Leaders at the U. of I. presented a united front at a Jan. 3 State Universities Civil Service System public hearing, asking SUCSS officials to recommend that job classification exemption authority be left with universities.
The SUCSS Merit Board, which audits employee classes every two years, is expected to decide at its Jan. 30 meeting on a proposal to take back exemption authority.
The discussion of taking away universities' exemption authority began in earnest following the most recent SUCSS audit of the process, which officials said uncovered instances of abuse within the system statewide and the incorrect categorization of too many positions as academic professional.
The most recent audit process conducted at the Urbana campus reported that 122 of 200 investigated positions should be reclassified.
Universities were granted the authority to exempt employees from the civil service system about 15 years ago, but only if specific-skill positions warranted the reclassification.
Maureen Parks, the university's executive director and associate vice president for human resources, said there is room for improvement in the exemption and auditing processes.
"In looking at the most recent audit results for each state university, it is clear that the human resources leaders need consistent guidelines and assistance in understanding fully the SUCSS protocols and mathematical equation used as an audit standard," she said. "We welcome this assistance."
But, she added, entirely taking exemptions away from local campus officials would damage the institution's ability to nimbly fill positions unique to higher education.
"We know that in order to serve our campuses in the manner that they require, exemption decisions must remain localized with each employer," she said. "The staffing needs of each campus can vary tremendously, based on differences in institutional missions and culture."
She and other speakers at SUCSS headquarters in Urbana recommended leaving the exemption authority and audit process as it now stands, and creating a working group of SUCSS and state university officials with the shared goal of making recommendations to improve the system.
"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," she said. "If not, we believe there is risk to cause significant negative operational impacts to all of the state schools."
Peter Schiffer, the Urbana campus's vice chancellor for research, said eliminating the university's exemption authority would have implications for science-based and research jobs - which include highly specialized criteria that don't fit well into normal position descriptions.
"The nature and specific needs of research and research administration ... are incompatible with the degree of generalization routinely employed for positions in the civil service system," he said.
Schiffer said some of that specific knowledge "cannot be quickly ascertained by someone who is not familiar with the special requirements for staffing presented by a given research program."
He echoed several speakers in voicing concerns over the increased time it could take to fill time-sensitive, grant-funded positions, if exemption decisions were to be filtered through SUCSS.
"Such delays undermine our ability to perform for our sponsors," he said, "and underperformance causes a loss of reputation that is very difficult to overcome. Maintaining the ability to determine what positions are needed at each university in each category is absolutely critical to our success."
Speaking in favor of the SUCSS proposal was Jeff Bigelow, a regional director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, who said that the recent reclassification rates from SUCSS audits are proof of state university officials' "arrogance and contempt" for the process.
He said the system is set up to protect employees and that the exemption power, with discretion left in the hands of universities, takes away those protections.
"Clearly, the situation has gotten worse," he said. "The campus administrators have failed utterly. The audits bear this out. The situation demands a change."
Walter Knorr, vice president and chief financial officer, said there is a fear among university officials that SUCSS, with a staff of fewer than 15, would be unable to keep up with the volume of exemption requests should the authority be stripped from universities.
He recommended keeping the current system, but revising job descriptions and hiring guidelines in an effort to improve the reporting and auditing process.
"The bottom line for us 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," he said. "This is unacceptable."
Michael Hites, the senior associate vice president for Administrative Information Technology Services and chief information officer, said information technology was a perfect example of the limitations of traditional job descriptions.
"Due to the complexity of our IT systems and qualifications needed to successfully perform the functions of these positions, it is critical that we be able to recruit candidates from national technology firms and our peer institutions outside Illinois," he said. "SUCSS system does not have processes and procedures that support this type of recruiting."
Konstantinos Yfantis, the chairman of the Council of Academic Professionals, said specific rules governing civil service employees do not translate well with many of the types of high-tech or specific-knowledge positions inside a university environment.
Among those civil service rules are "bumping" rights rewarding seniority, the "rule of three" that restricts hiring officials to interview job applicants in groups of three, and rules favoring in-state workers.
Yfantis said it's also CAP's position that having SUCSS and the Merit Board writing the rules and conducting the audit process is tantamount to a conflict of interest.
"By transferring the exemption authority back to SUCSS, the proposed amendment would make the auditor and the decision-maker one single entity," he said. "We believe it is in our best interest if the exemption authority is vested not with a centralized entity which is not part of the operational fabric of the university, but instead with the human resources units deployed at institutions that fully understand their unique missions and needs. One size does not fit all and in this case, one agency cannot serve all."