URBANA — A state board has withdrawn a controversial proposal that would have stripped universities of their authority to exempt some employees from the civil service system.
The merit board of the State Universities Civil Service System, which oversees the hiring of civil service employees at public universities in Illinois, voted Wednesday to pull a proposed amendment to its rules that would have put back in the agency's hands the power to decide when university hires are civil service or when they are exempt and considered academic professionals.
The move brought relief to university administrators, faculty and academic professionals who have lobbied for over a year to keep that authority. But it also sparked anger among union members, who say universities have for too long been improperly classifying some positions as academic professionals when they should be civil service and protected by collective-bargaining agreements.
"I'm more of a local control person," said Joanne Maitland, chairwoman of the merit board and a trustee at Illinois State University who supported the withdrawal of the proposal. "The university is closest to knowing what their needs are, and not all universities are the same," she said.
Withdrawing the proposal, however, "does not mean we're dropping it," said Karen Hasara, a University of Illinois trustee and a fellow merit board member. The opposing sides will need to work something out, she said, to address the issues raised by audits conducted by the state agency.
By state law, the Urbana-based State Universities Civil Service System, or SUCSS, oversees the hiring of university civil service employees. Since the late 1990s, the system started allowing universities to decide when a position is classified as civil service or exempt, in the case of some academic professional positions. SUCSS began reviewing positions at each university to ensure employees 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 take the exemption authority from universities. When the proposed legislation failed, a rule change was proposed before the state last year.
"We're angry that after 15 years of talk, there has been no action to resolve the problem," said Jeff Bigelow, a regional director with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, Council 31.
"I think it's a good day for state universities. Having hiring autonomy is a good thing. It helps us remain competitive on a global basis," said Kostas Yfantis, an academic professional on the UI's Urbana campus and chair of its Council of Academic Professionals.
"We need to work together — SUCSS and the state universities. We've made a lot of good effort to do that and I'm looking forward to more collaboration in the future," Yfantis added.
University administrators said taking the exemption authority from the universities would hamper their ability to recruit and retain top employees and add delays to the hiring process.
"That's speculation," insisted Gary Fry, an ironworker at the UI and member of the civil service system's employee advisory committee. Audits have shown an erosion of civil service positions, he said. "The universities had 15 years to fix it and they failed."
Tom Morelock, executive director of SUCSS, said the exemption authority issue has been a topic on board agendas since he joined the agency in 2002.
"I don't know what to do to get a consensus," he said.
What will happen next is unclear, but merit board members urged Morelock to convene another committee or task force to work out unresolved issues.
"I think what I am hearing is a lack of understanding and a lack of trust," said James Montgomery, a UI trustee and merit board member, referring to some university confusion about the agency's audit process and the formulas used.
"There's still work to be done and we need to make a commitment to finish it," said merit board member Robert Marshall, a Northern Illinois University trustee. "Since I'm a fisherman, I'm an optimist," he added.