Nov. 6, 2008

At first of two forums on cost-saving measures, Skorton pledges to protect 'human capital'

Speaking to 400 members of the Cornell community at the first of two public forums about the university's possible cost-saving measures, President David Skorton pledged to protect the university's "human capital."

Some jobs on campus have been eliminated due to a lack of state funding, and more layoffs are likely, Skorton said. "But we're going to be very, very aggressive in protecting the human capital in the university and make every decision with that in mind."

Hosting the Nov. 5 forum in Bailey Hall, Skorton said he was committed to improving efficiencies throughout Cornell and to step up fundraising efforts as he and senior leaders consider ways to deal with the effects of the national economic downturn.

The forum, and a second on Nov. 6 from 4 to 5 p.m. in Statler Auditorium, followed Skorton's Oct. 30 statement to the community in which he announced a five-month "hiring pause," a 90-day "construction pause" and "a rigorous 45-day universitywide review" to identify actions to contain costs and streamline Cornell's operations.

Skorton opened the Bailey Hall forum by ticking off the main four sources of Cornell's income that have been hardest hit by the economic downturn. He predicted that New York state will reduce its funding, while federal dollars for research will, at best, remain at last year's levels. The university's endowment has shrunk because of the economic downturn. Finally, the university must moderate its ability to raise tuition so as to maintain Cornell's socio-economic diversity, he said. "We don't want to define human talent in terms of income."

As the senior leadership explores ways to mitigate funding reductions, they will keep three assumptions in mind, Skorton said. "First, the university is based on the talents of its people." Deans will continue to have the resources to recruit and support faculty, and efforts will continue to foster a diverse student population with "robust need-based financial aid."

Second, he emphasized the need to eliminate inefficiencies by acting as a single institution. "We're going to re-examine everything we do to see if there are ways to do them better and more efficiently and smarter," Skorton said. "We're under the gun to do that now." He encouraged his audience to post suggestions online, and said that so far 82 suggestions had been submitted.

Third, the university must increase its revenue streams, he said. "We cannot cut our way out of this dilemma. We have to grow our way out." He said the university would give faculty the tools it needs to be more competitive for grants.

He then opened the floor to questions from the audience. "I'm here for you," he said. "What do you want to talk about?" A man who identified himself as a pipe fitter asked the first question: Have specific projects been identified for long-term delay or cut completely? Skorton assured him that each project would be assessed on a case-by-case basis. "We don't have a hit list of jobs that are going out the window."

Rick Schmidt, a self-described long-time employee, asked why the endowment couldn't be used to cover the gap in funding for staff jobs. "Since there are some very deep pockets, it doesn't seem logical to eliminate low-level jobs," he said. Skorton emphasized that organizational efficiencies are different from personnel efficiencies. "Doing things more efficiently doesn't mean lopping off the bottom of the pyramid," he said. "Say we have 10 offices that are understaffed. What if we turned that into five offices that are fully staffed?"

Vice President for University Communications Tommy Bruce concluded the session, saying that the Cornell Chronicle will be the main vehicle for further information about the university's cost-savings measures. He also encouraged the audience to check for updates at http://cuinfo.cornell.edu.