2016 Retreat Intro
Strategic planning and retreats get a bad rap because they’re divorced from the work we need to do. I’m pleased that our efforts have been firmly grounded in our work, and want to begin by thanking Beth Woodard and the team that put today’s retreat together: it’s well-organized around the work of the Framework for Strategic Action. I also want to thank Lisa Hinchliffe and the Strategic Planning Steering Team for their outstanding work in creating the Framework.
I hope no one will be scandalized by my starting the day off by asking why we’re here. I think many of us are all too familiar with planning processes that frustrate and disappoint. This is my third retreat serving as dean of libraries and let me tell you that I’m very pleased by the action-oriented, down-to-earth and inclusive processes we’ve had. I’ll recap our recent planning efforts in a moment, but I would like to talk first about the reasons for being here today.
We plan in order to communicate, to focus our energies, to coordinate our efforts, and often to raise the bar. Planning processes shouldn’t be abstract and divorced from practice. They shouldn’t be for a small, select part of the organization, divorced from the people who get the work done. It should be about the work ahead—the work ahead for all of us. And when we do raise the bar, it should be to remind us that we have aspirations, ideals, and that we need to knit them together with our practice. If today were full of surprises, of new and unfamiliar directions, that would say more about our failure to communicate and engage than anything else. Our mission is meaningful and relevant, so don’t be surprised if most things seem familiar and even occasionally ordinary: that’s a sign that we’ve been doing the right thing and that we’re all on the same page.
Review outcomes of previous planning
Let’s take a moment to look back at the recent past.
When I came here, you had crafted a solid strategic plan. That December 2011 document covering the period through FY14 focused on four primary areas of work, all of which continue to be relevant today. Still, we all recognized that some things were languishing and needed more immediate attention. The January 2014 retreat, which I called the Unretreat, was designed to help us address pressing needs until such time as we embarked on a new strategic planning process. Collectively, we identified nine (9) items and we intensified our work on many of these. Let me do a quick recap and reminder.
- Our goal of working on organizational culture resulted, among other things, in our undertaking the ClimateQual survey and has produced subsequent work as a result of recommendations from the ClimateQual team.
- The concerns we expressed about the splintering of our digitization efforts has resulted in a new, consolidated digitization unit and better funding for staffing and digitization.
- The already emergent focus on research data support put more wind in the sails of our RDS effort, including hiring and infrastructure, and our collective investment in data support is made clear by the broader integration of the RDS into the Library.
- The Instruction-focused group that met at the Unretreat worked quickly to put together recommendations that were sent to EC, approved, and returned to the AUL for Services, the Coordinator for Information Literacy and Instruction, and the User Education Committee for implementation.
- As a result of the Unretreat, we advanced our efforts with “publishing” (and scholarly communication more generally) by securing a major grant from the Mellon Foundation, engaging with IPRH and African American Studies, and formalizing our efforts through the creation of an Office for Scholarly Communication and Publishing.
- The Discovery and access group moved swiftly to resolve open questions and to make recommendations that led to our abandoning Primo and embracing our use of EasySearch.
- And the Unretreat’s recommendations led to the creation of a new group focused on replacing the old Web CMS and replacing it with WordPress. That work is underway and has made considerable progress.
Has everything been successful? Not quite. The group focusing on International elements of the Library’s work recommended an effort that depended on the appointment of a new director of the Mortenson Center. We dropped the ball on that, but I believe the recommendations were solid and we should be able to hit the ground running. Clara has the report and we’re working on scheduling a first meeting.
On the other hand, we did less well on the matter of Outreach. At last report, we were going to discuss this at EC “in the Fall,” and I’m quite sure that was not the Fall of 2016.
Those are indeed failings, but I hope you’ll all agree that the progress we made on the other very substantial items is fantastic. In baseball terms, we’re batting .778, and in organizational terms we’ve done a hell of a lot of heavy lifting.
That was January 2014, and a year later we kicked off the new Strategic Planning process. That work provided the foundation for our being here today. I suspect we’re all full of appreciation for the new Framework for Strategic Action. It should serve us well in the coming years. I hope that you, like me, were appreciative of the inclusiveness of the process and the outstanding conversations we had along the way. Think back to 2015 and the substantial conversations we had about the future (e.g., the Deep Dives), the great guests we had in facilitating those conversations, and also the discussions we had around purpose and identity in considering the matter of whether we more aggressively adopt the Clinical Faculty framework. I believe we came together today with a clear and collective sense of purpose, reinforcing our sense of mission and the role we play on campus. And, again, let me remind everyone that this retreat and our planning should ultimately be directing the work we do, in the most pragmatic way.
I hope that our work in planning and action for these nearly three years appears as coherent and intentional to you as it does me, and that you, too, have a sense of the course we’re on and the work ahead of us.
What do I need to say about the budget? A few important things:
First, we are budgetarily strong. We’re making changes to adapt to diminished state support, but we’re doing it in ways that not only protects but often strengthens our core mission.
Second, the collective work on the budget reductions has ensured a broad understanding of the challenges we face and investment in solutions. Everyone has done an outstanding job.
Third, strategic planning and action is especially important in times like these. What do we need to shore up? What do we need to protect? And what is less important in accomplishing our mission? The planning work ahead of us is important and especially relevant to the budget.
Who are we and how have we changed?
Before turning things back over to the organizers, there are two other things I’d like to touch on. Change is, of course, constant, but we should ponder for a moment the amount of change the Library has undergone in recent years.
The organizational restructuring is going well. Recall that a year into my tenure here, and after extensive library-wide discussions, we embarked on putting in place a new organizational model. Why? Because, I noted at the time, there was a gap between our intentions or aspirations and our great institutional resources, and that gap was probably best explained as our not being organized to get critical work done. But as I also noted at the time:
It is critically important to sustain the collective sense of responsibility that shared governance brings. I am convinced that our library faculty model fosters a sense of entrepreneurship and a shared sense of ownership, and this in turn helps our library address the challenges that cut across organizational lines.
Another thing I did NOT want to “break” was that extremely effective, highly functional sense of ownership and engagement. Let me be frank with you about the value I have seen and appreciated in this part of our culture. In positions of responsibility I had in the past, e.g., as HathiTrust executive director, as interim university librarian at Michigan, and even as AUL, I felt the weight of responsibility in a very different way than I do here. The sense of collective ownership we get from our faculty model is substantial and leads to my feeling like a partner in our enterprise. That doesn’t mean I’m not ultimately responsible, but it does result in a very different and much more collaborative sense of investment in what we do and how we do it, and I appreciate that.
What we set out to do was create a hybrid model that blends together a clearer sense of operational intentions and resources with a strong faculty governance model. Again, going back to the documents we circulated at that time, what I wrote was:
I believe that melding these strengths with stronger reporting lines (and thus a stronger role for the AULs) is central to the solution we need. The new organizational structure should give the AULs more authority by moving work done in a matrix model into a more formally-structured organization with better accountability in both directions. As Dean, I will continue to have broad oversight, convening the AULs along with the Assistant Deans (in a group I call Cabinet) to execute that work according to mission and goals. As established by our bylaws, the Executive Committee will continue to function as my primary advisory body. We make tremendous use of matrix models for initiatives, and I want to ensure that we complement this approach with a well-defined organizational structure. That new organizational model must sustain the sense of collective ownership while organizing work and reporting lines within areas of library scope.
The AULs have done an outstanding job with their portfolios, and I do not believe we could have done what we did with the budget last year or this year without the current organizational model. In my conversations with the AULs we’ve often commented that it’s a work in progress, with missteps and missed opportunities, but I know that we’ve already begun to see the benefits. I have no doubt that the new structure was a key part of our success in moving as swiftly and thoughtfully in the budget reduction process, in large part because of the alignment of resources and administrative decision-making. The new organizational model is a work-in-progress, but it’s going well and we’ve had significant benefits from it. Incidentally, YOU should see it as a work-in-progress and not be shy about helping to improve it.
It’s also helpful to keep in mind the large number of new faculty and staff who have joined us in the last 2-3 years. Approximately 10% of our faculty, APs and civil service staff arrived here in the last 2.5 years. That significant amount of change did NOT result primarily from replacing existing people—very few of our people have retired or moved on to other jobs. A significant part of the reason for the change comes from the fact that we’ve rebounded in numbers, which also changes how we look at the problems facing us. The one good thing that came out of our suspending the hiring plan process this Winter was the breather it gave HR and our search committees, which have all been working flat-out the last few years. I’d like to invite all those who have joined in the last three years to stand just to get a sense of this change, which is immense. I’d also like to thank all of you for the outstanding work you’ve done in the hiring process.
Microaggressions and climate
The other final item on my agenda is our organizational climate. I’ve said many times that I appreciate the collaborative and healthy organizational climate here. I told a friend recently that my mantra as dean at the University of Illinois, with regard to our productive organizational culture, has been “Don’t f— it up.” I mean that: we have an outstanding, collaborative foundation for our work, with full participation of the organization.
That said, it’s not like we don’t have work to do. The ClimateQual survey was helpful in defining an agenda. Let’s keep in mind that our strength is our rich and diverse organization. We need to attend to matters of difference, particularly in classification—civil service, academic professionals, untenured and visiting faculty, and tenured faculty: the entirety of our organization, working together, is what makes us great. The Microaggressions survey was also a bit of an eye opener, and I’d like to ask everyone to remember that our Library climate belongs to each of us, that we should do everything we can to make it supportive and welcoming.
In closing, I would like to reiterate my belief that we have been tremendously successful in our planning, have accomplished a great deal, and have done so inclusively. The extent of involvement we have had in processes is, in and of itself, a success. Now it’s time to get down to business and to begin thinking about how we make our Framework for Strategic Action a real part of our daily work.
The Juanita J. and Robert E. Simpson Dean of Libraries and University Librarian