University-wide hiring freeze extended until 2010

USC may be enjoying more financial stability than UCLA and its other beleaguered, publicly funded counterparts, but that hasn’t stopped the university from extending its campus-wide staff hiring freeze — originally set to end two months ago — until June 2010.

USC officials said the extension was imposed in the interest of saving money under the current economic circumstances, but they emphasized that the freeze is merely precautionary and not indicative of financial strife.

“We are not having those kinds of serious economic challenges that other schools are,” said Elizabeth Garrett, vice president for academic planning and budget. “At the same time, we know we live in a world that is very different than the world three or four years ago. We want to be careful with the resources we have.”

Garrett said there are no specific saving or job-shedding goals for the freeze, and that USC has yet to test the freeze’s effect on the university’s savings.

“This is more of an effort to be prudent as opposed to reaching any percentage cut,” she said.

Garrett also noted that USC’s employees are not incurring the kinds of pay cuts plaguing some California public university payrolls.

The hiring freeze has been in effect since November 2008, when university officials announced that USC would temporarily stop hiring and replacing university staff. But rather than simply halting the hiring process, the university opted to put 400 open positions up for review. Many were eliminated, but some critical jobs were filled. Since then, the university’s approach to hiring has been generally cautious, but sensitive to the critical needs of the community.

Garrett said requests for hires are considered on a case-by-case basis. Departments wanting to hire staff members must explain why the position is necessary to the university and then the provost’s office makes a decision.

“We don’t approve everything that’s asked,” Garrett said. “We’ve been very firm with the schools in making it clear to them that we expect them to only request exceptions when they have very good cases.”

Currently, USC is hiring for approximately 600 positions, 300 of which are patient care positions at the USC/Norris Cancer Hospital, said Janis B. McEldowney, associate senior vice president of administrative operations. In February — before the purchase of the hospital — the university was hiring for just 193 positions, compared to 465 at that time last year, McEldowney said.

While the effect of the hiring freeze is palpable among university staff, USC officials said very few employees have lodged complaints.

McEldowney said many of her colleagues even appreciate being forced to conserve resources. For example, Hugh McHarg, executive director of communications and public programming for USC Libraries, said having to take a “critical look” at his list of potential hires makes his department more productive.

“We understand the need for caution in this economic climate and we don’t expect that every hire will be approved,” he said. “We’ve found the process to be fair and reasonable. The upside is that it provides one more opportunity to review every hiring decision in the context of the bigger picture — how will the proposed position help us provide library services and collections to students, faculty and staff?” he said.

The freeze is currently scheduled to expire next June, but Garrett didn’t rule out another extension.

“It’s so hard to predict what will happen with the economy,” she said. “As long as we think it’s prudent for this university, we will continue to take steps that have been warranted.”