February 14, 2011

The Effects of Downsizing

Print More

The University cut 672 nonacademic support staff positions in fiscal year 2010 as part of its objective to reduce extraneous costs without jeopardizing academic programs.  While keeping academic programs off the chopping block is a commendable goal, the current trend of downsizing is an unsustainable means of achieving it and potentially counterproductive to the Strategic Plan, which explicitly states the University’s goals of recruiting prestigious, young tenure-track faculty and bolstering the clout of strong academic departments. As administrators move forward with this plan, it is imperative that proper support systems remain in place to allow promising faculty and competitive academic departments to develop.

Staff cuts have been widespread, affecting every college and almost every department, yet administrators claim the breadth of services has not suffered. While on the surface the quality of programs appears intact, the staff that remain in a given college are under additional pressure. While the cuts are a response to economic need, some individual employees are now attempting to complete the work formerly taken on by two or three. Workloads are increasing with no concurrent rise in pay, and staff are in danger of burning out their resources if they continue to work beyond their capacities.

This blow to support staff also undermines the intent of the University’s strategic hiring policy. Recruiting top young faculty to campus is a waste of resources if in the face of an overworked staff they are seated with tasks that support staffers like lab assistants, secretaries and library researchers would ordinarily do. Before dedicating financial and human resources to faculty recruitment, the University must make certain that adequate support systems exist to allow new professors and researchers to thrive.

While a fair number of the axed staff positions may have been superfluous, it is unfounded to claim — as administrators have — that recent downsizing in staff will have no impact on the University’s academic programs. Support staff are crucial to the daily operation of academic departments and long-term goals of academic excellence. They provide the legwork necessary for groundbreaking research and the administrative organization necessary for exemplary departments. If support staff numbers are too low, employee workload skyrockets relative to pay, and morale decreases. As the University moves forward with staff cuts, it must exact caution not to cut too deeply.

The University cannot build academic excellence from the top down. The Strategic Plan’s stated goals of recruiting auspicious new faculty and bolstering competitive departments cannot be achieved if they stand on a shaky foundation. Administrators must pay attention to the effects their hiring and firing practices have from the bottom up, or the Strategic Plan is a Sisyphean aim.