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Harvard workers stunned by layoffs

Endowment loss cited; 275 jobs cut

A guided tour passed through Harvard yesterday, the same day the university announced it would be laying off 275 employees. A guided tour passed through Harvard yesterday, the same day the university announced it would be laying off 275 employees. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / June 24, 2009
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Harvard’s most senior administrators had for months foreshadowed the possibility of staff reductions, warning at a series of meetings and forums that they probably would have no choice as the university deals with the precipitous decline in its endowment.

But when the layoff number - 275 Harvard employees - was delivered yesterday in a memo from the university’s president, it came as a shock in most quarters of the campus.

Few schools and departments, it appears, will be spared as Harvard embarks on its largest set of layoffs in recent memory. The layoffs, which began yesterday at the business and law schools, as well as in many college libraries, will continue through next week at most of Harvard’s 10 schools. The result: widespread angst and anger among workers who fear they may be the next to go.

“The fact that this is happening at Harvard, who is still sitting on a chest of billions and remains the richest university in the world, shows it is pursuing this incredibly narrow path of naked self interest,’’ said Geoff Carens, a library assistant and union representative who is organizing a rally tomorrow to protest the cuts. “They’re using this drop in the endowment as an excuse to justify really terrible cuts that will have a disastrous impact on the surrounding communities.’’

Yesterday’s announcement also drew criticism from student leaders and renewed calls by some groups for top administrators, including president Drew G. Faust, to share in the economic sacrifice by cutting their own pay, as the presidents at Brown and Stanford universities have. The personnel cuts also, once again, raised the specter of cuts in programs.

University officials would not detail how many employees were given notice yesterday, except to say that the cuts were split almost evenly between administrative or professional positions and clerical or technical jobs. Service and trade workers will be largely unaffected. Full-time faculty members are also safe.

“Such decisions, in their human dimensions, are among the hardest that an institution like ours can make,’’ Faust wrote in an e-mail to the community yesterday. “But difficult circumstances have called for difficult decisions across the university.’’

Facing a projected 30 percent drop in the value of its endowment, Harvard had already made the decision to withhold raises for about 9,000 faculty and non-union staff members for the next school year. And it has offered a voluntary early retirement program to about 1,600 staff members that ultimately shed more than 500 employees. But the savings were not enough, Faust said.

As a result, the law school is laying off 12 employees, and the business school is losing 16, according to e-mails sent by the law and business school deans yesterday. Staff cuts at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the medical school, and the central administration will start Monday.

The Harvard Law School dean, Howell Jackson, said in his e-mail that he was able to avoid deeper cuts because “members of the faculty and senior administration staff have pledged to contribute several hundred thousand dollars in cash.’’

The deans of the schools of public health and engineering and applied sciences circulated e-mails yesterday saying they did not plan on any layoffs.

Personnel costs account for half of Harvard’s $3.5 billion operating budget. In addition to the impending layoffs, about 40 more staff members will be offered positions with reduced work hours.

Thousands of Harvard employees headed to work yesterday unaware of what was in store. Shane Dunn, a program assistant in the development office of Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, was greeted by Faust’s e-mail when he logged on to his computer, but it was not until his department supervisor scheduled an afternoon meeting with him that he had an inkling his job was on the line. After two years at Harvard, his first job out of college, Dunn’s last day will be July 7. Seven others at Radcliffe were also laid off.

“It’s upsetting. It’s a shock. However, I feel much more for my colleagues who have been here for a long time, who have families or who are closer to retirement,’’ said Dunn, an aspiring college administrator who plans to look for another job within higher education. “I feel confident that I’m going to be OK.’’

Harvard officials find themselves in such a precarious financial position because, more than many private research universities, it relies heavily on income from its massive endowment to fund day-to-day costs. With the endowment plummeting, leaders say, they can no longer afford to maintain the university’s size and ambition.

Segments of the university have had to lay off some workers in previous economic downturns, but nowhere near the extent of yesterday’s announcement. The university had about 16,000 core employees at the time of yesterday’s announcements. The layoffs represent about 2 percent of the university, which is the second-largest employer in the region.

“This is absolutely the most large-scale layoff in the whole time I’ve been here,’’ said Carens, who has worked at Harvard for 21 years. “People are terrified. People are desperate and miserable and worried, ‘Am I going to be next? Am I going to be evicted from my apartment? Are my kids going to be able to go to college next year?’ ’’

The Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents a wide range of employees including security guards, library workers, lab technicians, administrative assistants, and faculty secretaries, expects many of its members to be affected, Carens said.

The foreboding cuts have prompted several university groups to embark on a “no layoffs’’ campaign in recent months, including a protest during Harvard’s commencement ceremony. The Harvard Crimson, a student labor group, and some law school staff members and law students have called for Faust and others to take a voluntary pay cut to save jobs. An associate professor in anthropology began organizing a campaign to ask faculty to donate 1 percent of their salaries to avoid staff layoffs.

“It’s outrageous that Drew Faust and others in the university administration have not seen fit to reduce their salaries to ameliorate the economic circumstances that the university is in,’’ said Stephen Helfer, a law school library assistant who took an early retirement after 22 years. Helfer and his colleagues collected 120 signatures on a petition to the law school dean last month asking for temporary salary reductions to reduce layoffs.

Faust made $775,043 in the 2007/2008 school year, according to university tax filings.

“Harvard has a choice,’’ said Colette Perold, a junior and liaison to the Harvard Progressive Alumni Network. “With a few previously unexplored changes, Harvard could be charting new territory and standing as a leader for the rest of the nation to follow. A no-layoffs stance . . . also could pave the way for how institutions responsibly deal with crisis.’’

Clarification: A Page One story yesterday about layoffs at Harvard University imprecisely detailed president Drew Faust’s compensation for the 2007-2008 academic year. The $775,043 figure included pay, benefits, and expenses, according to university tax filings.