Remarks by Rabun Taylor, Faculty Council meeting, 3/19/18
In the arts and humanities, physical libraries constitute our lab space. The books that crowd the stacks are the essential equipment of our profession. But in important ways, they differ from inanimate and interchangeable things, like equipment. Drawing on my own field of study, the ancient Mediterranean, I can think of no better analogy to a living library than an olive grove. Books put out roots, which entwine with others. One taps another, and then another; they all tap the collective earth beneath them. Periodically we cut the trees back, and they reward us with denser blossoms, better pollination, and more fruit. In the ancient agrarian economy of the Mediterranean, olive trees were among the most reliable assets you could own. With careful pruning and cultivation, they lasted for centuries (sometimes a millennium or more). They fruited reliably and prolifically. The density of their ranks ensured cross-pollination. The gravest damage you could commit against a person’s property was to destroy his olive trees. A kind of unwritten law, founded in common sense, dictated that even marauding conquerors reverently spared the groves of the lands they conquered, confident that they would enjoy them in turn.
The Fine Arts Library is our ancestral olive grove. Those who bulldozed more than a third of it are pretending that their gambit is just a healthy pruning–even as they rip out the stumps and pave over the land. They may argue that the uprooted trees still exist, but those trees are now torn from the soil, and dumped a hundred miles away. The sap doesn’t flow anymore.
So much for poetic analogy. Let’s talk in the language of the contemporary university. Let’s talk outcomes.
One entire floor of stacks is already gone, and part of another. By uprooting a sizable section of one of the best-tended and most important fine-arts libraries anywhere in the United States, Dean Dempster has literally made it much harder for us to do our jobs: to conduct our research, to teach our students, to serve the public. There’s no digital workaround for browsing the stacks. How is this good for UT?
By taking away the tools of our trade and basically putting them in hock to buy a new school and more students, Dempster diminished our capacity for productivity. How is this good for UT?
Virtually the entire faculty of the College of Fine Arts are angered and demoralized by Dempster’s action. Seven curators at the Blanton Museum has openly opposed it. How is this good for UT?
The president of the College Art Association, Suzanne Blier of Harvard University, openly opposes the scheme, and has made her letter of protest public. How is this good for UT?
Over 4300 people have signed a petition condemning the action. Comments have come in from around Texas, the nation, and the world decrying this action. Many of the most outraged are from UT alumni. Think about all the lost revenue of potential donors. How is this good for UT?
Students in the College of Fine Arts are demoralized. They now wonder what their degree will be worth, given the diminished standing of their institution. How is this good for UT?
Prospective graduate students are taking notice. Yesterday, one of them left an anonymous note in DFA saying, “I was considering attending UT for my Art History MA/PHD. I no longer am, since you’re dismantling the library. Your loss.” How is this good for UT?
By prompting such an uproar, Dempster, Haricombe, and central administration have created an accountability crisis. How can we trust them to be good stewards of the university’s resources if they displace them so casually when nobody is looking? How is this good for UT?
Finally, Dempster went about this like a tinhorn dictator. This was a nakedly authoritarian LAND grab, which leaves the library stakeholders feeling like refugees. How is this good for UT?
I’ve been canvassing colleagues around the country and the world. I’ve tracked the comments in our online petition. Overwhelmingly, the respondents express
outrage, disbelief, and dismay. “What an embarrassment!” “An absolute travesty.” “Are they insane?” “What were they thinking?” Etc.
Initially, my presumption was that Dempster and Haricombe weren’t thinking anything at all, but were just acting according to the bubble mentality that besets so many university administrators. But upon reflection, I find it hard to believe that this action was driven solely by foolishness, financial distress, or desperation.
Whether conscious or not, it was a test of our collective will. The powers that BE seem to have presumed that we, the faculty and students, are too diffuse, or too apathetic, or too preoccupied, to put up resistance. That we would just roll over and keep our silence. And maybe they were right. That remains to be seen. All I can say is that if we do keep silent, then we’ll get the future we deserve.