UI officials talk pensions, budget at campus town hall meeting


Illinois’ Chancellor Phyllis Wise speaks to the audience during a town hall meeting held at the Union, on Wednesday, April 9, 2014.

By Tyler Davis

At Wednesday’s campus town hall meeting, Chancellor Phyllis Wise and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida addressed the “two elephants in the room” prior to discussing the state of the campus — state pension plans and the overall budget climate of the campus.

As some of the changes from last fall’s pension reform legislation, SB-1, will go into effect as early as this year, Wise said she had a message for those affected:

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“From the Board of Trustees, to the president, to the provost and myself to all of the campus leadership, we are putting in a huge amount of time to try to figure out ways to mitigate and alleviate the impact of this (reform).”

She added that resolving this pension crisis is one of the administration’s top priorities, as the University’s ability to recruit and maintain the best faculty and staff — “foundational to our ability to provide a world-class educational environment” — would be hindered without being able to provide a competitive pension program. 

Wise said the Board of Trustees has charged the administration with finding a set of alternatives for a sustainable supplemental pension plan to recommend to the board at a later date. Finance Professor Jeff Brown, head of the ad-hoc compensation review committee, presented a resolution at Monday’s Senate Executive Committee meeting that will be presented to the full Urbana-Champaign Senate at its meeting this upcoming Monday. The resolution, endorsed by SEC, supports the submission of a resolution to the Board of Trustees calling for the establishment of a flexible supplemental retirement system for all SURS-eligible University system employees.

Wise also said she and administrators have been in “constant communication with legislative leaders,” adding that she, along with President Robert Easter and chancellors Susan Koch and Paula Allen-Meares of the Springfield and Chicago campuses, will meet with legislators Thursday.

“In all honesty, both Provost Adesida and myself had hoped to be able to present you with very specific plans of what we were going to do (regarding pensions), and we unfortunately still don’t know the details of that and so I cannot do that at the present time,” she said.

Richard Laugesen, professor and director of graduate studies in the Mathematics Department, asked Wise about the expected number of retirements this year, remarking that he has heard that the State Universities Retirement System is inundated with a record level of consultations to the point that they can no longer provide individual in-person consultations. 

Wise said that right now, she and the provost do not know how many people are expected to retire this year. However, they do know that, due to the uncertain future of pension plans, “an awful lot of” retirement-age faculty and staff are making plans and trying to make decisions over the next month or two, which is why it is important for the administration to gather as much information as possible.

“Because you’re right — we might face a larger than normal number of retirements this year,” she said.

Adesida also emphasized the importance of the University’s continued commitment to remain competitive with its peer institutions in terms of faculty recruitment and retention.

In regards to the current proposed state budget under discussion in Springfield, Adesida said that Easter, Wise and the other campus’ chancellors have been in regular contact with legislators and have made repeated appearances before legislative committees to make a case for continued state investment in higher education, and in particular, the University of Illinois system.

Adesida added that legislators have made clear the dire consequences of a possible 12.5 percent budget cut that has been discussed — a budget cut that would reduce University funding by nearly $83 million.

“At the moment, we are cautiously optimistic that such a lack of (funding) might be avoided,” he said. 

He added that the state’s current proposal would add $50 million to the state’s Monetary Award Program, which currently provides assistance to more than 6,500 undergraduates on the Urbana campus.

Tyler can be reached at [email protected] and @TylerAllynDavis.