Pension reform solution further complicates University faculty recruitment and retention

By Daily Illini Editorial Board

It was only in July that Gov. Pat Quinn halted Illinois lawmakers’ pay (later deemed unconstitutional) for failing to agree on a pension reform solution that has evolved into a nearly $100 billion deficit. Last week, nearly five months later, Illinois finally introduced and passed a plan to fully fund the pension system by the end of Fiscal Year 2044.

Although a set goal is reassuring, and not to mention the bipartisanship of a consistently split General Assembly, the effects on Illinois’ nine public universities are unclear. In 2011, the State owed these nine universities more than $550 million. 

But the University receives the largest appropriation from the State, thus resulting in the State also owing the University the most money, about $456 million.

University President Robert Easter, in coordination with the chancellors at the other three Illinois campuses, expressed his disappointment and opposition to the reform bill. Although they acknowledge the need for retirement security and supplemental retirement programs, the process of recruiting and retaining faculty may be the hardest hit facet of Illinois’ pension reform. 

As a University that has a high focus on research, it is pertinent that we bring in faculty that will continue to move our status as a top-research institution forward. 

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A salary cap of $109,971 will be applied to all employees. Faculty exceeding the cap will likely not receive fair pension in return; there are currently 2,984 University employees who make more than the salary cap. 

The irony is that the faculty with the largest salaries, and arguably those who make the largest contributions — whether research- or teaching-related — are receiving the least number of pension benefits in return. Prospective faculty members at the University may be inhibited by the idea that once they achieve a particular status of prestige at the University, they are no longer eligible for fair pensions in return.

Professor Harriet Murav, president of the Campus Faculty Association, said in a Dec. 3 Daily Illini article that someone in the middle of his career who is planning his retirement would not be attracted to the school. 

The University, to maintain competitiveness within the State and among other Big Ten universities, plans on recruiting 500 new employees over the next five years, according to the University’s new Strategic Plan. 

But the first problem will be recruiting “old,” top talent, that will likely flock to other Big Ten universities because they already make salaries close to or above the new salary cap. The second problem will be retaining new talent, who may have less incentive to stay at the University once their contributions and consequent salaries near the cap. 

Older faculty at the University who have contributed a large amount to the University may feel as if the cap is leaving them in the dust. 

But the effects of the salary cap go beyond fair pensions for high-earning faculty. If we can’t recruit top faculty, then we are missing the chance to move the University’s status as a top research and land grant institution forward. 

Our University loses out just as much as our faculty does.

Sure, implementing pension reform in a state that has been struggling with $100 billion in unfunded pensions for years is essential. But as Rep. Naomi Jakobsson, D-103, and Sen. Mike Frerichs, D-52, voted against pension reform, we wonder: Is this also in the best interest of the State’s public universities?