Legislative hearings planned on UI labor school

Legislative hearings planned on UI labor school

URBANA — The status of the University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations will be the subject of a legislative hearing in Chicago this week.

The hearing, scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the Michael Bilandic Building, was called by the House Economic Development Committee to address labor concerns about the school's future as an independent unit, UI officials said Monday. A second hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday in Springfield.

One of the smallest academic units on campus, the school has been targeted for possible consolidation with other campus units for several years, most recently with the College of Business or the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, faculty said.

Created by an act of the state Legislature almost 70 years ago, the school includes a Labor Education Program that provides training and professional development for union leaders, and a Center for Human Resource Management that brings together human resources professionals and conducts research. The school offers master's and doctoral degrees, as well as joint degree programs with the College of Law and the College of Business, and its alumni include senior corporate executives, government officials, HR consultants, union officials and university administrators.

Professor Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program, said union leaders who make up the school's Labor Education Advisory Board — also mandated by the Legislature — were concerned about the proposed reorganization and "indicated they wanted to have a voice in this." The advisory board is chaired by Michael Carrigan, president of the state AFL-CIO, he said.

"The unions are taking this on," said UI Provost Ilesanmi Adesida, and they want to know why the campus is considering a reorganization.

Adesida spoke Monday at a meeting of the executive committee of the campus academic senate, which reviewed a proposed resolution supporting the School of Labor and Employment Relations as a freestanding unit on campus. The resolution was deferred for further review.

Some faculty members are concerned about how some parts of the school's mission, including labor education, might fare under a merger with the College of Business.

Adesida, who will testify at Thursday's hearing, said the reorganization talks have focused on "the question of excellence" and how to build up the unit, including doubling the size of the school.

"There is no plan whatsoever ... to cancel any of the programs within LER," he said. "We want to strengthen them."

The campus faces "critical issues" and is asking all of its units, including smaller programs, how they see themselves fitting into the priorities laid out in the new strategic plan, Adesida said.

"It's something we must do as a means of moving toward ... excellence for our campus," he said.

With just 20 faculty, the school was one of four programs studied for possible consolidation in 2010 under the campus Stewarding Excellence budget review process. The review team concluded that a merger would not result in any significant savings and could actually harm quality if not done carefully. Top campus officials agreed but urged the units to cut costs by sharing services and to consider mergers down the road.

Campus administrators later suggested the school become part of the Graduate College, an administrative unit, Bruno said. A faculty working group at the school concluded it would be acceptable under certain conditions, though the preference was to remain independent, he said.

No action was taken, and last year outgoing Dean Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, who remains on the school's faculty, said it was clear that the school would maintain its independence.

But more recently campus officials and faculty at the school have discussed aligning it with a larger college, such as Liberal Arts and Sciences or Business, Adesida said.

Bruno said toward the end of summer Adesida asked the faculty to consider those two colleges as possible homes for the school. Faculty again communicated their desire to remain a freestanding unit but talked with both deans, discussing pros and cons, he said.

"Neither fit is a good fit," Bruno said.

The campus preference seems to be for the College of Business, said Bruno and history Prof. Kathy Oberdeck, who wrote the senate resolution discussed Monday. Remaining an independent unit "seems to no longer be on the table," Oberdeck said.

Bruno said the three strongest employment relations master's programs in the country — at Cornell, Rutgers and the UI — are in freestanding units. Universities that have merged their programs with other units have seen their employment relations programs deteriorate, he said.

"At a time when work in employment relations issues has once again become almost a dominant topic around income equality, competitiveness, problem solving and cooperative labor relations," he said, "it just seems terrifically short-minded to attempt this reorganization. And it's not clear that it solves any problem."

Oberdeck, who specializes in the history of the working class, said the labor education program is "well regarded by a lot of other units in the university and by the labor movement that it works with. The labor movement is an important educational institution."

Bruno said the school has a strong land-grant mission, training union leaders, employers, labor lawyers, managers, arbitrators, mediators and staff from government agencies.

The school opened in 1946 as the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations. The Illinois State Federation of Labor passed a resolution to create a school for labor research and teaching at the UI in 1942, and legislators approved it in 1945. The institute's name was changed in 2008 to the School of Labor and Employment Relations to reflect its elevation to a school on campus.