URBANA — Meeting with faculty from all three University of Illinois campuses, UI President Bob Easter on Thursday said he would like to extend raises to faculty and staff next year.
However, the university leader also said his expectation for revenue growth is "minimal" given a number of factors.
Easter traditionally meets with the University Senates Conference as the school year begins and his discussion with the governance group, which includes professors from each academic senate, was wide-ranging.
Faculty asked for an update on the administrative review (which is wrapping up, with Easter expected to discuss a committee's recommendations with chancellors next week), the restructuring of the office of the vice president for health affairs (also coming to a conclusion, with a possible recommendation to the board of trustees this fall) and they sought his insight on challenges facing the university.
As the academic year kicks off — students moved in on Thursday and classes start Monday in Urbana — many faculty and staff will receive merit-based raises averaging 2.75 percent as part of the universitywide salary program announced earlier this summer. The outlook for next year also looks favorable.
"My goal is absolutely to have a salary program next year," Easter said.
However, with pension reform still up in the air, the federal sequester threatening future funding of research programs and tuition increases expected to be more in line with inflation, therefore keeping tuition income from rapidly rising, the university will continue to face budget constraints.
Tuition income in previous years has helped offset costs, Easter said, but the expectation is "revenue growth will be minimal."
On the subject of pensions, whatever legislation is ultimately voted upon, "inevitably it will involve some transfer of costs to us," he said.
State legislators adjourned earlier this year without passing any pension reform. Easter said he believes the university is in a good position partly because of work done by his special assistant Avijit Ghosh and others from the UI's Institute of Government and Public Affairs who offered up a proposal that involves increasing employee contributions, changing the cost-of-living adjustment and more.
The UI "is becoming a go-to place for advice," he said.
A state legislative committee has been working through the pension issues over the summer and Easter said the expectation is "something will be done in the fall veto session."
One of the biggest issues facing the university system is "where we go with our health care enterprise," Easter said, referring to the UI Hospital, clinics and medical colleges in Chicago.
Trustees have made reorganization of the $1.2 billion health enterprise a priority. Easter has sought the advice of a consulting firm and in July trustees made the health affairs system the subject of their retreat.
Dr. Joe G.N. "Skip" Garcia, appointed by then-President Michael Hogan to be the first vice president for health affairs in 2011, accepted a new job as a senior vice president at the University of Arizona. UI officials have said the reporting lines of that office were not clear and they are now considering different options for overhauling the office.
The question is which platform or administrative structure will make the academic medical center "preeminent. ... Getting it right is imperative. And it is a critical decision," Easter said.
Those options include maintaining the status quo of having the vice president for health affairs continue to be responsible for clinical delivery of services, but not have oversight of the academic medical programs; to maintain status quo but to add to the vice president's office the responsibility of academic programs; to have a two-provost system on the campus with one provost overseeing the health science colleges; another option, which Easter said he does not support, is to have the medical college dean also oversee the hospital.
Easter said he has not made a decision yet on what model to recommend, but he was leaning toward some kind of version between the second and third option.
Eventually he will forward a recommendation, likely in the form of a resolution, to the board of trustees.
Easter said in recent months he has been reviewing university statutes and university-related state legislation and wanted to stress that "we are a body created by the public, not investors or a group of philanthropists."
The UI is "an entity of the citizens of Illinois" and that raises the question of "what truly is our role as a public university?"
And, "to what extent should we be attentive to the needs of the state?"
For example, if the state has a shortage of engineers, does the university increase enrollments of engineers, he asked.
Or, if there is a need for general medical practitioners, what should the university do?
"What is in the best interest of the university as a whole?"
That, Easter said, is what he hopes is a guiding principle for their conversations as the academic year begins.