Discretionary spending, managing the financial impacts of COVID-19

November 5, 2020

Dear Cornell Faculty and Staff,

In March, the university instituted a series of measures designed to help Cornell weather the expected short- and long-term financial impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, including constraining discretionary funding, hiring and salary pauses, travel bans and reevaluation of capital projects. While these actions are helping to mitigate income losses and other constraints brought on by the pandemic, each of us must continue to closely safeguard university resources, given the significant uncertainty that remains in the economy.

Discretionary spending – As a reminder, discretionary spending, without appropriate approvals remains suspended across the university. Discretionary spending, in the context of our current situation, refers to the use of university funds that are not already committed contractually or firmly committed in some other manner that cannot be reversed.

  • Any new commitments or expenditures that exceed $50,000 must be approved by the Provost or EVP/CFO. Expenses that directly support the mission of the university or are essential to the core operations of the unit do not need approval beyond the unit head or a designee.
  • For spending under $50,000 the unit head or designee should review and approve as necessary. It is recommended that the unit head delegate approval at certain thresholds.
  • Academic and administrative units are not permitted to spend funds on food/meals, events, recognition banquets or any expenditures not critical to the operation of the university.

Hiring pause – The university-wide pause on hiring staff and temporary workers remains in effect. Any exceptions must be approved via the established process. All academic hires will be carefully reviewed by deans.

Salary pause – The university was unable to offer salary increases for the fiscal year 2021 that began on July 1, other than those required by collective bargaining agreements. Any increases to existing salaries through bonuses, promotions, acting rates, changes to time status or additional pays must be approved by the respective dean or vice president and the vice president and chief human resources officer (for staff) or the provost (for faculty).

Travel ban – Cornell-related travel for essential business requires prior approval by the appropriate dean, vice president or vice provost. All non-essential business travel is prohibited.

While we recognize that these spending limits may pose challenges, they are necessary as we face continued unpredictability heading into 2021. In the face of these realities, our most prudent option is to conserve resources, wherever possible, while continuing to uphold our mission as a world-class university.

Thank you for your efforts to date to carefully steward financial resources, and for your continued diligence in these matters.


Michael Kotlikoff

Joanne DeStefano
Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer