URBANA — Let's sit down and work it out.
That was the message several university officials delivered Thursday to the state board weighing a proposal to take the decision-making authority away from universities when it comes to their hiring of certain employees called academic professionals.
"If there's a problem, let's work together to solve it," urged University of Illinois animal sciences Professor Matt Wheeler, who chairs the Urbana Academic Senate. He and over a dozen university employees from around the state, largely from the University of Illinois system, spoke out against a proposed rule change that would put power back in the hands of the Urbana-based State Universities Civil Service System, or SUCSS.
The three-hour-long public hearing was held in advance of the SUCSS merit board meeting planned for later this month, during which members of the board are expected to take up the proposal, possibly voting on whether or not the rule change should continue on at the state level for final approval.
By state law, the civil service system oversees the hiring of university civil service employees. Since the late 1990s, the system started allowing universities to decide whether a position is classified as civil service or exempt, in the case of some academic professional positions. Along the way, SUCSS would regularly review positions to ensure they were not being classified as academic professional when they should be civil service. After several years of audits that pointed to an increased number of positions wrongly classified, particularly on the UI's Chicago campus, state legislators proposed to strip the universities of their exemption authority.
When the proposed legislation failed, a rule change was proposed before the state last year.
Perhaps legislation was not the best place to deal with the universities' exemption authority, said Tom Morelock, the civil service system's executive director.
"This is the best place to deal with this," he said, referring to Thursday's public hearing. "It gives all the stakeholders a chance to speak," he said. All comments will be forwarded to members of the merit board.
After the hearing, Morelock said he has planned a "focus group" type of meeting for next week to continue to discuss the proposed rule change. That group will include UI officials and members of the civil service advisory committee.
The proposed amendment to state rules has received support from civil service employees and unions and strong resistance from university human resources professionals, academic professionals and faculty. On Thursday, the majority of those who spoke said they opposed the rule change.
Kathy Seybert, director of human resources at the UI's College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, and who has been at the university for decades before and after the exemption authority was granted to the UI, said she was "adamantly opposed to the amendment" because it will "chip away at the University of Illinois' ability to hire the workforce it needs to remain competitive."
Before the university was granted the exemption authority in the late 1990s, she said university staff, including those at state universities other than the UI, often complained of long delays in the hiring process due to the volume of requests and understaffing at the system.
"The bottom line for us," said UI Chief Financial Officer Walter Knorr, "is that delays in receiving classification decisions from the SUCSS office will have a serious impact on our ability to serve our students, conduct our research and care for our patients. This is unacceptable."
"Something still has to be done to ensure proper classification. Doing nothing is not acceptable," said Julie Benedict, a civil service employee at Eastern Illinois University and chair of the civil service advisory committee to the merit board who spoke in favor of the rule change as proposed.
Gary Fry, an ironworker at the UI and a member of the civil service advisory committee, said the group has tried for 15 years to have the authority taken from universities, as civil service employees have seen academic professionals do what is considered the work of civil service employees.
"We believe (removing exemption authority from universities) will provide accountability," Benedict added.
The UI's Knorr spoke in favor of university and civil service system staff working together to update, redefine or clarify standard titles used in the exemption process.
"Rather than taking away exemption authority, we need to be working collaboratively to resolve exemption guidelines and criterion ambiguities so that all of us can serve our state institutions in the best way possible," said Maureen Parks, the UI's executive director of human resources.
In what was perhaps one of the more colorful testimonies of the afternoon, Eastern Illinois University President William Perry said as a child, when his brother misbehaved, both he and his brother were spanked.
"I didn't like it then and I don't like it now," he said, likening the proposal to a broad-brush approach or one-size-fits-all solution to a problem.
He said EIU is committed to a solution that involves identifying specific problems that need to be solved. If there's a problem, "we should sit down together and solve it," he said.