Elizabeth Warren Failed to Stand Up for Low-Income Harvard Employees During 2009 Layoffs

Former Harvard employee: Warren 'certainly did not stand up' for coworkers facing termination

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September 18, 2019

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has campaigned as a champion of the working class, but she failed to stand up for low-income Harvard employees facing layoffs, a former Harvard library assistant says.

In 2009, Harvard terminated nearly 300 employees citing the university endowment falling to only $26 billion. While high-earning law school professors such as Warren were unaffected by the layoffs, many administrative and clerical staffers earning more modest wages faced termination. The announcement led one employee to collect petition signatures asking top earners at the law school to take temporary salary reductions. Warren remained silent, according to Stephen Helfer, who spearheaded the petition drive.

"Elizabeth Warren certainly did not stand up for Harvard staff," he said.

The Warren campaign did not respond to request for comment.

Helfer spent 22 years as a law school library assistant at Harvard. When positions similar to his faced layoffs, he took issue with the salaries of employees such as Warren and then-president Drew Faust. Warren was paid nearly $350,000 to teach at Harvard in 2009, while Faust raked in more than $775,000 in pay, benefits, and expenses during the 2007/2008 school year.

Helfer's call for temporary salary reductions came after the presidents at Brown and Stanford universities cut their own pay in 2009 to ease similar budget constraints. Helfer's petition received 120 signatures, and numerous university groups showed solidarity with a "no layoffs" campaign, including a protest during a Harvard commencement ceremony. Helfer ended up taking early retirement after the university moved forward with the planned layoff.

Warren declared herself "in this [2020] fight for America's workers every step of the way" in August and has appeared in union picket lines in recent months, but she failed to support members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers throughout the 2009 layoffs. Warren went on to make more than $400,000 as a tenured Harvard professor in the 2010/2011 school year after nearly 300 low-income employees were laid off.

"Warren, who is always talking about the middle class being hammered, did not seem to take interest in the petition or any efforts to alleviate the layoffs," Helfer said.

Warren and her husband, who remains a professor at Harvard, reported earning $972,654 in 2017. She now has a reported net worth of $12 million.

Warren has continuously criticized the rising cost of higher education, proposing a student loan forgiveness plan that would cancel student debt for more than 95 percent of borrowers. Despite this plan, Warren was listed as a top earner at Harvard as early as 1998, continuously receiving a six-figure salary.

Harvard offered Warren a tenured professor job in 1993 amidst explosive protests and a discrimination lawsuit over the Harvard faculty's lack of diversity. Warren had previously categorized herself as Native American as a visiting professor. Shortly after she assumed the position in 1995, Harvard Law School news director Mike Chmura repeatedly touted Warren as the first tenured woman of color at Harvard Law. Public reports filed by Harvard to the U.S. Department of Labor listed a single Native American professor at the university until 2011.

Lani Guinier is now listed as Harvard Law's first tenured woman of color in her university bio after a DNA test showed Warren having as little as 1/1,024 Native American ties.