The Trouble With Cutting College Costs

Harvard University, trying to trim its operating budget in the face of a projected 30 percent decline in the value of its endowment stemming from the current financial meltdown, announced its intention to cut 13 of the 27 janitors who service its medical school and an unspecified number of custodial workers elsewhere at Harvard residential facilities. The result: two student protest rallies on March 5, including a march to the office of university president Drew Gilpin Faust during which Harvard students joined union organizers and labor activists in chanting such slogans as “Hey, Harvard, you’ve got cash, why do you treat your workers like trash?” The affected employees don’t even work for Harvard; they collect their paychecks from a pair of independent firms to which Harvard subcontracts some of its custodial work. Nonetheless, Harvard undergraduate, law, and medical students turned out to support the protest, declaring (as one medical student told the Harvard Crimson) that they had the “power” to force the university to reconsider the planned personnel reductions.
The Harvard protests—in the name of protecting the jobs of perhaps a few dozen people who aren’t even on the Harvard payroll—exemplified the thorny political problems that college and university administrators face as they try to cut costs during this economic turndown without feeding bad publicity-garnering campus showdowns. Their job isn’t enviable. The University of California’s Berkeley campus, for example, decided that one way to cope with a projected reduction of $65 to $75 million in subsidies from the nearly insolvent state of California would be to halve the size of its physical education program, which offers academic credit to students who enroll in such courses as team sports, aquatics, and dance. Since educating minds, not bodies, is presumably the primary mission of a university, UC-Berkeley’s effort to save $250,000 nest fall semester by trimming a peripheral department and putting some of its full-time faculty on part-time status ought to be non-controversial. Not so. Students and phys-ed faculty at Berkeley have launched a letter-writing campaign and Facebook protest to preserve the department at full strength.

Not surprisingly, then, few universities are risking controversy and confrontations by getting rid of personnel or programs as they try to trim their budgets during these grim times during which, as a new survey from the Commonfund Institute released this month reported, the size of college endowment funds shrank during 2008 by an average of 24 percent. Cornell University, for example, recently instituted a hiring freeze, an early-retirement program, and a “phased retirement” program that would allow employees, including tenured profesors, to accept reduced working hours (and pay) in return for university-enhanced contributions to their retirement plans. Princeton, facing $82 million in budget cuts because of endowment losses, announced on March 4 that it plans to trim raises, especially for its higher-paid employees, and fill vacant job slots only when a manager determines the position is “mission-critical.” Brown University, with $90 million in projected budget cuts in the offing, announced on March 5 that it will cut 60 positions on campus, but that only 30 of those cuts will involve layoffs (unfilled vacancies are expected to account for arrest, and that none of those fired will be unionized employees.
A study released in late February by CUPA-HR, an organization serving human-resources personnel at public and private universities, indicates that such walking on political eggshells is the predominant modus operandi of university administrators, who face tough mandates to slash their budgets but hesitate to be seen as labor-unfriendly or hostile to their employees. The CUPA-HR survey (whose full text is available online only to CUPA-HR members), reported that hiring and wage freezes (along with, in the case of non-teaching staff, reductions in overtime) are, by significant margins, universities’ weapon of choice in fighting the constraints of reduced budgets this year. Only 8.5 percent are laying off or plan to lay off professors or top administrators, and only 9.2 percent are laying off or plan to lay off other full-time staffers. By contrast, hiring freezes and delayed hiring account for from 35 to 45 percent of CUPA-HR’s budget-cutting strategies with respect to both professors and other staff. Some 26.6 percent of member universities will institute wage freezes for professors and 26.9 percent will freeze wages for other staff.
That sort of tactful cost-cutting, which generally avoids making tough decisions about firing people outright or eliminating programs, is all well and good as far as it goes, but at least some university administrators concede that eventually some of the cuts will be painful (as they were for Dartmouth, which recently laid off 60 staff members, gave reduced hours to 28 more, and gave early retirement to another 70 volunteers). Brown, for example, has already taken gingerly steps in the direction of deeper, targeted cuts; on March 1 Brown announced it had reorganized and shrunk its campus life and student services operations, eliminating some top-level positions, the Brown Daily Herald reported . Critics have singled out campus life as a glaring example of administrative bloat that runs up tuition and sucks money from academics on many college campuses. The Daily Herald reported that Brown plans further reorganizations and possible layoffs in the near future as it attempts to balance its budget by 2014.
Eventually such moves are bound to generate the kind of political flak among students and activists that UC-Berkeley is currently enduring for reducing its ballet offerings and Harvard for cutting back on office-cleanings at its medical school. Many university administrators are accustomed to capitulating at the slightest hint of student protest. In May 2007, for example, eleven Harvard students launched a hunger strike to protest wage levels at a company that supplied Harvard with security guards. Nine days later, long before any of the striking Harvardians was in immediate danger of starving to death, the university threw in the towel and agreed to allow an independent review of the guards’ wage demands. This time around, however, the stakes, in terms of recession-prompted budget cuts crucial to survival, are much higher for Harvard and nearly every other university in America. It’s time for some of those administrators to steel themselves for hard, unpleasant, and unpopular choices.


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