Amid a spate of staff hiring freezes at other universities, including peers such as Harvard and Stanford, Yale has passed on a strict freeze, opting instead for something akin to a hiring chill.

The distinction, it turns out, is more than nominal. Faced with massive budget deficits over the next three years, the University plans to cut personnel costs 5 percent, primarily through leaving vacant positions unfilled and — as a last resort — implementing layoffs. But staff hiring has continued since the University released details of its financial health last month, while faculty hires — though more closely scrutinized — are not affected.

Administrators said they hope to achieve a 5 percent personnel budget reduction without layoffs. Openings that were budgeted but not filled, if left vacant, can count toward that 5 percent.

“Many units are going to see if they can get by without that position for a while,” Provost Peter Salovey said.

The 5 percent cut in personnel expenses is the equivalent of about 400 positions. By chance, that is roughly equal to the number of University staff openings. But the empty positions do not match up one-to-one with posts that can stand to be left vacant, Vice President for Finance and Business Operations Shauna King said in a presentation to unit managers Monday.

Still, the University is currently recruiting for 75 staff jobs — down from 450 before the hiring chill — said Michael Peel, vice president for human resources and administration. About 400 staff positions turn over every year, but as the job market tightens, that number may decline with fewer people changing jobs, Peel said.

Instead of instituting a hiring freeze, Yale has started what is called “position control,” whereby every open position gets extensive review. A senior administrator scrutinizes the proposal and makes a recommendation that then has to be approved by an officer or deputy provost.

“That’s a level of control over open or new positions that is not typical,” Salovey said.

Salovey said he knows of “several” new staff hirings, which would not have been approved under a strict freeze. But, he added, he knows of many more cases in which requests were denied. And that ratio is very different from past years, he said.

“The amount of money that the endowment was allowing us to spend, especially in the last couple of years, allowed good ideas that were well thought-out generally to move forward,” he said in an interview Thursday. “Now we’re in a situation where endowment spending will be flat for a number of years, and so we’re going to have to make choices.”

The difference between other schools’ “hiring freezes” and Yale’s “position control” is at times indiscernible, considering that even formal freezes have some exceptions.

Cornell University, for example, has put a formal hiring freeze into place, but there are still some positions that have to be filled because of union contracts, Cornell spokesman Simeon Moss said. Cornell also had 65 layoffs last year and expects another 20 in 2009, Moss said, because of cuts from New York State, which provides some of Cornell’s funding.

Neither the hiring “chill” nor the 5 percent reductions in personnel costs apply to faculty. Most universities, including Yale, have been loathe to curtail faculty appointments, which are seen as more immediately related to the core functions of a university. Salovey said Monday that he signed two offer letters for professorships in the department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology this week.

That said, the pace of faculty recruitment may also be affected.

“The question is, how crucial is it to search this year?” Salovey said.

In cases where the answer is “yes, very,” Salovey said, those searches could proceed. Those cases may include rare opportunities to land a star appointment, a compelling need to fill out departments where enrollment demand is high, or unique opportunities specific to Yale’s programs, especially the West Campus.

“We may have to go more slowly with search proposals that don’t have to do with any of these elements,” Salovey said.

Spending on staff salaries, which amounted $432 million in the current fiscal year, will fall to $414 million next year.

Victor Zapana contributed reporting.