Toward the end of last month, Harvard University’s President Drew Faust announced the layoff of 275 Harvard staff and a significant cut in hours for 40 more. She described these measures as “modest…, but nonetheless painful,” and she called the decision “among the hardest that an institution like ours can make.”
So why is President Faust still so rich?
When my mother spanked me as a child she would start by saying that it hurt her more than it hurt me. I was always skeptical. President Faust’s platitudes about Harvard’s “modest…but painful” layoffs have the same empty ring. If she really means them, she and her top administrators should take voluntary pay cuts.
On 18 May 2009, The Harvard Crimson reported that Faust made $775,043 in total compensation during her first year as Harvard’s president. Harvard’s top administrators made more than $4 million overall. When I look at those numbers a lot of adjectives come to mind. Modest isn’t one of them.
To be fair, President Faust’s compensation is low when compared with the presidents of other top universities. Vanderbilt’s President E. Gordon Gee earned $1.17 million between 2004 and 2005 alone. Still, two wrongs never did make a right. If anything, President Faust has an opportunity to exercise real leadership among her peers by personally shouldering some of Harvard’s budget deficit.
Questioned about why Harvard’s top administrators haven’t taken voluntary pay cuts, University Provost Steven Hyman said he “worries about faculty salary cuts, because what we want to do is retain our very best faculty.”
Sound familiar? It’s the exact same excuse used by AIG last March when its top executives received $218 million in “retention bonuses” at the same time they were accepting bailout after bailout of taxpayer money.
Perhaps realizing how well that explanation worked for AIG, the dean of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Michael Smith, took a different approach. “Just cutting a few administrator salaries,” he explained, won’t fix Harvard’s budget woes.
He has a point. Even if they decided to go without pay altogether—they won’t—Harvard’s administration still couldn’t make up the budget gap closed by layoffs. But they might be able to save five, or twenty, or even a hundred jobs. To a parent wondering how they’ll make rent next month that’s a lot more than just a few administrator salaries.
More importantly, voluntary pay cuts would show the sort of empathy, leadership, and yes, modesty that have been so lacking in the Harvard administration’s response to the economic crises. They would show that all of Harvard’s high-minded rhetoric and liberal ideals are more than just hollow words. In short, they would show that we really are different from AIG.
Other universities have already set a precedence. Standford’s President John Hennessy and his top administrators announced last December that they’ll be taking a 10 percent pay cut. In March, President Thomas Fallo of El Camino College declined a $36 thousand raise, and last November President James Drake of Brevard Community College used his $100 thousand raise to start a text books scholarship fund for students. Surely Harvard is not to be outdone.
By taking voluntary pay cuts Harvard’s administration could show their leadership and magnanimity, raise employee morale in the wake of a panic-inducing layoff process, and save at least some low-income staff positions. Surely they can make due with just a couple of million dollars among them.
Growing up, I saw my mom take a second job to make ends meet and my retired grandmother take the bus to work at Walmart so I could have school clothes. Then, when I was in high school, my mom almost got laid off from her clerical job at the University of Georgia. Months went by before she knew if she’d have a job the next year. Thankfully she was spared; if she hadn’t been, I wouldn’t be at Harvard today.
My family constantly went without so that I wouldn’t have to. Whenever I thank my mom today she just shrugs and says, “That’s my job.” If they really mean what they say about Harvard being a community then Drew Faust and her top administrators need to cut their own compensation. It isn’t just the modest thing to do, or the empathetic thing to do, or even the realpolitik thing to do. It’s their job.