When I was fired from my job as University Librarian at Wesleyan University in August 2014, I wrote a letter to Wesleyan’s faculty. I described how the termination took place, noted that others at the University might have been similarly treated, and expressed concern about what that treatment indicated about the administration’s commitment to liberal arts ideals.
The letter circulated far beyond the University, and the resulting discussion centered on the changing role of the library in academic life. This is an important discussion to have. Given the pace of changes in libraries and technology, reasonable people can disagree about how this role will evolve. Although I believe that the library can and should continue to be a campus center for discovery, study and collaboration, I understand that IT and other academic support departments are essential as well to support 21st century pedagogy and scholarship. The library, while a critical part of this support, must partner with other entities—on and off-campus—to provide services to students and faculty.
But my purpose in writing the letter was not to argue that the library should remain the center of academic support. It was to point out the divide between the ideals expressed by Wesleyan’s administration—ideals of equality, respect and inclusion—and the way people at Wesleyan are currently treated. The crux of my conflict with Wesleyan’s administration was not the changing role of the library, but the fact that the library was not represented—by me or anyone else—in campus discussions about the future of the library. The frustration that built up over the year and a half was, on my part, that I was shut out of library discussions that were taking place—I was sometimes asked for data but with no context and no opportunity to provide context. Library expertise and experience were not sought or valued—we were treated as instruments to carry out the directives of the administration.
Liberal arts education originated in ancient Greece, a society of free citizens and slaves. A liberal arts education was restricted to those destined to be citizens—those who enjoyed equality, mutual respect and inclusion in the governance of the state. Slaves and other non-citizens were largely excluded from consideration or participation in the society, and were treated as instruments to further the purposes of the free citizenry.
But in a society such as ours, one in which (theoretically) only the very young or incapacitated are excluded, everyone is a free citizen. No one is viewed merely as an instrument, and everyone can and is expected to participate in governance. Everyone’s experience and expertise are valued and respected. There is great power in this. People treated as citizens are more dedicated, more committed, and more creative in their work than are people treated as instruments. They are inspired to improve their organization or community, in innovative ways that cannot be extracted from people using threats or intimidation.
It is not easy or simple to lead an organization of citizens; that is, keeping the organization relevant and moving forward while respecting and valuing the ideas of each person within it. But if done successfully, the power and creativity of an organization of free people acting together is exponentially more than that of an organization of people treated as instruments, however laudable and humanitarian the goals of the organization.
My experience at Wesleyan, and the experiences of others in liberal arts colleges, are not exclusive to librarians. It is particularly important in liberal arts institutions to be respectful of all its members, to harness the power and creativity of a community of free people. In the short term it may seem easier and faster to exclude certain groups from governance, and to discount their contributions. But in the long term the resulting low morale, disengagement and cynicism among employees, far outweigh the advantages of speed and control.
“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”—Henry David Thoreau, Walden.
Thoreau said this about philosophy; it is equally true of the liberal arts. The challenge of any liberal arts institution is to realize the ideals it professes, to practice them in creating an inclusive community of free people—students, faculty, administrators, and staff at all levels. It is invaluable for students to witness the struggles and triumphs integral to such a community; they will carry these ideals into their own professional and personal lives.