Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Is A Pandemic The Right Time To Make Bold Faculty Hiring Moves — At Yale And Elsewhere?

Inside Higher Education, Carpe Diem on Faculty Hiring?:

Yale University LogoYale University says it is doing more hiring this academic year than it planned during the pandemic. But that falls short of the hiring activity that faculty members want to see: in a months-long campaign, they’ve argued that hiring freezes during COVID-19 are not just damaging to Yale but also unnecessary.

Indeed, Yale’s budget has fared relatively well since the university announced a yearlong hiring freeze at the pandemic’s onset. In a financial update this fall, Scott Strobel, provost, and Jack Callahan, a senior vice president, said that results for the fiscal year that ended in June were “better than expected, thanks to the work of faculty and staff across campus who restrained spending” and other factors.

How much better than expected? The pandemic cost Yale more than $250 million in lost revenue and other expenses. Yet the university still ended the fiscal year with an operating budget surplus of $125 million. Yale’s endowment, which contributes to the annual budget, also saw a 6.8 percent investment return.

Universities continue to be loath to tap into their endowments for extra pandemic relief. But a $125 million budget surplus is significant.

Strobel and Callahan said that 89 percent of the surplus is tied up in reserve balances in individual campus accounts, and anything remaining is a “buffer” for the rest of this year. Still, they announced that Yale was “partially lifting” the freeze on faculty recruitment, to the tune of at least 60 new and continuing faculty searches across the professional schools and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

This was good news to many faculty members who vocally opposed any freeze on hiring. Even so, it wasn’t enough: Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences Senate wants the university to be bold, not so cautious.

At an April Senate meeting, for instance, John Geanakoplos, James Tobin Professor of Economics, said that Yale has emerged from earlier crises richer than before and that there was no need to “panic” about potential lost wealth.

Earlier crises also show Yale shouldn't cut things that are “crucial” to its core teaching and research missions, such as hiring and salaries, Geanakoplos said. Doing so previously has inhibited growth, as it’s an “illusion” that Yale can make up for lost hiring later when things return to normal.

To "pause" hiring, he added, is to take a step backward. ...

Yale, he continued, is “unlikely in the next 50 years to have so good an opportunity to make progress in faculty excellence and diversity as it has right now.” Many peer institutions, especially public ones, continue to face the financial fallout of COVID-19, and so Yale’s “opportunity is now huge,” Geanakoplos urged. “Seize it … Seeing an opportunity while having the money at the same time is truly extraordinary.”

Geanakoplos’s blunt analysis -- even in the name of institutional excellence -- may be jarring to the many who have lost jobs during COVID-19, or who were already struggling on the poor academic job market. But it certainly raises questions about why institutions that don’t necessarily have to chill hiring continue to do so, and what the consequences are.

Putting things into some perspective, Geanakoplos also said that the $250 million Yale lost as a result of COVID-19 represents one day’s average fluctuation in the value of the endowment. The salary freeze that accompanied the hiring freeze, meanwhile, saved the Faculty of Arts and Sciences $5 million.

“Was running a $125 million surplus instead of $120 million worth freezing salaries of an underpaid faculty?” Geanakoplos asked. “Why of all years would we want to run a surplus?”

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