Cambridge City Council to MIT: Halt Layoffs

A local story in Cambridge, Massachusetts illustrates the sense of entitlement that government officials have adopted under the Obama administration.

The Cambridge Chronicle reports that City Councilor Marjorie Decker is not amused with the behavior of her subjects over at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Commissar Decker and the Cambridge City Council issued a fiat in April ordering MIT to maintain full employment, "to halt layoffs and any cuts in hours, salary or benefits for employees." MIT, however, faced a budget shortfall and was forced to cut $125 million from its budget, of which 10% came from job layoffs. The Chronicle quotes MIT HR director Alison Alden: "Layoffs were a last resort at MIT. We worked very hard to avoid this." 

Ms. Decker wasn't having any excuses: "What we said to you, to MIT, was 'Don't contribute to the destabilization of families in our community.' And we got zero response ... For me, that is just an incredible level of arrogance that not only does the council not matter, but this question of really who they impact doesn't matter." This is a classic case of projection; Councilor Decker herself exhibits a level of arrogance one might expect to find in the nomenklatura of a totalitarian society. "How dare you disobey me?" she appears to be asking. "Don't you know who you're messing with here?"

The enraged Decker went public with a threat summarized in the Chronicle headline, that she will, "Ignore MIT until it respects workers." No doubt MIT's feelings won't be hurt if the City Council ignores them, but Decker's threat entails more than ignorance; she announced that she will vote against any permits or licenses that MIT applies for. In other words, Councilor Decker's votes on a license will be decided not by the merits of the application, but by an unrelated human resources issue.

It's no secret that politicians use coercion to consolidate their fiefdoms, but have we reached the point where they brag about blackmail on the front page of the newspaper?

Ms. Decker's temper tantrum raises two questions. For one, is there ever a situation when Councilor Decker might admit to the necessity of laying off employees, or is every (union) job a lifetime sinecure? Personally, I interpreted MIT's decision to cut costs to meet its budget, rather than passing along these costs to the parents of students, as a sign of fiscal responsibility. Over the past decades, the cost of higher education has risen at a rate far higher than inflation, and one has the sense that colleges are not subject to market forces, with little restraint on spending. An elite school like MIT can raise its tuition arbitrarily and still fill its freshman class many times over. Some of the increased costs come from the upgrading of facilities -- which is driven in part by the demands of students and parents. 

Costs also rise when educational bureaucracies, like every bureaucracy without budget constraints, become bloated with numerous levels of mid-level administrative assistants, deputy administrators, diversity engineers, and multicultural coordinators. In the last ten years, for instance, Dartmouth College added one thousand new non-faculty employees -- a 42% increase in their number of employees. Dartmouth employs 3,250 staff and 605 professors, or around 6.4 staff for every professor. MIT, in contrast, employs 9,475 non-faculty staff and 1,025 faculty members (professors of all ranks), a ratio of nine administrators for every teacher. Harvard has a slightly lower 5.4 ratio (15,271 staff and 2,804 professors). MIT is a major research center, so it stands to reason that it would have a higher percentage of non-teaching staff. Nevertheless, it seems that in unfavorable economic times, any of these institutions could reduce its support staff without detracting from its educational excellence, which rests primarily on the excellence of the professors.

I have no doubt that many families are feeling pain from MIT's layoffs, but our country has a 10% nominal unemployment and much higher real unemployment numbers. Millions of workers in the private sector are looking at bleak futures. It is reasonable to expect that the education industry would share in the hardships brought on by the economic downturn. Councilor Decker's outrage that any layoffs will contribute to "destabilization of families in our community" is profoundly ignorant of the consequences of President Obama's destructive economic policies.

Contrast New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's wise words:

Teachers complain when they're getting 4% and 5% salary increases a year in a 0% inflation world. They get free health benefits from the day they're hired for their entire family until the day they die. They believe they are entitled to this shelter from the recession when the people who are paying for that shelter are the people who have been laid off, who've lost their homes, had their hours cut back. And all we ask them to do is freeze their salary for one year and pay 1.5% of their salary for their health benefits. ... As much as I love teachers, everyone's got to be a part of the sacrifice.

The second question is one of jurisdiction. According to the city website, the City Council "authorizes public improvements and expenditures, adopts regulations and ordinances, levies taxes, controls the finances and property taxes of the City, and performs many related legislative tasks."

Where does a City Council derive the power to regulate the internal human resource decisions of a private institution like MIT (which by the way, according to the Chronicle, pays $78 million in lieu of taxes to Cambridge, 12% of the city's tax base)? 

The Cambridge City Council appears to be taking lessons from the Obama administration, which has unilaterally assumed the power to regulate private corporations through unelected pay czars and vast new regulatory bodies. When our president thinks it's within his power to fire the CEO of General Motors, the lower echelons of government bureaucrats get ideas. Bad ideas.