U. of I. President Bob Easter told members of the Council of Academic Professionals on Dec. 5 that university leaders are developing options for a supplemental employee pension-benefits package.
He said he hopes to "have a preliminary conversation" with the U. of I. Board of Trustees about those options at its Jan. 23 meeting in Chicago.
Easter covered several topics during the CAP-sponsored public discussion, though the pension issue was the major focus considering Gov. Pat Quinn signed the legislation that day.
"We have to remain competitive and that doesn't just mean faculty," he said of the university's benefits and compensation package. "We have to somehow continue to be able to attract the best people."
Coming up with a plan that retains the university's competitive hiring edge won't be easy considering the financial restraints the university faces, which include late and diminishing state payments, rising operations costs and tuition-revenue limits.
"The permanent increased cost (of taking on pension responsibilities) is not easy (for the university) to deal with," he said. "But we have to consider what alternatives we have to supplement it."
Although in the end legislators ignored options offered by the state's university leaders and the outcome was less than ideal for employees, having the issue finally settled by the state, at least "allows us to get out of the mode that's reactive and take a more proactive stance," Easter said.
Easter said he worries about the effect of a successful state constitutional challenge of the law, considering a rejection of it by the courts would bring continued uncertainty for Illinois residents, state employees and university planners.
He said he is thankful that the employee health care plan was spared the state's budget ax.
Easter said he is unsure whether the new pension law will survive a constitutional challenge and that it is unlikely the university would lead such an effort.
It's expected that Illinois employee unions will lead any constitutional challenge, with lawyers focusing on language in the state constitution that says pension benefits are un-diminishable.
Easter said the U. of I. will have to continue to steward its resources effectively if it is to survive the challenges it faces.
"That doesn't always mean reducing or eliminating positions," he said, noting other ways, including the use of computer technology, to maintain efficiency in the future.
Utilizing technology is important, but he said "experience outside of the classroom" is still an intangible student benefit only a brick-and-mortar school can provide.
"(Technology) is not the panacea that some people dream it can be," he said, "but I don't know if we've embraced (technology) to the extent we could."
He said the university has an important role to play in helping the state of Illinois' economy recover, and for its part, with about $1.5 billion it provides the university in direct and infrastructure annually, the state continues to support the U. of I.
The state's level of support "is not trivial," he said. "We continue to be a publicly funded institution; the state continues to make real investments."
Still, to complete its mission, the university must continue to reassess its business model and discover revenue from various sources, which includes reaching the goal of doubling outside giving.
"How do we meet all of those expectations?" of employees and state residents, Easter asked. "The board of trustees has asked us to think about our strategies going forward. I have every ounce of confidence that we will continue to be viable."
The board's direction led to the adoption this year of a strategic plan for all three campuses.
"The work we've done in the past few years has stabilized us so we can plot what direction the university wants to take," he said. "There is some good stuff going on, we just have to think more strategically."
Easter said university leaders continue to address the exemption authority issue and are working to find a legislative solution.
Under the current system, the university has the power to exempt certain positions from a civil service classification and make them academic professional. The designation is made for jobs requiring specific technical skills or expertise.
But the university's classifications have run at odds with the State Universities Civil Service System's biannual classification audits, with SUCSS claiming the university has misclassified several positions that should be under Civil Service.
"I think we do a pretty good job of how we define these positions," he said.
He said he also is optimistic the university will convince state legislators to address procurement rules to reduce their impact on researchers and staff members working with tight timelines. He said the university had "made some good cases" to convince legislators to make changes.