When Evidence and Emotion Collide: Rolling Out Controversial Evidence-Based Decisions

by Kathleen Reed, Assessment and Data Librarian, Instructor in the Department of Women’s Studies, and VP of the Faculty Association at Vancouver Island University

Last week’s news of Trent University Library’s Innovation Cluster was the latest in a string of controversial decisions centering on academic libraries that jumped from campus debate into the mainstream media. With so many libraries in the middle of decisions that are likely unpopular (e.g. cutting journals, weeding little-used and aging print collections), I’ve been increasingly thinking about best practices for communicating major evidence-based decisions to campus communities.

Simply having the data to support your decision isn’t enough; rolling out a controversial decision is an art form.  Luckily, I’ve had some really good teachers in the form of colleagues and bosses (shout out to Dana, Jean, Tim, and Bob).  With the disclaimer that I’ve taken no change-management training and am in no way an expert, here’s what I’ve learned in my first six years as a librarian:

Start conversations early and have them often.
Decisions do not go well when they’re dropped on people out of the blue. For example, we know that there’s a crisis in scholarly publishing – the fees and inflation vendors are charging are unsustainable and the CAD/USD conversion rate isn’t in our favour. Faculty need to hear that message now, not in a few years when a major journal package has to be cut.  If you talk to communities early, you’re able to hear concerns that may figure into future decision making, and figure out strategies to meet needs in other ways.

Don’t force an idea if you don’t have to.
One of the things my first boss told me was that sometimes you’ll have a great idea, but conditions just aren’t right for uptake.  Now 6 years into my career, I can see what he meant.  In my first year, cutting a particular database was unthinkable to a particular department, even though there was plenty of evidence that this cut should be made.  Four years later and I was able to get an agreement to cancel from the department with little issue.  Sometimes an issue has to be dealt with, but other times you can wait.  Plant a seed, walk away, and come back to it another time if you can.

Be proactive.
When Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) announced that thousands of journals were being reviewed for potential cost-savings and CBC reported on it, Ryerson University Library & Archives did something outstanding: they published a proactive blog article being upfront with their community. There was no beating around the bush, with the first Q&A being: “Can we anticipate similar activities at Ryerson? Yes we can.”  Ryerson didn’t have to do anything – the controversy wasn’t at their institution.  But they showed excellent leadership in addressing the issue head-on and set a great example for other libraries to follow.

Have a plan
A former boss of mine brought the idea of project charters to our work culture. These documents clearly outline goals, deliverables, in/out of scope areas, rationale, stakeholders responsibilities, scheduling considerations, timelines, risks & mitigation strategies, and sustainability. The most recent project charter around my library is related to the evolution of our print collection, which we’re looking to reduce over the next 5 years (evidence-based, of course – shout out to the COPPUL Shared Print Archive Network (SPAN) Project and GreenGlass. Having a project charter allows all librarians and staff to consider the direction of the project, have their input, and get on board with it. And this last point is key – if employees don’t feel consulted and buy-in, it’ll be especially hard to support that decision externally.

I’ll also highlight the “risks & mitigation strategy” section of project charters. This is where risks are identified.  For example, if the decision you’re undertaking is related to reducing the number of journals or print books, you’re probably going to attract negative media attention and dissatisfaction among print-book lovers. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, so plan for it.

Show due diligence and evidence.
I’ve mentioned above that it’s important to give your community plenty of opportunities to talk to librarians about large decisions and to get assistance for mitigation strategies (if necessary). But it’s also important to keep a record of how you did this. I once had an irate student group demand a meeting about a database that was cut over a year prior. When I laid out the process (multiple meetings and emails) and the evidence (rubric numbers, faculty input) used to make the decision, as well as how the library devised alternatives to accessing the cut database’s content, the students were completely satisfied and even apologized for assuming that the library was in the wrong.

At my library, we use a rubric to assess all our databases. Aside from helping us make decisions, this rubric enables us to “show our work” to faculty. When they see that we look at 28 different categories for every database, they’re more inclined to trust our decision-making than if we showed up with limited evidence and told them we need to cancel a database.

Do some anger aikido (if appropriate)
When our library started a consultation with several faculties on cutting a particular database, some of our faculty were understandably upset. But because of prior conversations about the problems in scholarly communications, instead of turning that anger on librarians it was directed at admin for not funding the library better, and at a parasitic scholarly publishing industry. When the latter came up, it gave librarians an opening to talk about the importance of Open Access, and helped convince some faculty to submit their work to our institutional repository to ensure it would no longer be behind a paywall.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take the blame if it’s legit your fault.  If you messed up, own it and don’t throw your colleagues under the bus. But when librarians are doing the best they can – being proactive, using evidence, starting conversations early – and factors beyond our control are the source of anger, I think it’s acceptable to do a little aikido and redirect the anger toward the source (especially if change can be made there).

People may not like a decision but they will usually respect your position if you’ve shown yourself worthy of respect.
Difficult decisions are easier to respect when they’re argued for by trustworthy, respectful, diligent people who have a track record of working on behalf of the community instead of for personal gain.  Be one of those people. As one of my favourite sayings goes, “We’re all smart in academia. Distinguish yourself by being kind.”

Consider the Spectrum of Allies.
I was first introduced to the Spectrum of Allies in the Next Up social justice leadership program, but it’s applicable to any controversial subject. The idea is that you’re not going to radically shift people from opposing an idea to loving it, so it’s better to think of nudging people from one position to the next.

Applying this concept to the decision to cancel a database might look something like this: active allies are those that will advocate for the decision; passive allies are those who agree with the decision but don’t speak up; neutrals are those who don’t care either way; passive opposition is people who oppose the decision but don’t speak up; and active opposition are the folks who are outspoken critics of the decision.  The point becomes to shift each group one position over.  So you may not be able to convince Professor Y that they should support the decision to cancel the database, but you might convince them to move from active opposition to passive, thereby not running to the press.

Accept that some people will be unreasonable.
Some people are just jerks. There will be nothing you can do to satisfy them, and there’s no point in dumping endless energy into convincing them of a decision.  But you can try to neutralizing their influence. If one particular member of a department is being an unreasonable PITA (Pain In The Ass), make sure you’re talking to their departmental colleagues so that those folks aren’t swayed by the individual’s influence.

Build an evidence-based culture.
If your library becomes known as a department that does assessment well and can provide valid evidence, you’ll garner respect on campus which can only make life easier.

Study the people around you who are good at conflict.
Tap into the wisdom of your diplomatic colleagues.  I’m lucky enough to have one who is United Nations-level good at diplomacy, and so when I found myself in a situation where my natural un-diplomatic impulses were about to take over, I’d ask myself “What would (name) do?”  After several years of this practice, I now cut out the middle step and just act tactfully in the first place most of the time (“fake it ‘til you make it” really does work!) But I’d have never been able to get to this place without watching and learning strategies from my co-worker.

At the end of it all, reflect on how it went and what you can do better next time.
Big decisions, like canceling journals or doing significant weeding, are difficult and hard to make roll out perfectly. It’s important to reflect on what’s gone well in the process and what can be improved upon for next time.

What’s your experience with rolling out controversial decisions?  Is there something that should be added or subtracted from this list?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.