought it didn’t need to be put in writing, in our contract. However our experience, and several grievances have shown that a right not guaranteed in our contract is a right that could be questioned. Many librarians and colleagues at UC and beyond have been surprised to find that we do not explicitly have academic freedom, as it is so fundamental to the principles of freedom of inquiry! I believe that by denying the academic freedom of UC librarians, the UC’s negotiating team is not providing full freedom of inquiry to the academic community. 

Writers have expressed concerns regarding the lack of free speech and academic freedom afforded contingent faculty – like UC lecturers, who are in the same union as librarians – who are often on short-term contracts and who lack the protection tenure provides. Are there also work conditions UC librarians contend with that might directly or indirectly impede their free speech and academic freedom, and if so, can the UC-AFT work on addressing those as well?

One condition that sticks out in my mind quite is that, at UCR, librarians cannot serve as a Principal Investigator (PI) on a grant or Institutional Review Board (IRB) application. However, research is one of the criteria for advancement for librarians. How are we then to go about grant-funded research or research requiring IRB approval? At UCR, we must have our University Librarian named as the PI, and have a librarian at the Assistant University Librarian level or above named on an IRB application. What’s infuriating about this is that there is no standard of practice throughout the UC system. For example, UCSF librarians can serve as a PI. It varies from campus to campus. What UC-AFT is trying to do, through bargaining, is fix this inequity. 

petition in support of academic freedom for UC librarians is circulating online and garnered more than 300 signatures in two days. When do you return to the bargaining table, and, given the groundswell of support librarians have received, do you expect UC negotiators to reconsider their position on the academic freedom article or to agree to any other crucial bargaining matters at the next session? (Editors note: Before this interview will be posted, the petition accumulated more than 1,000 signatures.) 

I hope so, but I am not sure they are ready to commit to the actual phrase “academic freedom.” That seems to be their sticking point. The UC negotiators have stated that they would consider an article that provides for academic freedom, but without actually using that term. We see that as making librarians “separate, but equal” academics, having academic freedom in everything but name. That’s not a point that we are willing to compromise on! Librarians do not want to be treated like second-class academics. 

For our other crucial bargaining matters, such as salary, I think the support we are receiving for our academic freedom issue will go a long way. I hope that those who have supported us by signing the petition will continue to support us throughout the negotiations process, especially as we fight for a fair salary.