Amid faculty backlash, Pomona moves forward with staff furloughs

Pomona College will fully furlough 154 employees and partially furlough another 110 until at least Dec. 31., 2020. (Anna Choi • The Student Life)

Despite pushback from more than half of Pomona College’s faculty and the Faculty Executive Committee, the college administration has said it will continue moving forward with staff furloughs set to begin Oct. 1.

In the decision previously announced Sept. 1, Pomona said it would fully furlough 154 employees and partially furlough another 110 employees until at least Dec. 31. Then, it would reassess the continued need for furloughs in 2021.

The following day, 85 faculty members sent a letter to the administration demanding the furloughs be called off. A week later, this past Wednesday, ahead of a meeting to address faculty concerns expressed in the letter, the Faculty Executive Committee denounced the college’s decision in a formal statement, saying the college can and should reverse its decision.

The FEC, a governing body made up of elected faculty members holding two-year terms, deals primarily with policies concerning the faculty. In the statement the FEC said it does not believe furloughs are necessary at this point, adding that “the decision taken by Pomona College does not align with our stated institutional values.” 

The FEC “continues to believe there are paths forward that do not require furloughs. We believe it is not too late for Pomona to reverse course, repair much of the damage done by the furlough announcement and earn considerable goodwill with a decision that better reflects who we are,” the statement said. It asked the administration to consider postponing the furloughs until at least Oct. 30 to allow for more consideration of community input and alternative solutions.

But multiple faculty members said President G. Gabrielle Starr refused to change course at the Wednesday meeting with faculty.

Linguistics and cognitive science professor and member of the FEC, Mary Paster, said while the administration allowed questions after notifying the FEC of their decision, college administrators were not open to changing course. 

“We wanted the faculty to have an opportunity to contribute alternative ideas, creative solutions that would allow us to avoid furloughs. And we were told no, we can’t delay it,” Paster said.  

Then in a letter to faculty Friday, Starr, Dean of the College Robert Gaines and Treasurer Robert Goldberg confirmed they would be furloughing staff despite the objections. 

Some have made the case that we must continue to pay all workers through this crisis in order to uphold our values as a community,” the letter said. “We deeply respect that view and the compassion behind it. At the same time, we believe we have the highest obligation to carrying out our academic mission of educating students now and for the next generation.”

However, the college said it would continue discussions with the FEC moving forward.

“We will continue our consultations with the FEC as this crisis continues and we are grateful for our community’s compassion and commitment during this very challenging time,” Pomona spokesperson Mark Kendall told TSL via email. “As ideas emerge, we will evaluate them to see if we can responsibly move forward on them.” 

Initially, the college had planned to partially furlough 40 employees and fully furlough 210 others. The FEC then requested that the college only implement partial furloughs.

In its statement, the FEC said it expressed concern to the administration about the long-term financial impact furloughs could have on the college’s lowest-paid employees, who the FEC said are disproportionately people of color, particularly those in housekeeping and dining. It argued that furloughs should be a last resort.

At the meeting, Starr said that the furloughs were supported by some staff members themselves.

“[Starr] noted [Wednesday] that some individuals had requested furloughs in order to take on other duties, including dependent care, and to enable them to collect unemployment benefits,” Kendall said. “Of course, a furlough is a loss in income, and brings painful hardships to those who are furloughed. Our aim is to bring everyone back to work as soon as possible and take steps to lessen the hardships in the meantime.”

In an Aug. 24 meeting with the FEC, Goldberg estimated that Pomona would face a budget shortfall of $31.2 million for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, though the number was increased to $37 million in subsequent statements by the college. 

The college proposed making up for the deficit through “$13.6 million in cuts and savings, $10 million in spending from unrestricted reserves (out of a total of $36 million available in reserve) and $7.6 million in fiscal year savings from furloughs,” according to the FEC’s statement. Starr and the vice presidents have all taken pay cuts of 10 percent, Kendall said.

In the statement, the FEC said it had proposed spending $7.6 million more from the reserves, on top of the $10 million, or 28 percent, that they are already spending, to prevent furloughs. The FEC said the “unpredictability of the pandemic’s effect on spring term, and possibly next academic year, led college leadership to conclude that a more conservative use of the reserves was the most responsible path forward.”

The FEC said they also suggested solutions such as using Pomona’s lines of credit to borrow against the endowment to pay employees, and partnering with a microlender to provide staff with low-interest loans, but said these ideas were later rejected. 

In the letter to faculty, administrators addressed the issue of increased endowment spending.

One issue we want to address is the idea that because the college has a strong endowment, we do not need to make difficult choices. Pomona is fortunate to have a strong endowment; however, as the endowment has grown over the decades, the college has made stronger and stronger commitments to financial aid and to admitting students from all socioeconomic backgrounds,” the letter said, stating that they will spend $45 million on financial aid this year.

The FEC was first informed that furloughs were a possibility over the summer, but were not told of the final decision to furlough staff until Aug. 24, the first day of classes, according to the FEC statement. 

The FEC said they received no communication from executive staff after their meeting on Aug. 26 until the decision had already been announced to staff on Aug. 31. 

Paster said she felt the process was “rushed” citing the one week to discuss the decision before it was announced to staff. 

“I think [faculty] thought that there would be a moment where we could really pause and reflect before [furloughs] actually happened. And it just didn’t happen that way,” she said. “I think that the administration has good intentions. I just think there hasn’t been enough time or enough of a full discussion to explore all possible options.” 

Paster said the college’s strategic plan and institutional values directly contradict furloughing staff. 

“When [the college] made the strategic plan, they said these are the principles that are going to guide every decision that we make for the next decade,” she said. “And so here’s an opportunity where we’re in a tough spot, and if we don’t know how to go forward, we should go back to our guiding document. And it’s pretty clearly telling us to do the opposite of what we’re doing.”

Paster specifically pointed to quotes from the strategic plan, which was released in May, such as: “We take pride in our staff, who through their daily efforts across our campus contribute mightily to the richness of relationships that define Pomona. Without them, the College could not function. Pomona should be the employer of choice for our staff: they should have competitive salaries and benefits, tangible recognition of their work and well-defined pathways toward promotion.”

Paster added that some faculty have changed their Zoom background and profile pictures to a graphic reading “No Furloughs” in protest. 

In response to the claim that the furloughs contract Pomona’s values, Kendall said, “One of the key elements of the strategic plan is to ensure the college’s financial stability, so that we can keep the promises we make about financial aid and academic equity for students.”

“Through our commitments to need-blind admission and excellent financial aid, Pomona serves as an engine of opportunity in our society. We also must maintain support for faculty and return to and maintain, once we are out of this crisis, the support and benefits we offer staff. This is the largest financial crisis the college has faced in our lifetimes,” Kendall said. 

But Paster said there is time to reverse course.

“I think some damage was already done by the announcement, but I still think we can redeem ourselves and do the right thing.”

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