Esalen Institute’s ‘global community’ protests manager layoffs.
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Daniel Cryns’ 58th birthday was a rough one – and not just because April 18 was his first day back to work after his brother’s memorial service. During Cryn’s morning check-in with his staff at the Esalen Institute, his supervisor called him in and said his position as maintenance manager had been eliminated.
“It was done summarily and instantaneously, with no forewarning,” Cryns says.
Gate Manager Eric Erickson and Office Manager Kathleen Kleinsmith were also let go. Every day since, supporters of the three laid-off managers have formed a “healing circle” on Esalen’s lawn.
“You pompous f –k,” wrote Cryns, a prolific poet, in a poem about an Esalen administrator, “deluded / masquerade as sensitivity / while so covered / in callous / you could no more / breathe worlds / than a snake / could sprout legs / and gallop to heaven.”
Creative expression and internal criticism are as much a part of the Esalen Institute as 5Rhythms Dance and Gestalt Practice, both pioneered at the legendary retreat center in Big Sur. But judging by Internet chatter, the community is more upset than usual after last month’s layoffs. Esaleaks – a six-month-old, anonymous blog critical of the institute’s administration – calls it a “corporate coup.”
Calls to Esalen CEO Tricia McEntee were not returned.
Esalen President Gordon Wheeler says the terminations were part of a reorganization that’s been in the works since 2005 and has involved more than a dozen layoffs. “We are very management-heavy, and not enough hands on the ground,” he says. “Any reorganization is an experimental response to the conditions that are changing around you.”
The laid-off employees were offered two weeks’ salary, 30 days to stay on the property and the opportunity to apply for open positions, he adds.
Cryns says he forfeited the severance offer by refusing to sign a nondisclosure agreement. “People come [to Esalen] with big ideals and dreams, maybe too big, and then find that the vision and mission statements are not clearly followed,” he says. “There’s a lot of fear and distrust and disappointment.”
There’s also some grief over the December death of eight-year Esalen employee Jim Probst, who was in his 40s, had cancer and was uninsured.
Cryns, who supervised Probst in the maintenance department, says administrators scheduled Probst and several others just shy of the 32-hour week needed to qualify for medical benefits. But Wheeler says Probst was offered several benefited positions before he became ill; he opted for the higher hourly rate as a consulting sound engineer. “He wouldn’t make that choice with all of our urging,” Wheeler says. “It was a tragic series of misjudging by Jim.”
The elimination of Cryns’ job, he adds, is intended to move more maintenance employees into full-time positions. The medical benefits for Esalen’s roughly 92 full-time employees cost about $8,000 per person per year, he says, in addition to food, education and retirement perks.
But some community members view the Esalen board’s stance as uncaring.
“I write to you in sadness and in shock at the way these terminations were carried out,” writes Jerilyn Hesse, Esalen’s faculty support coordinator, in an April 25 letter to the board. “Many people I have spoken to are upset at the ‘what,’ but everyone I have spoken to is disturbed and angered at the ‘how.’”
Others have made more dramatic statements. Seymour Carter, a former work/study program director who’s been associated with Esalen since its founding in 1962, resigned in protest of the administration last summer. Esalen trustee David Lustig stepped down several weeks ago, after the board reviewed the layoffs.
Christine Stewart Price, widow of Esalen co-founder and Gestalt pioneer Dick Price, recently announced she would not schedule future workshops. “I have told the board that there is a divergence between the current climate and my ongoing interests,” she writes by email. “The new culture does not seem to incorporate the work that I’ve been part of these many years, so it’s time for me to move on.”
Esalen’s 2010 revenue was $13.1 million, according to the nonprofit’s IRS Form 990, with more than $900,000 in the black. The prior year, the institute netted $290,000 plus.
Wheeler says Esalen has climbed out of a financial hole, thanks to rising workshop attendance, and is now positioned to reinvest. “First we paid attention to staff salaries, especially at the lower level,” he says. “Now we’re on to green renewal,” including replacement of staff housing destroyed by a fire last October.
He says it’s important to consider that anyone who attends an Esalen workshop becomes a part of its greater global community. “Debate is our middle name; when there is change, it just ripples and ripples. We have the Internet today, so things reverberate longer and louder,” he says. “It’s part of the magic and part of the challenge and part of our identity. It definitely makes management more challenging, and we would not have it any other way.”