Layoffs and Workforce Planning
A time-honored corporate method of reducing short-term costs and plumping up the bottom line is to institute layoffs. The modern university is no different. In 2008, ahead of misery that was to be commonplace, University of Florida did the unspeakable—in addition to letting go 118 staff members, they gave 20 faculty members their hat. The reasoning was by letting go of some, they would have the resources to hang on to others whom they feared would leave to “greener pastures” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
2009 was a bad year to be a university, so the story goes, with sorry returns on endowments and richer alumni having their own money troubles (and less left over for sizable donations). Harvard saw fit to layoff 275 staff due to the drop in the endowment (never mind that there were still billions in reserve) in addition to the 500 who took voluntary retirement. Princeton’s knife was duller, cutting only 43, with 45 retiring. Caltech had to let go 100 staff. MIT cut 175 between January 2009 and June 2010. Cornell laid-off 150 and 432 took the early retirement package. University of Michigan planned to consolidated classes and layoff lecturers, the lowest man in the pecking order. Yale had 300 on the cutting block (including voluntary retirements).
While faculty have had to be let go at several institutions of higher education, it is more often the staff that bears the burden of doing the work of others. However, the facultyâ€™s importance vis-à-vis the student body is duly noted. But as universities increasingly engage in activities that are not directly related to the core of teaching, faculty may find themselves in untenured waters.
Since 2001, Cornell has been upfront about its Workforce Planning Initiative (Link). The Ithaca Journal quoted Carolyn Ainslie, then vice president for planning and budget (and now at Princeton), as saying, “We are not going into this with a plan to initiate layoffs.”1 In the fall of 2002, in a speech to staff members, President Hunter Rawlings declared, “Workforce Planning was not conceived to deal with the short-term problems…It is intended to provide resources to accomplish the university’s academic program priorities and to ensure a balanced operating budget for the long term.”2 Rawlings continued in this vein, “We expect workforce planning to lead to more clearly defined roles, responsibilities, standards of performance and accountabilities…We think our support systems will become more agile and responsive to the changing needs and that staff workload will become more reasonable, rewarding personally, and well compensated.”3 “Agile” and “responsive to changeâ€” are in the lexicon of the contemporary corporate. Hunter Rawlings was no different.
The recent layoffs and hiring freezes give universities some time to rethink their workforce planning, even at places that are not as transparent as Cornell. With an eye on budget issues, universities are consolidating or eliminating departments and functions, slimming and trimming as any enterprise does in order to get sleek for a potential merger or to be more attractive to shareholders.
A small note: In China, universities are routinely listed on the stock exchange. In fact, an enterprise known as EDU is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. The owner of EDU is Beijing-based New Oriental and Education and Technology Group, Inc. The aim of the company is to help Chinese students be admitted to US universities.
Clericalization of Professional Work
One emeritus professor likes to say that in the 1960s, his Ivy League institution used to have ‘secretaries running around everywhere.” As discussed above, when the university undergoes layoffs, support staff are the first to be released. This leaves faculty without secretarial support.
Younger faculty are not necessarily in need of heavy administrative support. Maybe they need help with processing paperwork, but they are able to handle the computer environment without any extra help. For those who had their training in the 1960s-1970s, they are less sure. Some older faculty still turn over longhand notes to their assistant to decipher (this is how they conducted business 30 years ago) or are more comfortable dictating emails. This population will always be blessed with administrative support. Their younger colleagues are not so lucky. There is one man who was hired in the mid-1990s and he asked the office manager discreetly about clerical support. She pointed to the computer and said, “There it is.”
The norm is shared clerical support for faculty. That means one clerical worker will be shared by two or three faculty. Problems arise when someone feels that his or her work is being shortchanged or neglected. One faculty member, who has support, does all of his own clerical work because “it is just easier.”
1Campi, Esther. “CU to examine staffing levels.” Ithaca Journal, March 15, 2002.
2Powers, Jacquie. “Rawlings tells staff: CU remains strong despite challenges.” Cornell Chronicle, October 24, 2002.