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Brown suspends new hiring for faculty, staff to mitigate financial consequences from COVID-19

Hiring freeze effective immediately for current year, next fiscal year

The University announced a suspension of “any new hiring” for both staff and faculty positions due to the COVID-19 crisis, according to a March 23 announcement from Provost Richard Locke P’18 and Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Barbara Chernow.

The policy will go into effect immediately and will continue into the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. Exceptions will be made only for searches that are “well underway” and for “very few critically-strategic hires,” according to the email.

The freeze was a “financially driven decision” to help mitigate the effects of the “dramatic reduction in revenue” due to the coronavirus pandemic, Locke wrote in an email to The Herald. These effects include the reported loss of $21.8 million that has already been spent on refunds, E-Gap Funds, student wages and a line of credit for Brown Physicians Inc. This spending is predicted to rise to $50-60 million, The Herald previously reported.

Locke added that in the midst of the challenges and disruptions caused by the pandemic, the University must ensure it has “resources to support (our) priorities.”

He wrote in the announcement that the University “has a proven track record of being able to withstand challenging economic periods,” and that he is confident the University will be able to continue to carry out its mission. 

The University has already completed many of its hiring searches for the next academic year, Locke wrote in an email to The Herald. He “anticipates very few exceptions” to the hiring freeze, and wrote that the University has established “rigorous criteria” to determine the strategic importance of each continued search. 

Brown was the first university of the Ivy-plus consortium to institute a hiring freeze on March 23, followed by Columbia, Stanford and Cornell. The decision to extend hiring freezes through FY 2020 was followed by Penn and Columbia, while other universities like Havard and Dartmouth, froze their hiring indefinitely as of April 13. 

Jane Sokolosky, Director of Language Studies, wrote in an email to The Herald that the hiring freeze will affect some of the planned expansions of the Center for Language Studies. Language offerings such as Yoruba and Vietnamese will have to be “put on hold,” as will a search for a new post-doc, Sokolosky wrote.

The Department of Computer Science is one of the few departments authorized to continue its faculty searches online. According to an email to The Herald from Ugur Cetintemel, professor and chair of computer science, half of the department’s interviews had already been conducted in person before the COVID-19 outbreak and the online searches should be completed in the coming weeks.

Despite the authorization, Cetintemel said the hiring freeze will have an immediate impact on the current search by decreasing the number of approved job offers the department can make available to candidates. With “the current (competitiveness) of the CS recruiting field,” this would reduce the department’s chance “of getting who we want.”

“In a normal year we would make three offers in order to get one candidate,” Cetintemel said. “Sometimes we are lucky and we get two candidates, but … the University would still be able to absorb that” under typical circumstances. 

This year, the University will not be able to take that financial risk. The department will still be able to make a limited amount of offers, but it will be more than one offer, Cetintemel said

The department is trying to compensate for the disparity between candidates who did online interviews versus in-person interviews, Cetintemel added. To do so, the department is instituting measures including creating virtual chat sessions with junior faculty in order to recreate some of extra socialization that only the in-person interviews allowed.

The hiring freeze will also have long-term impacts, Cetintemel said. The University recently approved the computer science department to expand its teaching capacity in order to reduce class sizes and increase research capacity. Cetintemel added that missing this hiring season in an “especially competitive market” will mean “a big hit” for the department.

Another among the few exceptions to the freeze, the Carney Institute for Brain Science is continuing its faculty search for an assistant professor. Diane Lipscombe, professor of neuroscience and director of the Carney Institute, said that the hiring freeze will not affect the number of offers made. She said her biggest concern is not the consequences for the University or the Carney Institute, but rather the future of the post-doctorates who may not have full-time positions to apply for due to the hiring freeze.

 This group of postdocs “have done their PhDs, they have done their post-docs, they have fellowships,” she explained. This year or next year, they were going to apply for full-time positions, which are now in jeopardy because of the freeze. 

Jim McGrath, a postdoctoral research associate in digital public humanities, also expressed concerns about the implications of the University’s decision for the future of the academic job market. McGrath wrote in an email to The Herald that he expected the short-term hiring freeze, but that he finds continuing the freeze into the following fiscal year more concerning. 

“A hiring freeze at our home institution makes an already-terrible job market look even worse,” McGrath wrote. If a university like Brown “with far greater resources than other institutions is making this decision, we can only imagine what is happening elsewhere.”

McGrath wrote that the policy is especially disruptive for people who “don't have the financial security and access to the resources one needs these days to stay afloat in higher ed.” He expects that a “tremendous amount of exciting and innovative scholars (will be) forced out of academia.” According to McGrath, this could cause the higher education job market to become “an even more exclusive terrain for the small number of rich folks who will be the only ones able to afford the costs needed to stay in graduate school, navigate a dire job market, and find time to do the work.”

McGrath stressed the need for the University and other institutions to take into consideration the exceptionally difficult circumstances of candidates in formulating its hiring policies and practices. He wrote that the circumstances might even warrant universities revamping academic employment norms by altering the form of tenure and relying less on adjunct and temporary teaching.

“We're going to need to see universities take a long, hard look at tenure as an ethical and realistic model of employment," McGrawth wrote. "We're going to need less contingent labor and more work to support the development and retention of junior scholars.”


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