President Ruth J. Simmons and Executive Vice President Richard Spies: “We’re all in this together.” Credit: Brown University/John Abromowski

President Simmons to staff: ‘We will do everything we can to avoid layoffs’

At a Dec. 8 forum organized by the Staff Advisory Committee, senior Brown administrators outlined strategies for coping with the economic downturn.
By Anne Diffily  |  December 8, 2008  |  Email to a friend

The question on the minds of many, perhaps the majority, of the several hundred Brown employees who gathered in the De Ciccio Auditorium at noon on December 8 was undoubtedly, Is my job secure?

In De Ciccio Auditorium, employees listen intently to administrators’ plans for coping with the recession.:   In De Ciccio Auditorium, employees listen intently to administrators’ plans for coping with the recession. At a “town meeting” on the economy organized by the President’s Staff Advisory Committee, President Ruth J. Simmons and four other top Brown administrators spoke candidly and in detail about plans to protect jobs as they adjust the University’s budget and planning in light of a nationwide recession. “We will avoid layoffs until we reach a point of absolute desperation,” Executive Vice President Richard Spies emphasized. “And we are not anywhere near that point.”

In her opening remarks, Simmons described Brown’s relatively advantageous position. Because the administration saw signs of the downturn as early as last spring, the University was able to implement cost-saving measures, including a hiring pause and putting some capital projects on hold, when “cataclysmic [financial] events” occurred this fall. The hiring freeze, Vice President for Administration and Finance Beppie Huidekoper noted, probably will be extended beyond its original deadline in January.

While Brown cannot avoid being affected by what is likely to be a prolonged economic crisis, Simmons said, the University will cope by hewing to its priorities: retaining students in a time of increased need for financial aid, supporting employees, and adhering to its core mission of education and research. “We will continue to be a strong university,” Simmons said.

When asked directly about potential staff layoffs, Simmons said that Brown will do everything possible to avoid them by effecting savings in other ways. “We can live without some services in order to preserve jobs,” she said. “I hope you are all with me on this.”

Alternatives to layoffs, Huidekoper said, could include lower salary increases or even no increases for a time. “Our goal,” she said, “is to keep people employed even if it entails a slight decrease in compensation.”

In response to a question about potential cuts to employee benefits, Vice President for Human Resources Karen Davis stated that Brown had no plans to change its benefits structure at the moment. “We’re beginning to look at where we could be smarter,” she added. Simmons said, “Benefits is an area where you have to solicit a lot of opinion before you make changes. We would be committed to hearing from people around the University.”

The panel members encouraged staff to continue submitting cost-cutting suggestions at the SAC Web site. “We’ve received hundreds so far,” Huidekoper said.

“How proud I have been, as we’ve heard from other universities, to see how remarkably Brown has done in involving its staff in this conversation,” Simmons said. She pledged to keep the information conduit open as the administration works with the new Organizational Review Committee on achieving more efficiency and deploying resources strategically in the months ahead. While day-to-day updates may not be practical, Simmons concluded, “We will try to disclose information as soon as we can do it in a substantive way.”