The University of North Texas Libraries have been notified that they must absorb an additional $1.7 million in costs annually to pay benefits for library employees, a move that set off a flood of social media complaints and a new “Save the UNT Library” blog.
The viral online response came after Dean of Libraries Martin Halbert spoke to the Faculty Senate on Wednesday and held an open meeting about the cuts on Thursday morning.
Halbert sent an e-mail to all library employees Thursday afternoon saying the $1.7 million in costs would kick in immediately and were retroactive to Sept. 1. He said the costs would likely be deducted from materials purchases.
In the e-mail, Halbert wrote that he had received the information from the UNT Budget Office on Tuesday, and that all materials budget spending had ceased pending a review of strategies by the Collection Development Division.
But Provost Warren Burggren told the Denton Record-Chronicle on Friday that no decision had been made about when the libraries would assume the costs of the employee benefits, and said discussions between the library and budgeting office have not begun. He sent an e-mail Thursday afternoon to the university community.
“It’s really pretty distressing to see the rhetoric of ‘save the libraries,’ when there’s been no discussion of them closing,” he said. “Unfortunately, through this misunderstanding there’s a sense of urgency, which isn’t the case. We’re committed to keeping our library going strong. It’s a vibrant part of what we do at the university. The idea of an emerging research university not having a strong library just isn’t compatible.”
In a statement on the blog “Save the UNT Library,” Halbert said he had not met with the provost but had been assured that Burggren would work with the library to offset the potential impacts.
“The sudden budgetary information that was conveyed to us and is currently being discussed intensively was clearly premature, and not reflective of the importance of the library to the UNT community,” Halbert said in the statement.
Once Halbert’s e-mail was distributed to the UNT community Thursday afternoon, efforts to block the presumed cuts went viral with the “Save the UNT Library” blog, Change.org petition and Facebook page, all started by concerned English professor Masood Raja.
By Friday afternoon, about 24 hours after the online efforts began, the Facebook page had about 6,000 likes, the petition had more than 1,400 supporters and the blog had more than 23,000 unique visitors.
Raja said he received an e-mail about the upcoming cuts from his Faculty Senate representative, and attended the open meeting with Halbert on Thursday morning. After learning that library officials intended to take money out of the materials budget to cover the $1.7 million, he was prompted to do something.
“As a faculty member, when I walked out of there I felt like this is something crucial because not only is it going to affect the faculty but also the quality of resources our students have in the library,” he said. “We don’t have the power to change these policies, but we can gather enough testimonials and numbers so the administration knows the people who are affected by this and [they] are not very happy about this decision.”
The online uproar is premature and misguided though, Burggren said, as he and other university officials understand the importance of a strong university library.
The library will eventually transition to paying the staff benefits. The move is part of a larger plan that will require all university units supported by fees to pay staff benefits with fee revenues instead of the general university funds. The process started a few years ago and has included departments such as housing and food services, Burggren said.
The library’s budget has been under stress in recent years as enrollment numbers have dropped or plateaued, said Jack Powers, a professor who was formerly the chairman of the Faculty Senate’s University Library Committee. The library’s budget is supported almost completely by the student library fee, which is $16.50 per credit hour, and hasn’t been increased in almost 10 years.
“With that model of course, as long as enrollment is up and increasing, the library is getting plenty of funding, but if enrollment drops or is somewhat flat, the library budget is significantly impacted,” he said. “It’s either a question of increasing enrollment, increasing student fees or changing the funding model that’s an issue.”
In an article last year in the UNT student newspaper, the North Texas Daily, Halbert is quoted saying that the libraries are underfunded and that they need a more balanced budget model. The fiscal year 2012 budget for the libraries was $16.1 million, compared to $17.5 million in fiscal year 2011, according to the story.
JENNA DUNCAN can be reached at 940-566-6889 and via Twitter at @JennaFDuncan.