HMS Readies to Eliminate Jobs

Number of layoffs will depend on how many accept severance package

Harvard Medical School (HMS) employees who were offered a lucrative severance package filed their official decisions about accepting retirement on Friday, and the results—which include the departure of head librarian of the Countway Medical Library—may complicate the school’s mission.

Though numbers will not be released until tomorrow morning, at least 15 HMS administrative employees will vacate their positions by next December as part of the school’s ongoing cost-cutting efforts.

The push to cut jobs comes in the midst of an initiative by HMS administrators to close a projected budget deficit for Fiscal Year 2006, according to Executive Dean for Administration Eric Buehrens.

As part of the early retirement deal, employees with seven or more years of service under their belts were offered an attractive severance package in February with the hope that unnecessary positions might be cut painlessly, without the implementation of involuntary layoffs.

Administrators at HMS said that it will remain unclear whether these layoffs will be necessary until they calculate the amount of money saved through the severance program.

The final deadline for employees to accept the package was last Friday, and several “work review groups” will now begin scrutinizing the vacated positions before deciding whether to eliminate or refill them, Buehrens said.

“Are we going to lose some people that we absolutely don’t want to lose? Yes, it’s already happened,” said Buehrens, referring to employees in the expanding science department who have chosen to take the package. “We need to be thoughtful, effective and expeditious in replacing those people because we clearly don’t want to affect adversely the work of the science department.”

An HMS spokesperson said he could not comment until tomorrow as to how many people had elected to take the severance package.

But several high-profile decisions at the Countway Medical Library have already been made public.

Head librarian of Countway Judith Messerle wrote in an e-mail to all Countway staff that she would be retiring at the end of the calendar year.

“I made many lists of why I should and why I shouldn’t [retire early], and in the end decided that it was the best choice for me at this point in my life,” Messerle wrote.

In addition to Messerle, two other higher-ups at the financially troubled institution will also retire at the end of December, according to a Countway employee.

Messerle’s unofficial second-in-command, Associate Director for Administration and Finance Regina Corry, and the Associate Director for Technology Development and Services John Howard have both accepted the severance package, the Countway employee said.

In her e-mail, Messerle said that representatives from the work review groups had begun interviewing individuals at Countway in preparation for a preliminary report which is due later this week.

“I know that this is a tough time for everyone here (and around the Medical School), but I know that the Library will end up on its feet and will ultimately do well,” she wrote at the end of her e-mail.

WEIGHING THE OPTIONS

Messerle’s impending departure raised concern among the Countway staff, said Richard M. Pendleton, a librarian assistant who did not accept the severance package.

“Now that the top people at the library have taken this package, it’s possible that the medical school administration might make some kind of drastic change in terms of physical plans or usage,” he said.

But Buehrens said with the exception of an increased dedication to online resources, there are no plans for a fundamental reorganization of the library. Twelve other Countway staff members, including those employed in circulation, reference and shelving have also accepted the package, casting a shadow upon the library’s functional future.

Anne Frankel, a Countway employee of 17 years who chose to accept the package so she can attend graduate school, said that a recent pattern of attrition and layoffs at Countway had put pressure on employees to take the early retirement.

“Before the severance package was an issue, there was a lot of uncertainty in the library,” she said. “It was made very clear that for financial reasons we had to be careful and cut costs, and it was insinuated that there might be layoffs. With that hanging over everyone, people weren’t happy.”

Although he would not comment on job cuts in other areas of the Medical School, Buehrens said the library was hit particularly hard by the results of the severance package in terms of losing essential employees.

Pendleton said that Messerle’s departure came as a complete surprise to library employees, many of whom were already unsettled about whether the severance package would indeed protect them from involuntary layoffs.

Pendleton added that last year’s attrition has already spread the staff too thin, and that these additional 12 cuts would handicap the library further.

“It means more work for fewer people, and that seems not to be a concern over there in the dean’s office,” he said.

Many younger employees who had not been eligible for the severance package are now looking for new jobs, according to Pendleton.

“I have no idea what to expect and it’s kind of freaking me out,” said library assistant Keith Pierce. “A lot of people have left from here, and it’s a little overwhelming. We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.”

With the reduction in staff and the general effort to minimize expenses, Countway finds itself in the same position as its Harvard College Library counterparts at Lamont and Hilles, where budgetary belt-tightening has forced layoffs and dramatic restructuring over the course of the last year.

COUNTING THE MONEY

According to Buehrens, increasing costs in the sciences as well as a general downturn in the national economy have led to the HMS deficit. He added that a University-wide push to intensify and improve the sciences has also forced HMS to reshuffle its resources towards that end.

The HMS website also attributed the “significant” revenue gap to the Harvard Management Company’s low endowment payout and a flatlining budget at the National Institute of Health, which has traditionally provided grants that constitute HMS’s main source of revenue.

Buehrens warned that the severance package was only the beginning of the cost-cutting process, and that other measures would have to be taken before the budget deficit was eliminated.

“We need to look at the operation of the school holistically, and there’s no single solution that will solve all the problems we need to solve,” he said.

—Staff writer Leon Neyfakh can be reached at neyfakh@fas.harvard.edu.