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Benefits Crisis Unsolved

By Joe Mathews

Drop the qualifiers. The University's benefits review process has now been all but officially labelled a failure.

Harvard administrators have long been reluctant to say publicly what they know in their hearts: Neil L. Rudenstine, whose presidency seems perpetually mired in messes of his own making, goofed in the handing down of a new benefits plan to faculty and other non-union staff last year.

Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles validated criticism of the benefits changes earlier this month when he openly praised the work of a faculty committee which strongly criticized the plan and the process that effectively created it.

The work of that committee, chaired by Professor of Sociology Peter V. Marsden, produced one expected criticism of the plan and one surprise. The expected proposal was a call to rescind the one percent reduction in the University's contribution to faculty pensions.

The surprise came in the committee's recommendation for a one-year delay in changes to post-retirement health care coverage to allow time for "serious University-wide deliberations...about how the risks in this area shall be shared." Such a delay, if granted by the Harvard Corporation, would likely force the administration to reconsider the entire benefits plan.

With Knowles' praise, the committee has secured an important endorsement. (This praise doesn't necessarily mean the dean agrees with the report, but Knowles has to support it publicly. His constituency--the faculty--is united against him. Some professors say they want the dean's head.)

The report of the Marsden committee, and Knowles' "endorsement," has another significant effect: they have poked a hole in the benefits plan big enough for all 3,600 members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) to fit through easily.

The benefits plan doesn't yet apply to these unionized workers, whose contract won't expire until July 1. But an administration source assures me that the plan will be Director of Labor Relations Timothy R. Manning's opening offer when the two sides finally sit down and begin negotiating a new contract. HUCTW--which considers the benefits plan cruel to its overwhelmingly female, largely part-time membership--can be counted on to fight the benefits plan to the death.

All this means three things:

1) On quiet, windy days, you can already hear the refrain coming from HUCTW headquarters at 1306 Massachusetts Avenue: Look at what your own faculty say about the process. When negotiations get hot and heavy, expect the Marsden report to become an important document in the union's fight against any cutbacks.

2) Saddle up. It's going to be a long protracted negotiation process. HUCTW and Harvard have a difficult enough time getting together on salary increases. The benefits battle promises to extend the bargaining well into 1996. That almost certainly means that Jesse Jackson (an old HUCTW buddy) will appear on campus to preach to a Yard full of cheering secretaries, and it virtually guarantees that you will see pickets in front of Mass. Hall before Christmas.

3) Stop laughing, Mr. and Mrs. Loeb. Yes, the University--in the midst of a record-setting fund drive--will resort to crying poverty. Associate Dean of the Faculty Susan K. Feagin tried out this line at last week's Faculty meeting, telling professors that the FAS part of the capital campaign is running behind because of a lack of any sizable gifts.

These issues are literally life-and-death to the people who work here, and the University would do well not to trivialize the concerns of lower middle class workers and professors who spend their working lives here.

Still, all sides can take lessons from the benefits mess. Professors need to take a more active role in University governance. And Rudenstine and the other potentates who run this place need to include more faculty in policy decisions. In the end, inclusive decision-making is to everybody's benefit.

Joe Mathews' column appears on alternate Mondays.

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