The Adler Planetarium celebrated its 90th birthday on Tuesday. The next day, it laid off 120 part-time and full-time employees.
WTTW News first learned of the layoffs from a longtime Adler employee who was among those let go, and confirmed the cuts with Adler spokesperson Jennifer Howell, who said they were made across the organization and affected all departments, including leadership.
“The Adler made the difficult decision to reduce our staff in order to help the Adler survive and continue to serve Chicago and the world in the post-pandemic future,” Howell wrote in an email to WTTW News. “The Adler has maintained payroll for all full-time and part-time staff since our closure. Those individuals whose positions have been eliminated will continue to receive standard compensation for 60 days and benefits through the end of July.”
Howell added that it’s clear the planetarium will not be reopening to visitors anytime soon.
“Based on the recovery plans set forth by the Illinois Governor and Chicago Mayor’s offices, which responsibly recognize the serious nature of this pandemic, it is clear we will not be in a position to reopen our physical facility for quite some time. Therefore, we are looking at ways to position the museum to viably serve the public and deliver our mission in a virtual environment for the time being,” Howell said.
The former Adler employee who first alerted WTTW News to the layoffs requested anonymity for fear of hurting their future career prospects. They said they were told last week that changes were coming.
“We were told Wednesday of last week (May 6) that there were structural changes happening at the planetarium. We were not specifically told which departments would be affected or who would be laid off but that this change was coming,” they said. “This is really tough because there are so few jobs available in this intersection of science and public outreach. These jobs are available — when they are — all over the world. There are really no opportunities locally, so people who have been affected by this will effectively have to leave the field.
“For every astronomer and educator in this field there are maybe one-tenth the number of opportunities so finding a new job is not even a crapshoot, it’s playing roulette.”
The former employee said that staff had little input into the decision-making process.
“The decisions were made on high. There was no input from department heads. They were cut out of the process,” they said. “(Vice presidents) were involved to some extent but not very much. I think these changes were brought forward strategically for better or worse.”
The cuts mean Adler “will no longer be able to conduct world-class research,” the former employee said, noting there are now only two research astronomers left in the astronomy department.
Like many other museums, Adler is being hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, with donors cutting their grants by 50%, according to the source, who said they felt the planetarium had other options than mass layoffs.
“I am taken aback by the cuts that were made,” they said, adding they fear Adler will become “one of these education-entertainment institutions” without the capacity to conduct cutting-edge astronomical research.
The Adler was America’s first planetarium when it opened to the public on May 12, 1930, and has been a popular site for visitors ever since. But due to the pandemic it has been closed to visitors since March 14.