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Taking One (Percent) for the Team

Taking One (Percent) for the Team
December 10, 2008

At Brandeis University, faculty are considering whether to voluntarily forgo 1 percent of their salaries next year to prevent possible layoffs of support staff.

“It’s not painless for us, but it’s not a huge hit to take,” said William Flesch, the Faculty Senate chair and a professor of English literature.

Lawyers are still vetting the details of the proposal but, in short, interested faculty would contribute to the cause either by forgoing 1 percent of their paychecks, or via a charitable contribution to a reserved Brandeis fund. Faculty would volunteer individually and anonymously (“only the payroll office would know,” Flesch said), without any cuts to their listed base pay. And, to avert concerns about freeloading, contributions would kick in only if there is a critical mass of willing faculty -- if those who volunteer collectively earn at least 30 percent of the total faculty salary pool within the College of Arts and Sciences.

“The dean and I worked out that if we do get to 30 percent of the faculty volunteering to decline to take 1 percent of their salary next year, that would probably save two or three full-time jobs or four to six half-time jobs,” said Flesch, who sits on a college committee that has identified which staff positions would be the first slashed if economic conditions don't improve. When asked what sorts of staff jobs are vulnerable, Flesch said that members of the committee have interviewed chairs to discuss administrative staffing and duties within departments.

In other words, to Flesch, the possibilities for staff layoffs are anything but abstract. And, he believes, any bait and switch on the part of the administration would be apparent. “We already know where the cuts will be if the money doesn’t come in,” he said. “As the dean puts it, it’s basically as transparent as it could be without actually publicizing personnel rankings and personnel decisions.”

In a phone interview, Flesch stressed that the proposal was entirely faculty-generated. In fact, he said that while several top administrators have pledged to participate in the proposed giveback, “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure the senior administration is very happy about this.

“Brandeis is not asking us to do this and they don’t want anyone to think they’re asking us to do this. Things are under control at Brandeis, they’re not great, but they’re not great anywhere.

"The really important thing is things are under control and this is just a question of tweaking things to make it a little less harsh for a few members of the staff.”

Dennis Nealon, Brandeis’s executive director of media and public affairs, described the proposal as one of a number of ideas on the table. “Like all colleges and universities, Brandeis is actively looking at ways to cut costs and to do that, it’s going to gather proposals and ideas from across the community. Yes, the administration has actively invited students, staff, faculty to go ahead and submit proposals with an eye toward, yes, cutting costs,” said Nealon. He added that while layoffs are a possibility, “Nothing is cast in stone at this point.”

"Brandeis, like other schools, like other colleges and universities, is keeping a close eye on what the economy's really going to do and that's going to dictate in large measure how far cuts will go."

Speaking in a broader context, Ernst Benjamin, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said that similar issues arose at last weekend’s meeting of collective bargaining chapters. Should faculty volunteer to take pay cuts or renegotiate contracts (albeit in other cases at their administrations' request or even demand)?

“On the one hand, there was a lot of feeling that faculty should be careful before assuming that there is a genuine need for it, and the university is in as much trouble as it presents itself as being,” said Benjamin. At the same time, he said, “I wouldn’t necessarily think it’s a bad idea. Obviously the faculty who are there are in the best position to make a determination whether it’s (a) necessary and (b) better than the possible alternatives.

“A lot of it depends on the particular circumstances. Faculty often have a pretty good idea of whether they can view the administration as reliable.”

Concerns voiced about the Brandeis proposal at a recent faculty meeting reflect, at least in part, questions of trust. According to Flesch's account, and an account in the student newspaper, some faculty raised concerns that the foregone pay would be used for purposes other than shielding staff, and, more philosophically, that the administration would see the move as a concession suggesting that faculty could be paid less in the future.

Flesch said he’s uncertain of whether they'll reach the 30 percent threshold set. Under the current plan -- again, still being vetted by lawyers -- professors would respond to a still-to-be-sent e-mail with their individual verdicts by next Friday, December 19.

 

 

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