Skorton encourages staff to find a healthy work/life balance

Unless the country's economy experiences another major downturn or New York state severely cuts funding, Cornell will not face significant downsizing, President David Skorton said Nov. 12 during his Annual Address to Staff.

"Staff at the university, as they do at every university, have borne the brunt of personnel actions. ... We are through the worst of that now," he said. "We always have some layoffs at the university, but we do not anticipate anything beyond the usual ebb and flow that occurs at the university."

About 400 staff members attended the event, held at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts.

At the start of his remarks, Skorton acknowledged the Employee Assembly's support of the Cornell United Way Campaign and endorsed the EA's plan to expand the assembly to better represent employees.

Cornell continues to support staff and find ways to enhance work/life balance, Skorton said. He acknowledged that some staff are feeling the crunch of having more work to do and fewer colleagues to help, and the university is looking at ways to realign workloads. "Your work overload is a real phenomenon. ... That means we have to work together to ... adjust the number of things we do to match the hands on deck," he said.

To do that, the university is streamlining its operations to save time and money in finance, information technology, facilities, communications and human resources.

Nonetheless, staff members still feel a sense of uncertainty, he said. One way to address it is with openness and honesty, an approach that he and the university's senior leaders have adopted. And he directed staff to check the Administrative Streamlining Program website.

He also encouraged staff to maintain a healthy balance between their work and private life, for example by participating in the Wellness Program or taking time to visit the Lab of Ornithology or the Cornell Plantations. "This is your campus," he said. "... Because of what you do, this is one of the best universities in the country. To me, that's the whole enchilada -- as long as you take care of yourself," he said.

During the question period, a Cornell University Library staff member made an emotional plea for job training and transfers within the university for staff who, like her, are slated to lose their jobs.

Skorton thanked her for her courage and asked her to e-mail him with details. There is "unbelievable tension" between the need for funding for staff and for digital and traditional collections, he said. He promised to talk with the university librarian and the vice president for human resources about her situation, he said.

Was hiring Bain Inc. as a streamlining consultant worth the cost? Yes, Skorton said, in that it helped him and other administrators better understand how to save money. Beyond that, "we'll know if it was [worth it] in five years," he said.

Is higher education in a "bubble," that is, overvalued and headed for a crash? While the cost of higher education is unsustainable, Cornell is not at risk for a financial crisis because it gets its income from a wider range of sources than most universities, he said.

What are the chances for career growth at Cornell, given its streamlining initiatives? Skorton encouraged optimism, saying Cornell is committed to keeping its talented staff onboard and that the university will hire at least 800 faculty members in the next 10 years who will need staff to work with them shoulder to shoulder. "I honestly don't know any other university, or any other kind of organization, that still remains as wildly diverse in its work during a recession. ... The probability of many areas of this enterprise becoming more stable and growing are tremendous," he said.

Before Skorton spoke, four "first responder" groups won the 2010 Employee Assembly Appreciation Award for helping the campus community cope with several student deaths during the 2009-10 academic year.

They are: Cornell University Police, the University Student Crisis Management Team, the Human Resources Crisis Management Team, and the Office of Environmental Health and Safety.

"Each of these teams were on the front lines of the worst student crisis last year. They worked tirelessly to provide safety, support, care and compassion to the university community at a very difficult time and often without any recognition for their hard work," said Employee Assembly Chair Tanya Grove, who presented the award. "We want to acknowledge and thank each of them for their commitment to the university community and for their tireless dedication to their work."

The award is given annually to a Cornell staff person or group in recognition of their outstanding contributions and service to the university community.

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Claudia Wheatley