When the University implemented austerity measures at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty, staff and students pushed back. In light of the recent financial report showing the University finished fiscal year 2021 with an operating budget surplus of over $212 million, these affiliates argue that the constraints proved too harsh and unwarranted. In April 2020, Hopkins estimated projected losses of $100 million in fiscal year 2020 and $375 million for fiscal year 2021.
The University announced the imposition of austerity measures in April 2020, suspending employer retirement contributions, furloughing staff and placing restrictions on hiring. In Oct., 2020, Hopkins shared that it would not end austerity measures, despite ending fiscal year 2020 with a $74 million surplus.
On Feb. 5, 2021, the University announced that hiring and merit pay increases would resume on July 1. On April 2, it announced the end of austerity measures and full restoration of benefits, as well as $10 million in research funding for faculty and $5 million for PhD students.
In an email to The News-Letter, Vice President for Communications Andrew Green explained the University’s reasoning for the austerity measures.
“COVID forced us to shut down our entire research operation and much of our clinical operation and put our ability to safely provide a Johns Hopkins education in serious doubt, with no way to know how soon and to what extent normal operations would be restored,” he wrote. “In April 2020 alone, we were experiencing $90 million in revenue losses from reductions in our research, clinical, residential and summer programs.”
Green also pointed to the steep decline in the global financial market as justification for the measures.
“A month earlier, the stock market had lost 34% of its value, which threatened our endowment’s ability to support our mission,” he wrote.
In an email to The News-Letter, freshman Ty’Shera Mintz argued that the University’s implementation of austerity measures at the onset of the pandemic was abandoning the Hopkins community in a time of need.
“It’s inconsiderate and absurd for Hopkins to cut funding during a pandemic. In the future, I hope they do not, ever, leave their employees and staff underrepresented and helpless when everyone is trying their best to survive,“ she wrote. “It’s an act of betrayal coming from the administration that relies on their staff and employees to show why Hopkins is great.”
François Furstenberg, a professor of history, is one critic of the University’s implementation of austerity measures. In July, 2020, Furstenberg wrote an op-ed for The News-Letter, “Hopkins puts its credit rating ahead of its people,” arguing that the University should have utilized its endowment or taken out a loan before deciding to cut employee benefits.
He discussed the impacts of these austerity measures on faculty and staff in an interview with The News-Letter.
“It was a very demoralizing experience. I understood benefits to be part of my contracts, and I was not aware that they could be unilaterally withheld without my consent,” he said. “In the end, they took the money away, and then they gave it back. It was an awful lot of effort for trouble that was unnecessary.”
Furstenberg reflected on how he felt the measures were hastily implemented.
“I don't think it's fair to say that in retrospect they shouldn’t have done [austerity measures]. What I think is fair to say is in retrospect, they should have waited before making any hasty decisions. The cost savings turned out not to be necessary,” he said. “The University ended the year with a surplus, but the damage was permanent... I hope the next time [the University] will take longer to decide on things before they act.”
Alexander Parry, a member of the organizing committee of Teachers and Researchers United (TRU), an unofficial graduate student union, discussed the impacts on graduate students. He noted that teaching during the pandemic increased the work he had to do, even as the University moved to cut benefits.
Parry spoke about retroactive measures the University should take in light of the impacts of the austerity measures.
“[The University] needs to provide a guaranteed year-long extension to all graduate students. Many of us, myself included, are still not able to get into all of our archives... we're still at a bit of a standstill,” he said. “It would also make a lot of sense to provide tuition relief or financial relief, especially for master’s students — especially given that master’s students were excluded from the $5 million of aid that was provided to PhD students.”
The University’s endowment fund
Discussions of the austerity measures brought additional scrutiny of the University’s endowment, with many expressing confusion over why the fund couldn’t be used for pandemic relief. Hopkins has an endowment with donor-restricted funds, which are designated for specific purposes, as well as unrestricted funds designated by the Board of Trustees. The endowment grew by about $2.5 billion in the last fiscal year.
According to Green, protecting the endowment ensures the University can support its institutional mission and weather future crises.
“The university’s endowment... must be carefully managed even in good times so that it can provide that support consistently in bad ones,” he wrote. “Over the long run, this year’s strong performance will benefit Johns Hopkins students, faculty and staff through enhanced funding for core institutional priorities, such as student financial aid and faculty excellence.”
Furstenberg, however, asserted that the University exaggerates the importance of its endowment.
“[University leaders] understand themselves, as their primary mission, [being] to ensure the soundness of the endowment,” he said. “We’ve come to a point where the University exists to protect the endowment, not the University endowment exists to support the University.”
Parry agreed with Furstenberg, citing undesignated funds in the University's reserves that were not used.
“When we've spoken with the administration, both TRU and also other graduate student organizations asked about the budget and about why things like the $1.3 billion reserve wasn't tapped [into],” he said. “We were just told again and again that it was out of the administration's hands and every financial decision had to be conducted through the board.”
Parry reflected on the University’s lack of transparency and refusal to tap into emergency reserves funding.
“You can't get a straight answer about why any individual thing is being provided funding or is not,” he said. “There's no way to actually negotiate with the University or to provide any kind of actual dialogue because anytime money comes up, the conversation shuts down.”
Green maintained that the University has kept the community adequately informed about financial affairs.
“Throughout the pandemic, the university has kept the community informed about the impacts of COVID on its finances, both through long-established means, such as consultation with the Faculty Budget Advisory Committee, and new ones, such as the University Pandemic Academic Advisory Committee and the university-wide Student Advisory Committee,” he wrote.
Green also noted that the University has published financial information, hosted town halls to provide updates and posted frequently asked questions based on faculty, student and staff input. The University plans to hold another town hall this month.
Faculty have previously been vocal in opposition to the University’s decisions on the issue, with over 600 faculty members signing a petition in June 2020 advocating for the reversal of austerity measures and the implementation of shared governance with University President Ronald J. Daniels.
Parry believes that issues around austerity measures point to broader implications on the state of the University and its stakeholders.
“It's also important to keep in mind that until various stakeholders, like faculty and students, actually do have direct input in the way the University is run, this will happen again,” Parry said. “It's not a healthy place for the University to be when there's a fairly solid wall put up between the people who do most of the work of the University and those who have final say over what the University chooses to do.”
Parry sees the actions of Hopkins leadership as clashing with the University’s mission.
“The primary role of the University should be to actually perform its stated mission, which is to provide excellent education... and [to] make sure that researchers are appropriately funded and appropriately supported,” he said. “If those are no longer the principal duties of the Board of Trustees or the administration, there needs to be a serious recalibration.”
Furstenberg echoed the need for more inclusion in decision-making.
“There's a deep reluctance to get faculty and students involved in the rooms where decisions get made, and the only thing that happens outside those rooms is consultative,” he said. “[The administration says] ‘We're happy to hear your opinion, but then we can get into the room and ignore it and make our own decisions.’”