Hundreds of La. faculty furloughed

In wake of Katrina, Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center releases 430 staffers without pay, benefits

By | December 9, 2005

Officials Louisiana State University (LSU) Health Sciences Center have taken the step of placing hundreds of workers on indefinite furlough, in an attempt to narrow the school's multimillion dollar deficit, one of the many effects of Hurricane Katrina.

"No one ever thinks that financial exigency will ever happen to an institution," Arthur Haas, chairman of the LSU Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, told The Scientist. "This is a really unfortunate situation."

William Black, director of research and governmental accountability in the Louisiana division of administration in Baton Rouge, said furloughs were not the same as layoffs, and furloughed faculty might be recalled if money comes in. But he did not know when LSU may be able to ask them back—if ever. "Their capacity to earn their revenue has been greatly reduced," he said.

Charles Zewe, vice president of communication and external affairs for the LSU system, told The Scientist that the Health Sciences Center currently burns through $10 million each month, and will officially run out of money on February 28, 2006. The next day, the school will have to shut down, unless "some procedure is devised to get them to continue operation." Zewe said he believed the furlough narrowed the deficit by $27 million, but that close to $90 million in additional funds are needed.

Even if the school survives, Haas noted that the effects of the furloughs will likely be felt for some time, given that furloughed faculty will likely find other jobs before there's funding to re-hire them, and it will be very difficult to recruit people to New Orleans. "We're not going to be able to replace [lost faculty] with people of equal quality for some time," he said.

Haas added he had been bracing for the announcement since he was asked, as a department head, to assemble a list of faculty to be furloughed. "It's a difficult thing to do," he said, especially since many people losing their work likely lost their houses and all possessions in the hurricane, as well. He said he lost 2 of his faculty, who had not been active in research for a while.

Bronya J.B. Keats, who chairs the department of genetics, told The Scientist she did not lose anyone, and believed that the school was trying to keep junior- and mid-level scientists with promising careers who could contribute to LSU in the future. Still, she said it may be a challenge keeping those promising faculty, given that, even if they still have a job, there will be ongoing problems with lab infrastructure, such as getting lab equipment and purchasing supplies. "We're hoping the faculty remaining will be able to ride that through."

Keats, like Haas, said she had been anticipating the announcement. "Something had to happen," she said. "I just keep hoping that we will get those dollars that we need."

Black told The Scientist the state has been talking to the medical school and hospitals about how to avoid layoffs, and LSU may one day benefit from additional funding from the state or the hospital system. However, Black noted that Katrina has taxed the state's resources, and without the pre-Hurricane level of income from the hospital system, the school was in dire straits. He said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, typically doesn't cover an entity's operating expenses.

LSU is not the only school to struggle in the aftermath of Katrina. Today (December 9), the Tulane School of Medicine in New Orleans said it plans to eliminate 180 faculty, and shift its research focus towards traditionally strong areas, including gene therapy, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. Still, Tulane plans to open its doors in January, and estimates 86% of the students that were enrolled before the Hurricane to return.

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