From the Recession Forward: Reflections Following Collective Responsibility Forum 1

by Megan Senseney

In December 2008, I graduated into a freeze. Toward the conclusion of my final semester in graduate school, I began receiving notices from prospective employers in response to my initial flurry of applications. Not only was I not the successful candidate, there was no successful candidate. There would be no hires because hiring was frozen. I remember a long, cold drive from Champaign, IL back to my parents’ home in New Jersey. For Christmas, I said, I just wanted a job. My Christmas miracle came in the form of grant funding, a position on an NHPRC records management and archival processing project. On December 23rd, I negotiated in the dressing room of an Ann Taylor Loft while accompanying my sister on her holiday shopping. To celebrate, I bought myself some work clothes.

I was the last person hired before a blanket freeze was implemented at the organization that January. During my first weeks on the job, while I attended orientation and watched President Obama’s historic inauguration, the institution grappled with the economic downturn. First the highest-level administrators took a voluntary pay cut. Layoffs began soon after. I was told that, despite a general last-in-first-out approach, I was shielded because my funding came from elsewhere. Unlike so many contingent workers, my term contract was a kind of protection against the worst months of the recession.

A few years later, I found myself back in Illinois and working as a project coordinator for the iSchool. I was hired on a permanent line that was then parceled out and allocated to as many as five different grant projects at a given time. At first I was bewildered and overwhelmed by the sheer variety of projects, but over time I grew into the role. I also learned that by getting in on the ground floor and writing proposals of my own, I could help grow my career and establish levels of autonomy that are otherwise unavailable to non-tenure-line academic professionals. Grant writing became an avenue for achieving professional satisfaction. And, as the state of Illinois devolved into a budget crisis of its own, I once again found that soft money offered protection against precarity. I continued on through a series of grant-funded initiatives from 2011-2018, shifting from a role as project coordinator to research scientist as I stepped into leadership roles on new awards.

By the time I attended the first forum of the Collective Responsibility project, I had accepted a new position as a library department head at a land-grant research university, and I had established a perception of grant funding as a strategic opportunity that helps develop leadership and build resilience in the face of uncertainty. This perspective stems from a particular place and time, and it also reveals a degree of privilege and good fortune that eased my path. I was fortunate to have had a series of supervisors who served as mentors, advocates, and champions for my career. I was fortunate to have social support from my family during career transitions. I never experienced gaps in health care as a result of contract termination or severe financial strain during periods of cross-country relocation. As for privilege, I was a young white woman with a strong network, a spouse with stable employment, and (until recently) no dependents. Based on the survey analysis presented at the forum, my experience is not representative of grant-funded labor in libraries. But it reveals a set of conditions in which grant funding can support the workforce rather than stymie it.

Now that I am in a position of leadership within libraries, I am well situated to set strategic priorities around proposal development and grants management. In fact, I have just concluded a Grants Infrastructure Taskforce designed to build my library’s capacity for developing a robust portfolio of extramural funding. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in the Collective Responsibility forum because it forced me to reconcile the positive and negative effects of grant-based labor on the library workforce. I am particularly grateful to the forum participants who generously shared their experiences over the course of the two days. Following the forum, I spent some time reflecting on a set of initial recommendations to propose at my institution:

  1. Allocate permanent staff time to grant projects wherever possible.
  2. Use back-fill funds to invest in skill building, professional development, and the cultivation of leaders from within the organization.
  3. Leverage the flexibility of an expanding grants portfolio to explore opportunities for new, permanent hires.
  4. Adopt an ethic of care when employing and mentoring workers in term-limited contracts by offering equitable compensation, establishing honest expectations regarding the potential for renewal, and actively supporting their search for new employment as the contract draws to a close.
  5. Consider limiting recruitment to local and regional pools for positions that will conclude within a year or pose potential hardships due to limited benefits (such as lack of funds for relocation).
  6. Support project-based workers by integrating them into the day-to-day activities of the organization and nominating them to serve as representatives when disseminating project deliverables to external colleagues and stakeholders
  7. .

My hope is to establish an institutional culture of grant-seeking that builds resilience and fosters professional development, one that acknowledges what an organization owes to the individuals that comprise it. I am excited to hone and refine these initial recommendations at the Practices forum, and I am honored to learn alongside the organizers and participants as we identify generalizable best practices for funding agencies and LAM institutions.

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