The Profit Margin of a Library: Harvard’s Corporatization

By Sandra Y.L. Korn

Two weeks ago, Harvard University Library administrators held a town hall meeting to announce major, imminent changes to the structure of the Harvard University Library. Helen Shenton, executive director of the Library, announced to a bewildered and shocked audience of library employees that the restructuring would involve “voluntary and involuntary layoffs,” and that the workforce “would be smaller.”

In the next week, both Harvard University President Drew Faust and University Provost Alan Garber sent out emails to the entire Harvard student body explaining the planned changes to the library system. Faust described the importance of making “strategic decisions about the digital future” and reforming the libraries to move into the technological age. Garber discussed the ways in which the restructuring would allow innovations to benefit library users.

Shenton’s presentation, these two emails, and the University’s portrayal of this restructuring are laden with discourse about efficiency and profit.  Faust discussed “overhead costs,” “economies of scale,” and the importance of “using our resources to maximum advantage.” Garber talked about “leverage[ing] Harvard’s buying power” by unifying libraries for maximum negotiating positions. Ignoring the fact that Harvard has the largest academic library system in North America, Garber complained, “Harvard spends on average more than twice as much as its peer universities on its libraries.” All three administrators have used the language of corporate management and competition in their discussions of Harvard’s libraries.

Indeed, as Harvard junior Melissa Barber made clear in the Crimson, Harvard’s administration has envisioned the Harvard University Library system as a profit-generating, rather than community-enhancing, institution. In her op-ed “Fat Cats of Widener Library,” Barber satirically notes that “the Harvard Corporation should continue to retract funding from its unprofitable knowledge capital and reinvest in more profitable sectors, like Gatsbyian birthday parties with gourmet cakes the size of the Woodberry Poetry Room.” Unfortunately, this seems to be exactly what the Harvard administration wants to do.

Library workers report that representatives from consulting firm Deloitte have been examining the structure of Harvard’s library workforce in order to assist with restructuring. Deloitte, whose website refers to workers as “human capital,” works primarily with for-profit corporations. A management mentality that views workers this way and treats them as commodities instead of as people is antithetical to a respectful workplace.  Jeffrey Booth, a library assistant at HCL Technical Services and member of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, notes that this mentality has already affected Harvard’s library staff. He says, “anybody that’s working here, whether they’re someone that never questions management or whether they’re someone who rejects the whole setup, are together on one thing. We are not being treated with respect. We are being abused, by having to reapply for jobs, by the lack of transparency, by the lack of open communication.”

Interestingly, the currently planned layoffs are not financially necessary. Indeed, Harvard has already cut library costs: while its collections continue to grow, money spent on staff decreased around $10 million between 2009 and 2010. Booth notes that if Harvard is concerned with maintaining the quality of its world-famous collections, it cannot simply invest in technology: “there are physical collections. Unless you want to burn all the books, you need to circulate the collections, maintain the collections, update the collections, and work on databases used to access the collections.” By choosing to lay people off instead of hiring workers back to already-understaffed libraries, Harvard has prioritized financial gain over quality.

Harvard’s mentality toward library layoffs reflects a broader trend: our administrators act like executives of a competitive corporation. Yet Harvard is not a for-profit company. It does not have shareholders who demand high return on their investment. Instead, it is a nonprofit, which means that it receives tax benefits with the expectation that it will serve the public good. Sadly, the Harvard administration’s approach to and discourse about the library restructuring reflects a more systematic trend that moves institutions of higher education, like Harvard, under a corporate government model. Layoffs to improve “efficiency” are only a symptom of a larger disease: the corporatization of higher education.

Wayne Langley, director of Higher Education organizing for the Service Employees International Union Local 615, notes that this trend has fundamentally altered the way in which universities function. He asserts, “There’s just something fundamentally wrong [when]  taxpayer supported schools care first about profits, second about research, and in a distant third, teaching and education. There needs to be a reordering of priorities.”

Recently, Harvard has changed the way it envisions itself as an employer, as an investor, and as an academic institution. In recent years, Harvard has moved more and more of its workforce to “term” work—where workers are guaranteed only one year of employment—and “temp” work—where workers are often hired through an outside agency and receive few benefits—when it should be hiring full-time and long-term staff.

On the other hand, Harvard Management Company (HMC) pays its top employees millions of dollars per year to manage the hedge funds and direct investments that make up Harvard’s $32 billion endowment. When asked to justify these exorbitantly high salaries, University administrators cite private competition, arguing that they need to compete with Wall Street firms for the “best” fund managers. As a result, HMC’s CEO, Jane Mendillo, is the highest-paid nonprofit CEO in the country. Is Harvard compensating her as a nonprofit CEO, or compensating her as though she were a Wall Street fund manager?

Harvard’s corporate mentality manifests itself in other ways. For example, HMC refuses to deliberately invest any of its money in socially responsible funds, citing the need for maximum returns. It capitalizes on its ability to avoid paying taxes to rent out large sections of Cambridge and Allston. It even owns a profitable hotel by the Charles River, for which it pays no taxes. And, most alarmingly, it has decided to sacrifice its own experienced library workforce for the sake of corporate efficiency.

Langley notes, “People have said that today’s higher education institutions are just hedge funds with libraries. At least in the case of Harvard, they’re dispensing with the library part.” This corporate mentality devalues academic libraries and the academic community. By viewing Harvard as a competitive actor in global markets, the administration is sacrificing exactly what makes a university great: its ability to serve as a space for collaboration between staff, students, and faculty to conduct research and exchange knowledge. However, Harvard as a university is not entirely lost – there are still workers, students, and faculty who care about maintaining a valuable academic community.

So, when workers and students demand “no layoffs at Harvard libraries,” we are of course concerned about the livelihoods of library workers. We are worried about maintaining the strength of the clerical workers’ union, so that the University cannot bypass contractual procedures in deciding when to lay off employees. We are concerned about the quality of services that students and faculty will receive when they use Harvard’s libraries. But most of all, we are worried about Harvard’s vision for itself as an academic institution. If Harvard lays off hundreds of workers for the sake of “efficiency” and “leverage,” then our university will have taken one more giant step along the road to becoming a corporation.

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