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U Penn Museum Criticized for Staff Cuts (Updated)

15 December 2008 5:17 pm
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Archaeologists around the world are condemning the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology for laying off 18 researchers, in particular one of the world's leading archaeobotanists, Naomi Miller, who has been in the field for 30 years. News of the planned layoffs, announced late last month, has ricocheted through the global archaeology community, with help from several academics who have notified more than 1000 of their colleagues.

Miller's "departure from the field will have serious ramifications for many on-going archaeological projects throughout" the Near East, where she studies plant remains to better understand agricultural economies, wrote Melinda Zeder, director of the archaeobiology program at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., in a letter sent last weekend to Richard Hodges, the museum's director. Hodges was traveling and not available to speak with ScienceInsider, but spokesperson Pam Kosty said that "it's obviously difficult for everybody at the museum, these layoffs," and "we're doing what we can to try to save people." Like many other museums and nonprofits, the University of Pennsylvania Museum has been hard-hit by a sinking endowment and a difficult fundraising environment.

In an interview, Zeder, who has collaborated with Miller, sympathized with the museum's plight but argued that while the museum has presented the cuts as a solution to a short-term budget shortfall, "it seems to me counterintuitive to take measures that have a permanent impact on just the thing you're trying to save."

"There's quite an active campaign" to protest the loss of Miller, which will be effective at the end of May, Zeder says. "We're just stunned."

12/16 update:

The director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology tells ScienceInsider this morning that the layoffs had been mislabeled and that many of those affected would be able to garner outside grants and stay on at the museum before the end of the May deadline. “We’re starting to think strategically to safeguard people like Naomi [Miller],” says Richard Hodges, “as opposed to facing up to the fact in 6 months time that we won’t have any choices.” Hodges says museum staff are committed to helping Miller and the others find grant money from the university’s endowment, the U.S. National Science Foundation, and other sources and says he’s “very certain” that Miller will still be at the museum on 1 June. “We have no interest in getting rid of decent scholars,” Hodges says. The 18 affected scholars were originally brought in on grants but in the last several years have been supported under the museum’s operating budget. 

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