University to hire 500 new faculty amid pension concerns

After undergoing a large exodus of faculty in recent years, the University will try to rebuild by hiring 500 new faculty members in the next five to seven years. But recent pension reform legislation could adversely affect that goal.

Since 2008, the number of tenure-system faculty on campus has decreased from 2,100 to 1,856, and all levels of faculty have decreased amid budget and pension uncertainty.

Chancellor Phyllis Wise said this decline had to do with an increasing number of retirements, as well as the University’s unwillingness to replace professors while facing fiscal uncertainty. Many employees have retired early in recent years due to fears of having their retirement benefits depleted by pension reform. But the campus now believes it is able to replenish its academic staff.

This plan, however, could face some turbulence as large number of professors will retire by June 30 before the benefits for employees who retire after July 1 are cut by recent pension reform legislation. 

Around 3,500 to 4,000 University employees will lose significant benefits if they do not retire by July 1, a result of pension reform legislation passed by the Illinois General Assembly in December.

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    The reform made sweeping changes for state employees, including cutting cost-of-living adjustments and raising the retirement age to help save the state’s massively underfunded pension system.

    But one unintentional effect the bill had was significantly cutting the retirement benefits of those already eligible to retire if they do not retire by the time the bill goes into effect on July 1.

    In April, President Robert Easter and Wise warned the University Board of Trustees that a mass exodus of faculty and staff prior to July 1 is very much a reality. The board should address the issue at its meeting Wednesday.

    As a result, Easter said, the University could have trouble finding instructors for all of its courses.

    The declining number of faculty has adversely affected students on campus. Students have had to deal with larger classes, as well as fewer classes taught by faculty. The student-to-faculty ratio, which was hovering around 15.4 students per faculty throughout most of the 2000s, reached 17.6 students per faculty member in 2012.

    Wise said this prompted the University to make a change.

    “The University is all about (the students), and we would not be here if not for our real desire to give you the strongest possible experience here,” Wise said. “Part of that obviously is recruiting the very best faculty. That’s really the foundation of your experience.”

    Although students have had to deal with larger classes, undergraduates are also seeing a higher number of classes with fewer than 20 students. In 2012-13, 42.1 percent of classes had fewer than 20 undergraduates, compared to 34.4 percent in 2011-12.

    Wise also said that the effect would go beyond the classroom, as the professors retiring would lose grant money and have their research disrupted.

    The University is last in the Big Ten in retirement benefits, offering by far the lowest retirement contribution rate. University employees, on average, receive 15 percent of their annual salary in contributions compared to a Big Ten average, excluding Illinois, of 26.4 percent.

    Faculty, however, said the legislature has proved to be an unreliable partner, and the blame for this fiasco falls on the board.

    Chemistry professor Kenneth Suslick said the University’s lack of action thus far may have doomed it heading into the future, and “anyone worth anything in the sciences and engineering” between the ages of 41 and 55 will receive at least one offer from a competing school to go there. With the current pension situation, he said, they will take that offer.

    “This University will be devastated over the next five years,” Suslick said. “The Board of Trustees has failed to protect the University from the state legislature. This University is sinking like the Titanic.”

    Faculty have cited low salaries among their other concerns. The University has been below its peer median in average salary — which comprises 10 of the nation’s top four-year public universities — for at least the past five years, bottoming out at 4.9 percent below the median in 2010, and inching up to 1.2 percent below in 2013.

    Overall, the Urbana campus is the 16th-best paying four-year public university for full professors, 40th-best for associate professors and 10th-best for assistant professors, according to a recent report by the American Association of University Professors.

    In a report at the beginning of the year, the faculty also pushed for improving facilities on campus.

    The new hires are expected to come from a variety of areas and will be hired in six clusters: energy and the environment; health and wellness; social equality and cultural understanding; economic development; education; and information and technology.

    Johnathan can be reached at [email protected] and @jhett93.