When University Leaders FailRoundup
tags: universities, finance, COVID-19
François Furstenberg is a professor of history at Johns Hopkins University.
My university, Johns Hopkins, recently announced a series of exceptional measures in the face of a coronavirus-related fiscal crisis. Suddenly anticipating losses of over $350 million in the next 15 months, the university imposed a hiring freeze, canceled all raises, and warned about impending furloughs and layoffs. Most extraordinarily of all, it suspended contributions to its employees’ retirement accounts. "Many of our peers are grappling with similar challenges," wrote our president, Ronald Daniels.
That is true. The University of Michigan recently announced anticipated losses of at least $400 million this calendar year. George Washington University likewise anticipates losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Stanford University, meanwhile, predicted a $200 million reversal in its consolidated budget. But while many colleges face challenges, no major research university moved with as much haste or revealed as acute vulnerabilities as Johns Hopkins did.
How does a university with a $6-billion endowment and $10 billion in assets suddenly find itself in a solvency crisis? How is one of the country’s top research universities reduced, just a month after moving classes online, to freezing its employees’ retirement accounts?
With its gigantic corporate medical complex and its lucrative government contracts, Johns Hopkins has emerged as the canary in the coal mine of elite research universities. It offers important lessons for the industry as a whole. The vulnerabilities it has revealed result from disturbing trends that have left the broader world of higher education dangerously ill-equipped to confront the looming challenges.