06/17/2010 04:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Layoffs at Brown

"A great university is always a work in progress," Brown University states on its website, and a walk through the school's leafy, urban campus in Providence, RI confirms that it has taken this philosophy to heart.

Cranes swing overhead and the roar of jackhammers reverberates off of stone classroom buildings as workers rush to finish several multimillion-dollar initiatives currently projected to be completed by 2012.

At the moment, though, the Brown community is abuzz about something that will soon be missing from campus: amidst all of this development, many of the University's staff members are being pushed out.

Facing a budget deficit projected at $30 million for 2011, administrators have convinced 139 staff members to accept early retirement packages. After receiving the offer, many staff cited fear of impending layoffs as the reason for accepting this plan. A round of 60 layoffs announced in March confirmed that these fears were not unfounded. The 60 layoffs this spring follow 31 layoffs in 2009.

As students, community members, and alumni learn about the layoffs, they have begun to fight back. Over the past month and a half, organizers have assembled a campaign using social media, letter writing, coordinated phone calls, and petitions in order to advocate for a reversal of the layoff decisions and increased transparency in layoff decision-making.

Last month, members and supporters of the Brown Student-Labor Alliance (SLA), the on-campus organizers of the response, delivered faceless cut-outs representing each fired staff person to the University's Vice President for Finance and Administration. The facelessness of the cutouts is significant: the University has not released the names of the fired staff and labor contracts dictate that staff risk losing their severance packages if they speak out about their firings.

As specifics of the layoffs trickle out, organizers work against a ticking clock: all contracts terminate June 30, and most students leave campus by the end of May. Now, in June, campus is mostly empty, and much of the momentum of the protesters is gone.

Many critics of the University's recent decisions question the school's priorities. The students and alumni leading the response see these layoffs as a symptom of a broader restructuring of the University's relationship with its students and the rest of the city.

Organizers assert that the University, using tactics like privatization, union busting and the recent layoffs, has disregarded its duties to its employees, its students and its host city, and lost touch with its core mission:

serv[ing] the community, the nation, and the world by discovering, communicating, and preserving knowledge and understanding in a spirit of free inquiry, and by educating and preparing students to discharge the offices of life with usefulness and reputation. We do this through a partnership of students and teachers in a unified community known as a university-college.

Indeed, many protesters emphasize the impact of the layoffs on the relationship between Brown and the greater Providence community: a city with the 3rd highest childhood poverty rate in the nation. Four of the 60 layoffs took place at the Swearer Center for Public Service, Brown's primary vehicle for student engagement with the Providence community including three of the employees who work directly with the Center's community programs.

Hundreds of supporters joined a Facebook group formed in mid-April called "Alumni, Students & Community Members for Brown-RI Community Partnerships," and nearly two hundred community members -- including State Representative David Segal and many alumni -- have signed an open letter of protest addressed to the university's President Ruth Simmons and Provost David Kertzer.

The letter recognizes the financial constraints the university faces but declares,

Budgetary difficulties do not justify this de-prioritization of Brown's responsibility to provide its students with well-supported service learning opportunities and to give back to the residents of the city of Providence and the state of Rhode Island.

On May 5, the campaign achieved its first major victory. Roger Nozaki, Director of the Swearer Center, announced in an email to community members that a new position had been created at the Center, and that one of the laid off Center employees - Janet Isserlis - had agreed to accept it. Nozaki described Isserlis's new job as one that would "preserve [the Center's] strength in the area of teaching about community work, while also preserving a number of key programs, especially in the area of adult education and literacy."

Because of her position, Isserlis had a high level of contact with students, but many staff both at the Swearer Center and elsewhere the university do not have the same access to students and other groups who are in positions to advocate for their rehiring. Despite these difficulties, organizers continue the campaign to bring back these workers and prevent future layoffs, along with advocating for a more transparent system of budget and staff decision-making.


As of June 30, 2009, Brown's $2.04 billion endowment was the 26th largest university endowment in the nation. The Brown SLA analyzed the implications of these layoffs in a May 5 pamphlet:

While Brown's endowment has been impacted by the recession, its ability as a powerful, wealthy, tax-exempt institution to 'weather the storm' and deal with those impacts is dramatically more than that of its individual workers, who have surely all also been impacted by this economy. Especially in times of difficulty, Brown has an obligation to its employees.

Indeed, the disproportionate development and reduction in the university's projects suggests that more is at play in these changes than the impact of the recession.

"It is pretty clear that these are ideological layoffs," commented recent Brown graduate Alicia Pantoja about the subtext of the layoffs at the Swearer Center

Brown University is not the only elite school facing a major budget deficit. Virtually all schools have faced major drops in their endowments as a result of the global economic recession, and Brown is also not the only one that has implemented layoffs in order to deal with budget cuts. According to the Boston Globe, Harvard, which has the largest university endowment in the country, announced in June 2009 layoffs of 275 employees, in addition to offering 1,600 voluntary early retirement packages, 500 of which were accepted. Yale also has laid off nearly 100 staff members, in addition to offering voluntary retirement packages.

While these layoffs may be a broad trend, there is great concern about the impact of this streamlining of university functioning. In tandem with the staff layoffs, many students view these recent developments as a symptom of a reorientation of universities towards viewing their students as consumers, rather than partners, in education. At Brown, members of the Student-Labor Alliance reported that in a recent meeting, the Vice President of Human Resources, Karen Davis, referred to students as "consumers" of a "product," that product being the Brown University education. Students point to this rhetoric as an example of a shift in the University away from a partnership with students in education, as stated in the school's mission.

This rhetoric parallels a broader trend in university education, as elite schools sharpen their business plans through cutbacks, layoffs and outsourcing. For students at these universities, this trend is teaching a strong lesson about "competitiveness," "prioritization" and "streamlining." Recent protests -- like those at Brown -- suggest that many students are resisting these lessons.

Rachel Levenson and Matt Jerzyk are Brown University alumni.