Eminentoes

Jeez, Luis — Part Deux

Controversy continues to grow at the Ford Foundation -- at the expense of those it is supposed to help.

By 6.12.09

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We reported last month on the controversy building around the new Ford Foundation CEO, Luis Ubinas. It now appears that we understated the scope of that controversy.

As you may recall, Mr. Ubinas had announced in April a McKinsey-style reorganization of the foundation staff, replete with much title-tweaking and assignment-shuffling. In an interview with the New York Times published on April 14, however, he had stated that the proposed overhaul would involve no staff reductions. That statement is now inoperative, as they used to say in the Nixon Administration.

Here's what we know of the situation, recounted to us by several foundation employees who, fearful of retaliation, have requested anonymity. (We sat on this story for ten days, trying to verify the identities of our anonymous sources. That inquiry was mooted when the Wall Street Journal's resourceful Naomi Schaefer Riley broke the cutback story yesterday morning.*)

In early May, Mr. Ubinas announced to the staff that, in view of the economic downturn, management would be forced to cut expenses. He announced, further, that management had decided to accomplish that objective by offering "generous" severance packages to non-exempt staff members. The details of these packages were then delivered to approximately 140 staffers, who comprise almost half of the 300-plus Ford staff in New York. A majority of the targeted staffers were women, many of them single mothers. Recipients of the package were told that they had until June 22 to accept the terms of the severance. Thereafter, Mr. Ubinas made clear, management reserved the right to begin layoffs unilaterally. "Exempted" from the "generous" offer were all Ford managers, directors and senior executives.

The Ford employees who have contacted us live from paycheck to paycheck and depend comprehensively on healthcare benefits provided by the foundation. It would be difficult to overstate the intensity of their feelings. One of them describes the intramural mood as "total despair."

That Ford would need to trim spending comes as no surprise. Its endowment, by our estimate, has fallen over the past year by almost $4 billion. We do not quarrel with Mr. Ubinas's analysis of the problem, but rather, with his proposed solution. Remember that Ford's mission in life, its very reason for being, is to help the less fortunate among us. For Ford to offload its economic pain onto its lowest-paid employees appears to be institutional hypocrisy of a high order. (In his introductory narrative to the Ford staff, our sources remember, Mr. Ubinas recalled that his own mother's life had been foreshortened by inadequate health care.)

And then there's the matter of style, which can play a critical role at defining organizational moments like these. In one of the staff meetings, Mr. Ubinas mentioned that, in stressful times, he relished the chance to get away to his weekend home in Vermont. That remark struck some of his traumatized listeners as a Reginald Maudling moment. Okay, we're dating ourselves. Reginald Maudling was a prominent British politician back in the day, his career peaking with appointment as Chancellor of the Exchequer in a Tory government. He was a skilled technocrat, good with numbers, but generally regarded as flinty and uncaring. To warm up his chilly image -- to add a little compassion, if you will, to his manifest conservatism -- Maudling was persuaded by handlers to receive a delegation of the unemployed. The idea was that he would be photo-opped listening sympathetically to woeful tales from disadvantaged citizens. Sir Reginald took as much of it as he could and then, glancing impatiently at his wristwatch, interrupted the proceedings by saying. "Well, I don't know about the rest of you, but I've got work to do."

With all of the turmoil at the Ford Foundation, where, you might reasonably ask, is the Board of Directors? Isn't this precisely a moment for some adult supervision? Not so many years ago, Ford boasted one of the most powerful and prestigious boards in the country, graced by statesmen of international repute, major university presidents, Fortune 500 CEOs and others of comparable eminence. The current board roster is: Kofi Appenteng, Afsaneh Beschloss, Anke Ehrhardt, Kathryn Fuller, Juliet Garcia, Irene Hirano, Clifford Hudson, Yolanda Kakabadse, Robert Kaplan, Thurgood Marshall Jr., Richard Moe, Narayana Murthy, Peter Nadosy and Richard West. It may well be that we travel in the narrowest of professional circles, but -- save for the late Justice Marshall's son -- not one of these people is a name in our household.

We are left to hope that these Directors, who are ultimately responsible for the institution they lead, will choose to make names for themselves at this critical juncture.

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*UPDATE: I now learn that Ms. Riley of the Wall Street Journal was quoting the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Apologies to the Chronicle. -- Neal Freeman

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About the Author
Neal B. Freeman is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation.