Debate over status of some UI employees headed for controversy
URBANA — The debate over who decides whether a university employee should be an academic professional or civil service employee is expected to heat up in the coming months.
A bill introduced last year which proposed to take exemption authority away from state universities, requiring them to seek approval from a state board before hiring academic professionals, was tabled. But a proposed rule change that would effectively do the same thing is now pending before a state committee.
Groups on both sides of the issue — University of Illinois administrators, faculty and academic professionals oppose the rule change while unions like the Service Employees International Union support it — are organizing in advance of the State Universities Civil Service System Merit Board's meeting next month.
In the words of Tom Morelock, director of the civil service system, "it'll be controversial before it's all over."
The Urbana-based State Universities Civil Service System, or SUCSS, per state statutes, helps administer the hiring of university employees except in the case of presidents, vice presidents, faculty and some other employees. But since the 1990s, the agency has allowed universities to hire a type of employee called an academic professional without having to seek permission from the agency. The condition was the agency would periodically review such positions.
After several years of audits, the agency found an increase of academic professionals and decrease in civil service employees on the campuses of state universities, Morelock said. A few years ago, the agency found that 75 percent of the positions audited on the UI Chicago campus should be reclassified from academic professional to civil service. And a recent audit on the Urbana campus found 60 percent of audited positions such as finance and human resources specialist, events coordinator, operations manager and digital media coordinator, should also move from the academic professional to civil service category.
"When you look at that mid-management level, that's a huge gray area. It's easier to employ someone through the open-ended employment process. But when you do that, there's lot of potential for nepotism, political favoritism. We look at positions, not people," Morelock said.
In Chicago, Remzi Jaos, director of the higher education division at SEIU Local 73, said for about a 10- to 15-year period his union members watched as new people were hired as academic professionals while civil service employees performed similar job duties, a move he interpreted as administrators attempting to break the union, which represents clerical employees on the Chicago campus.
Since the union raised questions a few years ago, the university has been reclassifying many of these employees on the Chicago campus, though not at the speed Jaos would like to see, he said.
The audit mechanism is in place, and there will be issues that come up in audits, but because of the audits, the university can then review those positions and work with the civil service system position by position, said Kostas Yfantis, an academic professional with the UI's Campus Information Technologies and Educational Services (CITES) and an officer with the Council of Academic Professionals.
"I trust the HR professionals of the University of Illinois to make the best hiring decisions. SUCSS should give us the tools, not make the decision for us," Yfantis said. "We can't jeopardize our ability to recruit the best talent with more bureaucracy," he said.
Added Nicholas Burbules, UI professor and chair of the University Senates Conference: "The ability to define and search for positions is crucial to your ability to respond quickly and flexibly" to opportunities in research, teaching and outreach, he said.
On Monday the Urbana Academic Senate of faculty and students is expected to reaffirm a resolution in support of academic professionals and the university maintaining its exemption authority. The group initially endorsed the resolution last year in response to the proposed legislation. The senates conference also may take up the issue, according to Burbules.
At issue for the university is recruiting the best candidates for a position, said Maureen Parks, the UI's executive director for human resources. The university needs flexibility in hiring, she said.
Losing the exemption authority would be "very, very negative in terms of our ability to quickly hire the employees we need to fill critical positions," Parks said.
"We are just very afraid this could be a protracted and bureaucratic process," she said.
Moving control of exemptions to the merit board, Morelock said, isn't about requiring more regulation or adding more bureaucracy to hiring. It's about "proper management" of a large institution's personnel plan, he said.
Morelock also said his agency, though small with a staff of around 13, is nimble in its ability to change titles and specifications of civil service jobs. Some categories are broad and open-ended allowing for the employer to determine what qualifications fit that position.
"It's not like the old civil service system," he said. "In my opinion, it's difficult to find a job duty that doesn't fit in our structure."
The proposed rule change was submitted to the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, the state bipartisan legislative review committee, and published in the Illinois Register in March. The first comment period was held; however, before moving the proposed rule change into the second comment period, Morelock said, he is revising the language to include more specific guidelines on the review process. And he may bring the new language to the merit board's next meeting on Nov. 14.