Hiring Freeze Still Concerns FAS Staff

With recent administrative calls for budget-trimming, staff in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences have been clinging to their jobs in apprehension, anxious that they are particularly vulnerable in a new era of cost-cutting.

Many staffers interviewed by The Crimson expressed concern that the hiring freeze on all FAS staff posts announced three weeks ago was an administrative effort to resuscitate the endowment that did not fully consider the impact on staff.

“To me, this place always had the feel of an investment bank as opposed to an institution of higher education,” said Robert E. Holt, a lab administrator for the chemistry department. “The rub is that when times turn bad, we’re the first people targeted.”

Since the freeze, the number of open FAS staff positions has dropped precipitously from over 100 at the time of the announcement to 32, according to a University database for job posts.

In light of the gravity of the financial downturn—which recently caused an unprecedented 22 percent drop in Harvard’s endowment—many staffers said they have largely accepted news of the hiring halt. But some are unconvinced that the freeze was the best solution.

Holt said the “knee-jerk” response of the hiring freeze could have been avoided—or at least postponed—until departments had conducted a rational, top-down evaluation of their respective programs based upon the teaching and research goals of the University.

“The good manager looks at sweeping all the pennies, dimes, and nickels off the floor. He looks in the cracks, he does the hard work of analyzing his organization,” Holt said. “Anybody can throw bodies at a problem, but it takes some skills and experience to know how many bodies you need.”

Economics faculty assistant Trina Ott said the administration should have placed specific budgetary constraints on departments—instead of halting staff hiring across the FAS—to allow them to determine how they can operate most efficiently.

At the last Faculty meeting, Smith asked professors to consider how they could cut 10 to 15 percent of their departmental budgets in anticipation of a FAS budget shortfall of at least $100 million.

The day before, Smith had announced a hold on the bulk of current searches for tenure-track and tenured faculty. By early last week, the 50 authorized searches underway for new faculty were confirmed to have been cut to 15.

Many staffers said they have not heard news of impending layoffs, and that the possibility seems slim—Holt said he has been told that “nothing precipitous is going to happen with jobs.”

But for some, the hiring halt seems a precursor to more drastic cuts.

“It’s not possible to say that no one will be laid off,” said Richard E. Kaufman, a librarian in the psychology department. “I think that prospect is real, and that’s something that should be alarming.”

Robyn Ochs, technology and publications specialist in the romance languages department, said she hopes Harvard will employ its resources to protect current staff members—even if it requires reshuffling positions.

“People choose to work at Harvard for many reasons. The greatest reason is definitely not money,” Ochs said. “One thing we do count on is job security.”

“When the specter of layoffs is in the horizon, you think, ‘How indispensable am I, really?’” said Gustavo Espada, a financial coordinator for the East Asian languages department. “I think a lot of the anxiety comes from that.”

—Staff Writer Esther I. Yi can be reached