An extraordinary Chair through extraordinary times

On June 30, her last day as Chair of the School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS), Toni Samek received a final piece of good news related to the role.

Not only had the MLIS program at SLIS had its accreditation continued by the American Library Association (ALA)—a process that entailed a 325-page evidence-based self-study with 100 appendices, a three-day on-site visit by an external review panel, and a final interview with the Committee on Accreditation—but the School was granted the maximum accreditation renewal period: seven years, plus a bonus year in light of COVID-19. The University of Alberta has also granted SLIS an exemption to the upcoming 2022-2023 Graduate Program Review based on the rigour and thoroughness of the accreditation process.

Samek said it was the conclusion of her tenure she had been working towards from the beginning.

“From day one, I knew accreditation would culminate in my last week of being Chair, and my first and last thoughts were always to my successor,” she said. “It’s been a time of many advancements at SLIS and, through great teamwork, I feel a satisfaction I’m passing the torch to incoming SLIS Interim Chair Dr. Kathleen DeLong brightly lit. And I take comfort that the MLIS program is well proven in light of imminent restructuring.

“To be sustainable, there’s got to be an academic plan, a business plan and a social responsibility plan, and those things have to align in an ethical way. And I think we’ve done that at SLIS.”

The advancements of which Samek speaks—many of which are documented on SLIS’s program assessment webpage—include high retention and program completion rates; high graduation and post-graduation employment rates; expansion of the purely online MLIS offering (the first and only in Canada); a national reputation that drives a very high application rate from students in every province and territory, as well as abroad; a demonstrated commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and decolonization principles signaled in the recently refreshed SLIS Vision, Mission and Values Statement; and much more.

That these advancements were achieved in the midst of the School relocating from Rutherford South to Education Centre North and an administrative merge with Educational Policy Studies on the eve of the observance of SLIS’s 50th anniversary in 2018; a string of tenure-track hires significantly changing the faculty composition; undertaking a first-in-Canada major MLIS credit reduction approved by government, and the first ALA accreditation process in the School’s history inclusive of the online offering makes them all the more remarkable. Samek credits these efforts as opportunities to hone a “program mindset” in the SLIS team and driving a commitment to ensure the program is sustainable in every sense of the word. As Assistant Chair - Administration, Izabela Martyniak’s background in finance and educational technology proved an asset.

“We didn’t just adapt to change, we did change,” Samek said. “We changed the culture of the School. We changed as individuals, there was a maturing, there was a reflection on privilege and a reflection on past practice. We changed as people and how we treat each other. It’s all been a gift.”

Leading by example

Ali Shiri, who was recently appointed an Associate Dean in the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research, served as SLIS’s Associate Chair and Graduate Coordinator during Samek’s tenure as Chair. He cites her supportiveness and approachability for strengthening their working relationship.

“I’ve been her co-pilot since 2015 and it was such a rewarding and satisfying experience,” Shiri said. “Chair and Associate Chair positions are really demanding on a daily basis, but if they are working together properly, that’s where you see the success and excellence.”

Shiri said Samek’s work ethic, transparency and meticulous organization, paired with an inclusive, collaborative management style and sharing of responsibility, were hallmarks of her leadership.

“This is collective work. She understands deeply how you can effectively run an academic unit. It requires everybody—students, faculty, non-academic staff, the professional community,” he said. “I think that’s why we’ve been successful in the growth of the program, the growth of faculty members, the growth of the number of students. It’s not a small thing to think holistically about an academic unit as an organization that requires everybody.”

Shiri added that Samek’s exacting approach to administration was balanced with a commitment to teaching excellence, from mentoring her own faculty to sharing online teaching expertise with professors and sessionals when the coronavirus pandemic forced all on-campus course offerings to be taught remotely. Samek, a 3M National Teaching Fellow (2012) and winner of the inaugural Library Journal Teaching Award (2007), has an enduring commitment to the inextricable link between quality education and educational experience.

“Toni has been an extraordinary Chair through extraordinary times,” said SLIS Associate Professor Tami Oliphant. “I don’t think a Chair that I’ve known at SLIS has had to face this number of challenges requiring such a variety of responses. On top of all her administrative duties as Chair, Toni’s offered mentoring to every single faculty member already at SLIS, mentored all of our new hires, brought me and Dr. [Michael] McNally up for tenure, and she’s developed, fostered, and deepened SLIS’s relationship with the professional library community.

“Everything she asks of other people is something she demonstrates herself. During her tenure as Chair, Toni continued to research and deepen her own understanding of university governance, of academic freedom, of intellectual freedom and social responsibility, and of citizenship. What underpins her work ethic is a deep commitment to the public good and ethical stewardship of public funds.”

Samek’s most recent monograph, Minds Alive: Libraries and Archives Now, was published in 2020 by the University of Toronto Press and was co-edited by Dr. Patricia Demers. She has directed considerable energy to community engagement and is the recipient of the 2017 Library Association of Alberta President’s Award, which recognizes the efforts of an individual who has made a major impact on a province-wide basis in the library field in Alberta.

Commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion

Danielle Allard, who joined SLIS as an Assistant Professor in 2017, said Samek’s myriad responsibilities as Chair didn’t keep her from being available to help an early-career academic.

“I felt really fortunate to have had her as Chair when I joined SLIS. She was generous with her time and went out of her way to provide mentorship, not just when I started but the entire time. She’s been a wonderful advocate for me and my work, always really thoughtful in her advice. She supports women working in the academy with lots of mentorship, care and consideration.”

She added that Samek has demonstrated her commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) and to increasing Indigenous representation in the program in ways that set the course for the school’s future.

“She’s worked hard to raise the issue of EDI, including working with [SLIS alumni] Kayla Lar-Son and Tanya Ball to create the Indigenous librarianship course,” Allard said.

According to SLIS’s accreditation self-study completed in January 2020, Indigenous students then made up five per cent of its enrolment, which is about twice the average of UAlberta graduate programs. Based on the most recent round of admissions, in September 2020, the number will be seven per cent.

“The opening up of the online offering has been an opportunity to diversify the student population,” Samek said.

“For students to have access to Indigenous instructors who have come through our program, that’s been at the heart of our Indigenous activities, but it’s not been the only piece. There’s been a lot of reflection on how we can continue our commitments to reconciliation without putting the burden on our Indigenous community members. The Indigenous student population has transformed the program–recent alumni and current SLIS sessionals Kayla Lar-Son (2018) and Tanya Ball (2017), for example, have been part of that narrative–but it’s not on our Indigenous students and alumni to transform the program. It’s on all of us, so there’s that constant balance of how to engage Indigenous community members so that we’re ethical and consulting and exploring appropriately without exploiting their time and energy, or putting them at risk.”

Kaia MacLeod of the James Smith Cree Nation is the second Indigenous student during Samek’s tenure as Chair to serve as the president of the Library and Information Studies Students’ Association—her sister Lorisia (MLIS 2018) broke ground as the first—and is currently serving as a UAlberta Library Indigenous Intern. She has seen Samek lead close up.

“Toni Samek is not only a wonderful person but a credit to the library community. During my undergraduate, Toni made the MLIS program a welcoming place,” MacLeod said. “She’s always made herself available to the students and her adaptive leadership has been great for the School. I think the best thing about her as Chair is how Toni consistently keeps the students in her forefront. Although it will be sad to see her go, it is a much-deserved break.”

SLIS Assistant Professor Adam Worrall said that, though he’ll miss Samek’s leadership as Chair, he’s pleased the School will still benefit from her contributions as a faculty member.

“Toni has been a strong, supportive, and exemplary mentor to myself and our other junior colleagues on the SLIS ‘hallway,’" Worrall said. “I appreciate and am thankful for her leadership, mentorship, and advice, hope she can relax some on her well-earned administrative leave, and look forward to her return to SLIS discussions and activities!