Saturday, May 30, 2009

the MIT budget-crunch cheer


As an employee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I regularly receive email communications from MIT President Susan Hockfield. Recently, I got an end-of-year message that made a strong attempt to put a positive spin on what's been a very difficult year for the Institute.

The letter starts by acknowledging the pressures of operating during an economic recession, pointing to successes in meeting those pressures without mentioning, in this opening paragraph or anywhere else, the number of MIT employees who have been sacrificed in the name of this success. Hockfield writes:

Around the world and in every sector, fundamental economic assumptions have dramatically changed over the last eight months. At MIT, we responded swiftly to the evolving economic downturn. Last November, anticipating a dramatic decline in our endowment’s value, we set out a plan to reduce our $1 billion General Institute Budget by $150 million, or 15%, within two to three years. Thanks to extraordinary work in every MIT unit, we have achieved 5% cuts for Fiscal Year 2010 (FY10), which begins July 1, 2009; some units and departments have already reached or even exceeded the targets set out for them. In addition, we have in place a thoughtful, deliberate process to achieve the full $150 million reduction by FY12.

We can take enormous pride in the ongoing work across the entire Institute to reset our base budget for what may be a protracted period of slow economic growth.

It's tough, admittedly, to acknowledge the human cost of belt-tightening at the institutional level. And it's likely that this letter isn't the place for it. But in addition to the innovative cost-cutting approaches deployed by MIT (convening a 200-member task force, opening up an Idea Bank where faculty, staff, and students can submit and rank ideas for increasing MIT's operating efficiency), administrators relied on a tried-and-true approach to budget cuts: layoffs.

Layoff numbers are not readily available--in fact, may not be available at all, as far as I can tell--but my experience and my colleagues tell me that layoff numbers are at least in the dozens and probably much higher. As far as we can tell, no faculty have been let go (though an Institute-wide pay freeze means that faculty and staff alike received no pay raises this year), which means the burden of these layoffs rests on the shoulders of administrative and support staff.

The tone of Hockfield's letter is "we did it, together." The little people who have fallen by the wayside in the "doing" of "it" get no mention, here or anywhere else. (As I wrote in an earlier post, previous letters from Hockfield take the same "we're just going to ignore the fact that we have to lay people off in order to meet our financial goals" approach.) This makes it mighty hard to get into the team spirit mode that Hockfield would like to see.

Things are tough all over, but that doesn't mean it's fair or right to pretend to the world that everybody at the Institute banded together in a joint innovative approach to cutting costs. In this respect, MIT is no different from any other bulky, expensive institution, as much as it would like to make the world believe otherwise.


Anonymous said...

I don't think the world believes that MIT is any different from any other bulky, expensive institution. Tuition + boarding comes to $50,000 a year at MIT. Although financial aid services are quite good at MIT, it doesn't take away from the fact that that money has to be paid somehow (parents, student work study, loans, scholarship, etc). Not to mention that being top of one's HS class doesn't necessary guarantee a scholarship at MIT, since that's pretty much the baseline.

I think people who work at MIT are the ones who think they are different from any other bulky, expensive instituions, just as Harvard people think they are different from any others, as Yale people think they are.... it's just all the same all over the place. Just as people are getting laid off, everywhere; just as heads of organizations are telling their employees, "No, we are different! We won't lay you off" right before they do so, just as people who say, "yes, there's more money coming in" and then says, "ooppps, not really".

It's all the same all over.

Be content with being the same.

Jenna McWilliams said...

yes! exactly! now if only we could get MIT to acknowledge it's making the same kinds of decisions as every other institution...and to own up to that in some sort of public way....THAT would make me content.

Anonymous said...

@Jenna McWilliams that's like asking MIT to acknowledge tha they are quite insular and that MIT is an ivory tower.

of all people within an university instution, the support staff is always lowest in priority. It's like people commonly think that... you know what, teaching a class is SOOO much harder than balancing the budget. But if you ask most PhDs to balance their checkbook, they would have a hard time doing so. Maybe that's the problem. MIT is asking a scientist to balance a checkbook.

Jonathan B. said...

Actually, MIT is quite different than other institutions. Institutions in the private world cannot afford to waste money nearly as profligately as MIT does (or most big universities do).


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