The University Record, December 10, 1996
VCM and Campus Libraries
By Richard M. Dougherty
Professor of Library Science
This university is fast approaching a crossroad in the way it conducts its affairs. I am referring to the introduction of Value Centered Management (VCM). VCM will affect the campus in many ways but of particular interest to me is the profound impact it could have on the University's library system. Our library system is acknowledged to be one of the country's finest, and I believe it is imperative that the campus community, not just the administration, think through carefully what it wants for its libraries before it takes any irreversible steps. For example, a poorly thought out approach to VCM could result in the "Balkanization" of the library system; whereas a prudent approach could produce a library system that serves as a symbol of a renewed sense of campus community.
Before discussing the library in particular, let me put VCM in a campuswide perspective. In the short term, VCM promises a variety of benefits for the revenue-producing units. VCM is more responsive to market forces than the current system of incremental budgeting, but such a market-driven model might also undermine interdisciplinary initiatives and lead to increased competition among units for resources.
The decentralization of program responsibility resulting from VCM could lead to the sacrifice of overall quality. What is optimal for one school or college may not always lead to the best outcome for the campus. VCM could take the campus farther down the road toward a federation of insular schools and colleges. As a result, the sense of campus community, which I think has been eroded in recent years, would be further weakened. A lack of mutual interdependence leads to further declines in the concept of common good, and it is here that units such as the library can be adversely affected.
The University undeniably needs a budgeting system that is more malleable than the current incremental system. We need a system that will maximize our ability to re-deploy resources and implement changes. Budget flexibility will be especially important in the period of flat or declining resources that most experts predict for higher education. There are many signs that higher education is headed toward turbulent times. We have simply become too costly for too many families, and universities have proven to be extraordinarily resistant to change. Higher education has become one of the country's giant cost centers; it's not a stretch to believe that once government finishes with health care reform, it will make higher education its next target.
But if VCM creates greater unit accountability, and if such a system causes units, including the library, to re-examine their goals and objectives, and if such re-examinations facilitate the changes that will be needed in the years ahead, then a VCM budgeting strategy could help the campus navigate successfully through the period of turbulence that lies ahead. The need for us to respond to the driving forces of economics and technology is compelling.
How might the library be affected by the adoption of VCM? It is my understanding that officials debated whether the library should be labeled a cost center with its budget attributed to the various revenue-producing units, or whether it should be categorized as an academic unit with its budget deriving from general funds available to the provost. Until a few days ago the library was to have been designated a cost center, but the provost apparently reversed this decision. I couldn't be more pleased. But I still believe it is imperative for the faculty to understand the ramifications of these two options because I'm sure we haven't heard the last of this debate. There are many campus officials who still feel the library ought to be classified as a cost center.
As a cost center, the library's budget would be attributed to the various schools and colleges, i.e., the revenue-producing units on the basis of number of persons served and information resources acquired, e.g., the number of students and faculty from a school or college who use the library, or the number of books and periodicals acquired for a unit. The library's current budget would be added to the budgets of the various revenue-producing units. The actual dollars might or might not be included as part of a dean's disposable budget. But in a VCM environment in which the library were categorized as a cost center, many deans would certainly place enormous pressure on any sitting provost to allocate real dollars into their budgets. In such cases deans would then have more latitude over how "library" funds were spent. In a VCM environment this makes a great deal of sense because decision-making is decentralized. But if such a strategy were adopted and the library's budget ever became part of a dean's discretionary income, it wouldn't be long before deans, as responsible managers, would begin reallocating moneys formerly used to fund library activities to other priority needs of the unit. Keep in mind not all deans are interested in supporting libraries. Some, in fact, are quite willing to let their libraries languish. I saw this happen at the University of California, Berkeley, when I was university librarian there and saw similar behavior on this campus during the ten years I was director of libraries here. We need to keep in mind that old organizational golden rule: "He who has the gold rules." Can any dean not view a $30 million budget as an inviting target?
If the library's budget were divided up amongst the academic departments, we would probably witness the Balkanization of the library system as schools and colleges laid claim to their libraries. The library system would begin to resemble the current decentralized system at universities such as Oxford and Harvard, which is not necessarily good. Both Oxford and Harvard are doing what they can to create greater coordination amongst their libraries. Their objective is to improve services and reduce library operating costs. In a highly decentralized system, many costs must be duplicated as individual schools and departments provide their own versions of a mini-library, e.g., acquisition and cataloging of books and periodicals, provision of databases, etc. There are great economic advantages of retaining some aspects of centralization even in a VCM environment.
I'm not suggesting that the library should be exempted from greater accountability. To the contrary, I believe there is pressing need for changes in what the library does and how it provides services to the campus community. I know that the library's staff is under enormous pressure because it is expected to manage both print and digital resources. All jobs in libraries are changing; increased training for staff is now essential because of technological advances. Strategies must be found to balance demands and services of the print and digital worlds. At present there is enormous excitement (and I'm afraid hype too) about the wonders of digital documents and the Web. The world of digital documents will also continue to expand, but print resources will continue to play a central role for thousands of researchers and students. The worlds of print and digital documents will inevitably blend together in the years ahead, but this will occur much faster in some disciplines than in others. In the meantime, the transition from the paper-based library to a time in which digital collections are the dominant format is likely to last fifteen to twenty years. The key challenge facing librarians is to manage this hybrid organizational environment during the years of transition.
Ironically the traditional importance of "brick and mortar" libraries is really less important today than it was a decade ago. Today one can obtain documents from a campus library without actually visiting the library. Networking technologies that connect libraries electronically reduce the need for anyone to trek across the campus or to take a bus to the North Campus to visit a library. In the last year I have borrowed books from five U-M libraries, but I've only personally visited two of them.
In a very real sense, technology is enabling us to view our libraries as a campuswide resource and not just as a series of branches. Library collections shouldn't be thought of as belonging to a single school, college or department; they should be viewed as a community resource contributing to the commonweal of the campus.
Let us also not forget that "brick and mortar" libraries were the original "collaboratories." They continue to be places where students and faculty wish to work and socialize as individuals and in groups. Not everyone wants to sit in isolation in an office or dorm room hunched over the blinking cursor of a PC---no matter how stunning the graphics and audio. Study areas in libraries are popular most every evening right up to closing time.
VCM will necessitate a very high quality of faculty oversight to ensure that we do not subvert our academic mission by overemphasizing financial benefits. It will be particularly important that a VCM philosophy not unintentionally impede interdisciplinary initiatives. Faculty oversight will be equally important to ensure the continued health of the campus library system. However, as a former library director, I confess that the prospect of strengthened faculty oversight would leave me a bit uneasy. My unease stems from my personal experience with numerous library advisory committees (a version of faculty oversight) at several universities including Colorado, Berkeley and Michigan. Faculty hardly have time to attend meetings, let alone master the intricacies of libraries. Most meetings of such groups are used to inform members about decisions the library wishes to make and feels it needs the imprimatur of the committee before moving ahead. Most are little more than forums for updating faculty and affording individual committee members opportunities to express views about the library and its impact on them or their department. Meetings are usually pleasant, but discussions are often uninformed and unfocused, and rarely result in actions.
The roles and performance of oversight committees ought to be of great concern to faculty since, as currently envisioned in a VCM environment, oversight committees will bear heavy responsibility for ensuring a balanced budget perspective. In the context of libraries, this will require that involved faculty become knowledgeable about the inner workings of libraries, and at least conversant with the worlds of publishing and information technology. Otherwise, they will not be able to make informed decisions.
The problem with faculty oversight groups is not with the quality of representation, but with the system in which committees are expected to operate. Faculty are under enormous pressures to produce; there is little time, energy or incentive to take on what has been traditionally termed "service" activities, activities which are not really factors in the reward system. If we are serious about strengthening faculty involvement in governance, we will need to change the operating system and the reward system. We must make it easier for faculty with oversight responsibilities to execute their duties. Why not recognize oversight assignments by granting committee members release time from regular duties and/or rewarding these special services monetarily?
Today, the University of Michigan campus is in the midst of searching for a new library director. It is clear from the job announcement that the campus is seeking a leader who can navigate us through the transition years I have described. At the very least VCM is a complicated proposition for the library and the campus. I would urge campus officials to take one action and to at least consider a second:
Continue to exempt the library from VCM until a new director is in place and can help campus officials and faculty chart the library's future. It won't hurt the campus to move carefully to ensure that we don't do something in haste that we will regret later.
Encourage the entire campus community to reflect on what libraries have long represented to the world of scholarship: a font around which scholars have gathered, a community resource available to all. Many presidents have proudly proclaimed their libraries as the "heart of the campus." Libraries have always symbolized a sense of community. While we can't recapture the days of simpler times when campuses were really thought of as academic communities, we can send a powerful message to our students, faculty and alumni that by preserving the library as a "common good" we want to retain a sense of community that goes beyond simply football and basketball.