2020 Trends: College and University layoffs

A young Black woman leads her team in a project meeting


INTOO Staff Writer


Do universities share the same fate as department stores? Because the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of in-person instruction, some experts are predicting that much in the way retail department stores have had to reinvent themselves as shopping has moved online, the future of higher education will be dramatically different as universities and colleges are forced to reconceptualize how they teach.

Regardless of the size of the institution’s endowment, budget shortfalls mean that traditional campus-based education will likely have to permanently incorporate shifts to online learning in their curriculum as well as reallocating staff into pandemic-specific roles. However, while many of the current trends in this educational sea change include university layoffs, not every college is approaching the challenge in the same way. Whether a university chooses to furlough, layoff, reallocate, or simply redesign how its instructors approach teaching, following the best practices when changing the status of an employee is vital.

Why Follow Best Practices?

The internet isn’t just where the majority of education is currently taking place; it’s also a readily accessible forum where reputations are made and, unfortunately, destroyed. While conducting university layoffs is never an easy process for anyone involved, doing so in a hasty or thoughtless manner can have repercussions that go far beyond the initial exit interview.

Aggrieved former employees can now take to the internet and start sharing damaging accounts that may or may not accurately reflect the character of an institution. Unfortunately, depending on the influence and relative social media savviness of the employee, these accounts can rapidly change how the university is perceived by others. In recent years, adjunct professors have tarnished the reputations of universities with candid and unflattering accounts of work loads and pay cuts. These accounts profoundly shaped public opinion about the status of adjuncts, taking many institutions by surprise.

This kind of dialogue can be especially damaging when prospective students begin searching for information about the college or university they wish to attend. In an era when the vast majority of interaction is taking place virtually, the internet is more than just a resource: in some ways, it is the campus. Much as the administrators of a physical campus are careful to maintain the brick-and-mortar buildings and the landscape, they must also monitor how the university is being perceived online.

Having a stellar online reputation is increasingly important not only in boosting enrollment but also in retaining talented staff. With so many universities in flux, the quality of instruction becomes even more important. Some employees will prove more resilient to changes than others. The professors and staff who are able to adapt will become even more valuable, and will not want to be associated with a university that has a bad reputation.

This is primarily why following best practices with university layoffs is also crucial for maintaining the morale of the remaining staff. A university which makes each employee feel valued, whether or not they end up retaining that employee, will ultimately garner a much better reputation than one that has a seemingly scattershot approach toward layoffs and reallocation.

When current staff communicates with those employees who have been let go, they will not necessarily feel panicked about the security of their own position. They will instead invest their energy into giving the absolute best performance they can, which will have a positive ripple effect on all of their colleagues. An institution that has strong morale will be much better prepared to survive new challenges, whatever those challenges may be. However, a college with a haphazard layoff strategy will likely suffer greater losses in the future.

Six Trends in College and University Layoffs

With all of this in mind, it’s time to investigate what strategies universities are using to adapt to the challenges they currently face. Many media outlets and governmental agencies have been tracking the number of university layoffs, furloughs, staff reallocations and contract non-renewals across the United States.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, between February and March 2020, universities and colleges collectively let go of 19,200 workers. To provide a representative sample, The Chronicle of Higher Education conducted a poll of administrators from 20 universities about their likely course of action in regard to the pandemic. Nine universities, or almost 50%, were considering temporary or permanent layoffs. Eight universities, equivalent to 40% of the colleges, were anticipating furloughing staff. The remainder were either choosing not to renew expiring staff contracts or considering an entirely different strategy, such as reallocation of duties, or a permanent shift from full-time employment to part-time employment.

What do each of these trends entail, and how best can they be executed?

1. Furloughs

In an academic setting, a furlough offers a staff member an unpaid leave of absence while still allowing them to retain access to associated benefits of their regular employment, such as health insurance. This has been one of the most popular trends in university settings because it offers a cushion for the employee while also allowing the university to effectively grapple with their budgets. A furlough also enables the university to immediately reinstate the employee once the initial financial storm has passed.

When initiating a furlough, administrators should emphasize the benefits that the employee will continue to receive. In many cases, the furlough can sometimes be couched to the employee as a kind of spontaneous sabbatical. While the employee will not be receiving their traditional salary, they will still often have health insurance, access to the university’s research facilities, and other institution-specific perks, as well as the sense of belonging to the larger culture of the college. As a member of human resources, you should stress that the furlough is not related to the employee’s performance while encouraging them to continue to explore their field of study. Many professors, adjuncts, and other staff will find this approach more uplifting than a simple notice that they have been furloughed.

You should also be transparent about the university’s finances. Preparing an easily legible spreadsheet or graph on the university’s projected shortfalls before informing the employee of the furlough will often make the experience much easier to handle for everyone. An intelligent employee appreciates being treated with respect. Transparency about finances goes a long way to ensuring that the furlough is accepted gracefully.

2. Non-renewal of contracts

Although not as prevalent as permanent university layoffs or furloughs, the option not to renew contracts has become another notable trend in the academic world. This is perhaps one of the more delicate options for institutions looking to lighten their financial burden. Many employees naturally already have anxiety about their contract renewal. They base a great deal of their self-worth on whether or not they have performed at a level that merits their continued employment. However, they also understand that they are not tenured staff, and therefore are always aware that they may have to seek work elsewhere.

When tasked with informing an employee that their contract has not been renewed, it’s important for you to emphasize how the university’s budget has been affected. In a different year, that employee may very well have garnered an automatic contract renewal, but due to the exceptional circumstances the university is facing, renewal is simply not possible. Be sure to offer help to the employee in terms of providing excellent references and other resources to make their future search for employment a seamless one. If the college maintains a website for the class, labs, or projects they were spearheading, stress that their portfolio will remain accessible and active on the official university website for a specific amount of time. This will both enable them to rapidly find other employment and give them a self-esteem boost.

3. Permanent Transformation of Positions from Full-Time to Part-Time

Neither a layoff nor a furlough, the permanent transformation of positions from full-time to part-time is usually part of a broader institutional restructuring. Certain jobs, such as teaching assistants, curatorial aides, library assistants or other supporting roles may be reduced from a 40-hour a week position to a 20- or 25-hour per week position. This tends to save the university a substantial amount of money, although the system may not function as smoothly in the initial months following the change.

When breaking the news to the individual employed in one of these positions, it’s best to articulate that the change is occurring across the institution. This shifts the focus from the employee’s performance to the financial reality the university is facing. In many cases, the shift to part-time may come with unexpected benefits to the employee, such as the opportunity for a more flexible working arrangement. In the case when the position involves a faculty member or instructor, it’s important for you as the HR specialist to make clear how much this change will enable the university to continue to keep the employees on the payroll at all.

Although it can be a blow to have a full-time position reduced to a part-time job, in many instances the employee will still have access to many of the benefits they had before. Most importantly, they will remain a part of the larger university community.

4. The Shift to Online Teaching and Its Unexpected Financial Effects

Because most colleges will remain closed physically throughout 2020, many university layoffs are focused on positions that are dependent on people being physically present in a classroom, such as janitors, building maintenance crews, and cafeteria workers. However, the shift to online teaching can sometimes have an unintended effect on staff such as teaching assistants, who are inadvertently made redundant by enhanced learning software.

Some universities will discover that certain professors thrive when they no longer have to make physical appearances in the classroom. They may even be able to increase their course load, allowing for greater enrollment and a corresponding surge in revenue. Lecturers in online introductory courses, for example, can just as easily lecture to 100 students as 1,000 students. However, other professors may struggle to make the leap to online-only instruction, requiring more help. As the pandemic continues, universities will continue to find unexpected financial benefits and pitfalls from online teaching.

5. Reallocation of Duties 

Instead of furloughing or laying off staff, some universities are anticipating the future and changing the nature of the employee’s position. For example, a resident assistant could be redeputized as a sanitation monitor, regularly sterilizing high-touch surfaces in classrooms and dorms, as well as making sure that students are following masking protocols and distancing measures. Many of these reallocated staff will likely help universities make the transition back to campus-based learning when that moment occurs.

For an HR specialist, informing someone that their position is changing but that their pay will remain the same is perhaps one of the easier situations to manage, although some employees may still feel guarded about the change. Reassure them by offering to answer any questions they may have by instituting an open-door policy.

6. Layoffs, Outplacement, and Severance Packages

Unfortunately, the biggest trend in university layoffs is just that: layoffs. Some universities are temporarily laying off workers in the hope that they will be able to rehire them in a semester or two. Others are making the painful choice to reduce staffing on a more permanent basis. Whether you’re managing a temporary or permanent layoff, HR professionals should make sure they are fully versed in their institution’s severance package before arranging the exit interview. Being informed and compassionate about an employee’s options is the best practice there is.

Most importantly, be ready to present an overview of your institution’s outplacement policy, offering career transition support to affected employees. A great outplacement policy can not only help your employees thrive in the future, but also maintain your university’s excellent reputation for years to come.

Connect With the Experts at Intoo

If your institution is currently exploring making workforce changes, Intoo’s outplacement solution is here to assist you. Our career coaches, many of whom specialize in helping higher education professionals, help workers transition into fulfilling new roles 2.5 times faster than the national average. Learn more about how Intoo can help your faculty and staff find new opportunities.

INTOO Staff Writer

INTOO staff writers come from diverse backgrounds and have extensive experience writing about topics that matter to the HR and business communities, including outplacement, layoffs, career development, internal mobility, candidate experience, succession planning, talent acquisition, and more.

Learn how to effectively build and transition your workforce.

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