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Columbia Spectator Staff

In recent weeks, it has become clear that the economic crisis has hit Columbia. But the extent and nature of the fallout remains uncertain. Though peer universities have released worrisome endowment and return figures, Columbia has yet to release its new numbers. University President Lee Bollinger described his philosophy in coping with the losses as anticipating serious fallout, while keeping the University's momentum going in an interview with Spectator on Wednesday. But, as administrators contemplated prioritizing for leaner budgets, they stressed the fact that the only constant in the current economy is that no one knows where it is headed. Last week, Harvard officials announced that its endowment had fallen by 22 percent in the past four months, news which sent a shock throughout the Ivy League. Bollinger said Columbia's endowment has also taken a serious hit from the economic collapse, though since Columbia only releases endowment data once a year, it is hard to gauge how the last two month's slump has affected the numbers. The latest numbers put the endowment at $7.15 billion in June 2008—Bollinger noted that since Columbia's assets have been more conservatively invested than its Ivy counterparts, it is bound to have smaller losses. "We are beginning already in the central administration to have very significant cutbacks, but we're not giving a number to it—we're just looking for every possible way in which we can reduce our expenditures in anticipation of a decline in revenues and the endowment for a period of time," Bollinger said. "No one can hire in the central administration unless it gets approved. I'm cutting my budget—every part of the central administration is doing that." Bollinger called Harvard's loss "unbelievable," and noted a recent high in Columbia donations. "Through November, the gifts and pledges were higher than they were a year ago," Bollinger said. But Bollinger expressed uncertainty about the long-term impact of the economy. "Whether this will fall off or keep on the same trajectory, we simply don't know," Bollinger said. "On the endowment, we're not ready to publish a number. I am confident it will not be that big a number [in losses]. Nevertheless, we have sustained a significant decline, but not as significant as other institutions." The Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Bollinger said, has been working hard to anticipate a decline in revenues. But despite the stormy economy, certain principles are non-negotiable. "Financial aid for students is something that is untouchable. Need-blind admissions is untouchable," Bollinger said. "We do everything we can to avoid a hiring freeze on the faculty side, because that's a very drastic measure to take. It tends to stop momentum. We want to keep the momentum of Columbia moving. We want to be very humane in dealing with non-academic employees and staff, because this is an institution that depends upon them." Students' need for financial aid will likely increase as a result of the economy, but numbers are not available, and an expanded financial aid budget would exert pressure on other aspects of the University. As Bollinger noted in an e-mail to students, the central administration is helping individual schools to streamline their budgets, and Provost Alan Brinkley and Chief Financial Officer Anne Sullivan have been meeting with the deans. Vice President for Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks wrote an e-mail to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences several weeks ago that his division will vet costs closely. "We must continue our efforts to reduce the central support to the budget of the Arts and Sciences, as the basis of that support will be similarly affected by decreased endowment payouts and other financial challenges," Dirks wrote. Dirks added, "We are establishing an Arts and Sciences wide hiring review board that will exercise caution in all administrative hiring in the Arts and Sciences and provide a more thoughtful approach to controlling expenses than a hiring freeze would allow." In an interview shortly afterwards, Dirks said the University's approach is "not about laying anybody off. We are slowing down the hiring process without doing anything that looks draconian." Dirks allocates resources among the Arts and Sciences, which consists of five schools and many academic departments. The Arts and Sciences has not yet rescinded the hiring of any positions they have authorized. Currently, Arts and Sciences is scrutinizing every departmental hiring request while ensuring the maintenance of the proper personnel to teach undergraduate classes. Dirks said he would be more rigorous about scrutiny while "protecting the core mission of the Arts and Sciences." Certain research projects may have to be downscaled. "If we have to make some tough choices, we remember that Columbia is a university that has a faculty that teaches students—that's our core," Dirks said. "I'm going to have to say no a lot more than I want to. I have a red pen and I need to use it." While the full extent of the economy's ramifications for Columbia are unclear, Dirks stated one thing for sure: "It's going to affect everyone fairly similarly." joy.resmovits@columbiaspectator.com

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