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URBANA — A new University of Illinois program will give civil-service and academic-professional employees time away from their normal work duties to learn about other parts of the campus.

Employees who have been on the job for at least six months are eligible for up to eight paid hours each academic year to attend a scholarly talk, tour a new building or visit a lab and learn about cutting-edge research.

The “Know Your U” program, set to launch this fall, is open to full- or part-time permanent employees who are classified as academic professionals or civil-service workers — everyone from research scientists to groundskeepers to visiting staff. It does not include faculty members.

About 18,300 employees across the UI system are eligible, including about 8,000 at the Urbana campus, said Jami Painter, associate vice president and chief human resources officer for the UI system.

The idea grew out of discussions between Painter, Executive Vice President Barbara Wilson and an academic-professional employee advisory group about ways to get employees “more engaged and excited about working in the UI system” and promote professional development, Painter said. They came at a time when the university wasn’t able to do much in the way of salary increases because of state budget cuts, she said.

The goal is to promote employee growth and “get them engaged in all of the exciting things going on that they don’t normally have an opportunity to be involved in, to learn more about what our faculty are doing, in terms of research and teaching,” she said.

Ultimately, she hopes it will foster relationships among employees across campus and the UI system and encourage them to be a “champion” for the university. It might also pique their interest in working in other areas of campus, she said.

Activities could include tours of athletic facilities, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts or even Abbott Power Plant.

What’s not eligible: anything employees have to pay admission for, such as a concert or football game.

The eight hours won’t count against their vacation days or other paid leave, Painter said.

Full-time academic professionals currently get 24 vacation days each academic year. Civil service employees who are eligible for overtime pay under federal law are eligible for 12 to 25 vacation days each year, depending on their years of service. Those who are exempt from overtime receive 25 to 28 vacation days a year.

The “Know Your U” hours are designed to be used in small increments, perhaps an hour every month or two, rather than all at once, so employees can experience more activities, Painter said.

Employees have to file requests with their supervisors “with as much advanced notification as possible,” according to the website. Supervisors must clear the request in advance, and they have to provide a “clear rationale” for refusing a request.

There might be periods when a department is short-staffed or can’t afford to give up the work time, but supervisors are encouraged to work with employees to find an acceptable time, Painter said.

One of a kind

UI officials said the program appears to be the first of its kind; they found nothing similar in the Big Ten or at other top research institutions.

“Know Your U is an investment in our most valuable resource, giving staff employees a broader perspective into the scope and impact of our universities, and how their roles contribute to the greater good. We also hope they have some fun along the way and walk away with an even greater sense of pride in a university system that is truly altogether extraordinary,” UI President Tim Killeen said in an email announcing the program to employees Tuesday.

Painter didn’t have a tangible cost estimate, as there will be no cash outlay, she said.

“It’s not technically costing us anything, other than staff are going to be away from their desks at some point,” she said.

Painter sees it as investing in employee growth, rather than “money going out the door.”

The UI will track data over the first year to see how many employees take advantage of the program, what activities they choose and whether it benefited them or their departments.

“Did it increase productivity? Were they more engaged, more excited?” she said.

'Take a breather'

Officials will also monitor feedback to see whether it needs to be modified, she said.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” said Jeffrey Stein, former chairman of the Council of Academic Professionals and a senior research scientist for the Natural History Survey.

“I think it’s going to build more connections across this very large community,” Stein said. “It’s easy to feel isolated and lost in your corner of the university. It gives those of us who are doing teaching and research, academic professionals and civil service staff on campus who are lifting heavy weight every day, to take a breather and see what other parts of the community are doing.”

It will also give research teams a chance to “show their stuff and highlight some of the great contributions they’re making,” he said Tuesday.

Stein had just finished an email proposing activities that the Prairie Research Institute could host, including a fish ecology program at a pond on the South Farms where he and others conduct research.

As for the cost, Stein said, “I would like to think that the benefits of having a broader understanding of the diversity of things that we do on this campus and this university is well worth the hour or two that we might take every month or two to broaden our horizons.”

Reporter/Columnist

Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is jwurth@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).