Quick Fix

Searching for fast solutions to budget shortfalls, some colleges are turning to mandatory employee furloughs. Some question whether this approach is fair or strategic.

November 19, 2008

Plenty of college presidents skip their vacations. Few, however, take off three weeks without pay as Patricia Hardaway plans to do.

Faced with a $2.8 million budget shortfall, the interim president of Wilberforce University says she will join other administrators in a mandatory 15-day furlough.

“I just think if you’re a leader and you’re making hard decisions that affect everyone, the leader has to step forward first,” Hardaway said.

Wilberforce, which has seen its $12 million endowment reduced by about 5 percent during the economic downturn, is one of the small, tuition-driven institutions that higher education experts say are most vulnerable in the current fiscal climate. But it’s not just colleges like Wilberforce that are being forced to institute furloughs. Clemson University, a public institution in South Carolina, recently announced a five-day mandatory furlough for all employees.

Furloughs are often unpopular short-term fixes, even though they’re designed to avoid layoffs when other cost-cutting strategies have been exhausted. On Clemson’s campus, the decision to go forward with furloughs has been met with some skepticism, even though other options like layoffs are considered even more unpalatable.

“I think it would be naive to say that there isn’t a good deal of discontent out there,” said Alan Grubb, an associate professor of history at Clemson.

Mandating that employees take unpaid leave is particularly problematic on college campuses, where students have already paid tuition and expect classes and services to be offered without interruption. This being the case, leaders at both Clemson and Wilberforce have tried to institute furloughs without disrupting anything for students. For Wilberforce, that means requiring furloughs during holiday breaks when students wouldn’t be on campus anyway. As for Clemson, faculty have been told to work in their furlough days when they’re not teaching – a request that some say is impossible to accommodate, particularly for faculty on nine-month appointments who have some teaching responsibilities each day.

Equity of Furloughs Debated

On both campuses, there are concerns about whether furloughs have been planned in an equitable manner. At Wilberforce, a historically black college in Ohio, non-faculty employees are being asked to take two weeks more furlough days than faculty. Unlike faculty, staff members at Wilberforce are traditionally required to report for work during two weeks of breaks in December and over Memorial Day weekend. Faculty will continue to have those days off with no reduction of pay, but staff will be required to take the days off with a mandatory pay cut. Hardaway said she structured the furloughs in this manner to avoid infringing on class offerings, but she acknowledges that doing so means “the non-faculty employees are bearing an extra burden.”

Grubb, who was president of Clemson’s Faculty Senate in 2001-02, said the university’s campus-wide furloughs have raised particular concerns about those on the lowest end of the pay scale.

“There are enormous ranges in salaries here,” he said. “I don’t think people always appreciate the range. In the academic ranks there are people who make $300,000 and people that make $20,000, so a solution that hits them both in the same way strikes some people as not exactly the fairest solution – and that’s an understandable reaction.”

Clemson officials said they were required by law to institute the furlough across-the-board. A state agency like Clemson is entitled to limit a furlough to a “designated department or program,” but there is nothing in the relevant statute that provides for limiting furloughs based on pay scale.

Joe Seiner, an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina, said that across-the-board furloughs also help insulate colleges from potential legal challenges. If job categories are more likely to have female or minority employees, then subjecting those workers -- and not others -- to furloughs could lead to discrimination lawsuits, he said.

“Any way you set it up, you’re going to create a dangerous situation for yourself if you decide to exclude certain groups,” Seiner said.

Not a Long-Term Solution

As with across-the-board budget cuts, campus-wide furloughs aren’t particularly strategic. Furloughs don’t provide a recurring source of revenue, and when furloughs are mandated across-the-board they don’t give any indication of a college’s priorities. On the other hand, the fluid economic situation has forced some institutions to make these sorts of quick fixes, according to Andy Brantley, president and chief executive officer of the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

“I think institutions are having to wrestle with this now,” Brantley said. “Using furloughs might be a way to deal with the issues that are immediately facing the institution, but they are still going to have to wrestle with the long-term issues unless the economy turns around.”

The necessity to act quickly was one of the key reasons faculty at Clemson felt excluded from the process that led to the furlough mandate. J. Bryan Simmons, president of the Clemson Faculty Senate, said the top-level administrators who crafted the furlough plan “went quiet” for two weeks and broke with a tradition of shared governance.

“To be honest with you, we were frustrated,” Simmons said. “Faculty, staff and students were cut out of the loop. That’s not in keeping with the character of the president and provost.”

James Barker, Clemson’s president, told faculty that swift action was required to address a $25 million shortfall.

“[Barker] said, ‘If I did what I normally do, which is try to get everybody’s input, we’d still be talking today,’ ” Simmons recalled.

Barker appears to be taking a more inclusive approach as he seeks long-term solutions to the university’s fiscal problems. He recently requested faculty and student nominations, for instance, for participation on several task forces that will be developing budget strategies.


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