University to hire 500 new faculty after significant drop

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, including 170 in the upcoming academic year.

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 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.

“When faculty left, we did not use all of the money that we were able to save to recruit immediately because we weren’t sure exactly where the budget would be for the next year,” Wise said. “So in collaboration with each of the colleges and some central money, we believe that we can recruit new faculty.”

The Visioning Future Excellence Report, which was published in July, identified six different cluster areas for the new faculty members: energy and the environment; health and wellness; social equality and cultural understanding; economic development; education; and information and technology. The University will start hiring the 170 faculty members in the first three cluster areas.

Campus spokeswoman Robin Kaler said exactly what these clusters entail is still being formalized, but “you’ll likely see groups that have humanists and creative artists working alongside engineers and scientists.”

Effect on students

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 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 you (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.”

Wise said the academic landscape has changed over the past five years, and, while the University plans to replenish faculty members, it may not do so in the same areas where faculty members were lost.

“What we want to pay real attention to is where is the student demand? What majors are the most popular? And are we understaffed in those areas? In which case we’ll be recruiting new faculty into those areas,” Wise said.

The College of Engineering is one area where student demand has increased significantly in recent years. The college rose from 7,307 undergraduates in fall 2007 to 10,039 students in 2013. At the same time, the college had 390 tenure-system faculty members in 2007, compared to 368 in 2012-13.

Admissions director Stacey Kostell said Engineering has started having larger freshman classes because of a nationwide increase in demand for engineering.

In ICES forms at the end of each semester, students have continually given faculty members higher scores than teaching assistants, a sign that they prefer being taught by faculty, according to data obtained from the University’s Division of Management Information.

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

Pensions concerns

Wise and University President Robert Easter admit that the University may have trouble attracting new faculty members with an uncertain pension program.

“Among our main concerns across all three campuses is the difficulty in recruiting and retaining faculty and staff without a reliable pension component in the compensation-and-benefits package we can offer,” Easter said in an email. “We’re in a highly competitive employment market, and the people we want to keep and those we hope to attract want an equitable, reasonable and reliable pension benefit in planning their futures. We know that we’ve lost good people because of the state’s pension instability.”

Faculty members hired after January 2011 are grouped into the Tier II pension system, which requires retirees to be 67 and have 10 years of experience. The Tier I program requires retirees to either be 55 and have 35 years of experience or 60 and have 10 years of experience. The Tier II system also has fewer benefits compared with the Tier I pension system, including a lower cost-of-living adjustment and a pension cap. The two major state pension plans, the Cullerton and Madigan plans, both neglect Tier II pension reform, which could hurt the University in attracting new faculty who would fall under the Tier II program.

Wise said, because the plan to hire faculty takes place over multiple years, she hopes the University won’t have to worry about pension instability.

“It is our hope that the pension challenges will be solved very soon,” Wise said. “Our faculty have proposed a six-point plan that the legislature is actually considering right now as one of the options because we realize that it puts us at a disadvantage if we don’t have a stable pension system.”

The Institute of Government and Public Affairs proposed the six-point plan, which has been endorsed by the Senate Executive Committee’s ad hoc Task Force on Faculty Issues and Concerns.

Task force leader Nicholas Burbules said the IGPA plan is the “best of a bad set of options” because it is the only plan to address Tier II pensions.

Going forward, all of the pension reform plans would transfer the cost to universities, though it would be a gradual change. In 2013, retirees from the University of Illinois system, which includes all three campuses, will receive $563.9 million in pensions, a number that will likely continue to rise in the future.

Christophe Pierre, vice president for academic affairs, told the Board of Trustees at its Sept. 12 meeting that these increasing liabilities, as well as decreasing revenue sources, make it likely that reallocation of University funds will be necessary in years to come. He said cooperation will be necessary in this reallocation.

“This cannot be done in a vacuum,” Pierre said. “It has to be done with deans, department chairs and even more importantly, with faculty members.”

Faculty salaries

The University has made strides in recent years to remain competitive with its peers in faculty salary.

In Fall 2013, the average faculty member’s salary increased 4.16 percent from a year ago. The raise comes from a University-wide salary program that increased salaries 2.75 percent, though many faculty members in the arts and humanities, who had less-competitive salaries, receive extra raises, Wise told the Urbana-Champaign Senate on Sept. 16.

“Over the last three years, we have made a concerted effort to increasing faculty salaries in order to catch up with our peers,” she said. “We are hoping that with the additional money we put in this year we can catch up and actually be at the median.”

The University has been below its peer median — which comprises ten 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.

“Again, we are in a competitive employment market and want to provide a merit-based salary program for faculty and staff in order to recruit and retain high-quality personnel,” Easter said. “We’ve been able to do that for a couple of years now, after several years with no salary program and at least one in which many employees effectively had pay cuts as a result of a mandatory furlough. Ideally, we’ll be able to provide a salary program again a year from now.”

Other faculty concerns

The Task Force on Faculty Issues and Concerns gave a presentation to the Urbana-Champaign Senate at its first meeting of the year on Sept. 16, rolling out proposed changes that could be instrumental in the retention and recruitment of faculty.

The faculty concerns are not new to the campus; task force leaders Burbules and Randy McCarthy butted heads at this time last year over whether the faculty should unionize to help address these concerns.

But McCarthy and Burbules put aside their differences in generating this report, which was endorsed by both Wise and Provost Ilesanmi Adesida.

Many of the committee’s recommendations focused on making compensation  — in the form of salary and other benefits, such as travel and research budgets — in line with peers.

McCarthy said the University needs to upgrade its facilities in order to maintain a healthy campus and needs reliable funds for upgrades, a recommendation that would include a one-time cost of $213 million, in addition to $43 million annually. As the “public face” of the University, facilities help attract students and faculty, according to the report.

The committee also recommended changes to the review process for tenure-track faculty, as well as other measures to help make the University more consistent at all levels.

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