Office of the President
Testimony before the Joint Legislative Audit Committee Hearing
President Kevin P. Reilly, University of Wisconsin System
November 29, 2006
Good morning. Thank you, Senator Roessler, Representative Jeskewitz, and members of the committee.
I sincerely appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today about the work we have done to reform our personnel policies and practices, and ongoing efforts in that regard, which this audit will help move along.
As you know, the Board of Regents has endorsed a bold action plan for the University of Wisconsin System – something we’re calling the “Growth Agenda for Wisconsin.” Our goal, working with all of you, is to prepare the state for success in a knowledge economy. In addition to expanding student access, boosting student success, and contributing to economic growth, another key component of that plan is preserving peoples’ trust in this public university.
To maintain trust, we must be open to examination and willing to change. In that spirit, we are happy to discuss the issues raised by the Legislative Audit Bureau.
This morning, I will summarize actions we’ve already taken since the release of this report just last month. I will also attempt to clarify some of the lingering confusion around limited appointments, back-up provisions, and concurrent appointments.
Finally, I will address questions about sick leave and vacation reporting by UW System employees, and touch on other issues raised in the LAB report.
First, let me quickly reflect on my testimony before this committee more than one year ago. On October 18, 2005, I informed this committee that the UW System had been working diligently with the Board of Regents and the Chancellors to review and, where necessary, reform our policies and procedures.
At that time, we had taken several significant actions. Most notably, we had suspended the practice of offering of new back-up appointments to limited employees, as of July 26, 2005. I also reported that we now require my direct approval of any settlements involving the termination of UW System employees with limited appointments.
I also described steps to strengthen our internal audit function, along with measures to beef-up our sick-leave policy for unclassified staff by requiring written certification from a healthcare provider for sick-leave absences of more than five days. Responding to concerns about inappropriate and excessive sick-leave usage, these changes made the UW System’s sick-leave policy the most stringent of all state agencies.
Discussing these issues last year, I illustrated how the UW System’s ongoing cooperation with the Legislative Audit Bureau reflected our respect for Jan Mueller and her staff, and our sincere commitment to embracing and implementing meaningful reforms. Today, we are here to convey the same message of respect, collaboration, transparency and accountability.
Actions taken since the report in October
Armed with insight provided by the LAB’s external perspective, we have already worked with the UW Board of Regents to charge a Special Regents Committee to address the audit’s findings. The committee is chaired by former Speaker of the Assembly, Regent Tom Loftus.
Other members include:
- Regent Jeffrey Bartell
- Dennis Shaw, an academic staff member from UW-Stout
- Regent Eileen Connolly-Keesler
- Regent Judith Crain
- Professor Chris Sadler of UW-Stevens Point
- Chancellor Martha Saunders of UW-Whitewater
This new committee met for the first time on November 17th and will provide counsel on how we can best address and implement all of the LAB’s recommendations. This will be done in full cooperation with our standing Fringe Benefit Advisory Committee, a group of faculty and staff representatives which advises me on fringe-benefit matters related to unclassified staff.
As Regent Loftus and his committee members begin their careful examination of the LAB’s recommendations, I have directed the 14 UW Chancellors, in collaboration with their provosts and human-resources staffs, to perform a detailed review of cases where the LAB raised specific questions about the rates at which UW System employees utilize and report sick-leave and vacation time.
They have already provided information about the 197 cases where UW System faculty and staff members reported no vacation for the three-year period from January 2003 through December 2005. On that point, I can tell you that the 197 people in question included many part-time employees – some with as little as a 20% appointment. Over the same timeframe, these employees collectively forfeited some 5,750 days of unused vacation time.
We are also looking into cases where unclassified faculty and staff reported five or fewer vacation days over the same three-year period, and cases where employees reported no sick leave during that timeframe.
The campuses have already responded to these extensive data requests, and our in-depth analysis is underway. In some cases, corrective actions have already been taken. For example, in the instances where 47 academic staff members inappropriately reported colleague coverage in lieu of sick leave, we have already retroactively corrected their leave records.
In response to actions by the Board of Regents, we have established a yearly internal review of all UW System “limited” appointments, to ensure compliance with the revised Regent policies on the use of this employment category and appropriate compliance with all related policies.
On the matter of “consultant” titles, I have directed the UW institutions to provide information on 24 consultants who are – or were – earning annualized salaries of $65,000 or more, to ensure the consultant title is being used appropriately. The campuses are also reviewing the appropriateness of using the consultant title for other consultants as outlined in Appendix 4 of the LAB report. In some instances, the consultant title was not appropriate, and we are taking action to ensure that it will not be used in these ways again.
With respect to sabbaticals for our faculty members, I have charged the UW System Office of Academic Affairs to address the LAB’s recommendations.
I should note that faculty sabbaticals are a valuable and effective means of retaining top-notch professors, and an important component of their professional development.
More important, we know that sabbaticals enhance our overall teaching, research and public service missions, giving faculty members the occasional opportunity to re-focus, re-energize, and re-tool within their evolving fields of expertise. That is why you’ll find that virtually all higher education institutions – both private and public – offer some type of faculty sabbatical program. I would add that only about 3 percent of our faculty are selected for this opportunity each year.
When I meet with this committee in June, I will share the details of a new standardized sabbatical reporting form, which will ensure that all participating faculty members understand fully their obligations under state law and Regents’ policy.
On the topic of salaries for administrators who return to their faculty roles, I have already required all UW institutions to seek approval from the UW System Office of Human Resources for those new pay rates, to ensure that the new salaries are consistent with faculty members of the same rank and years of service within their academic departments.
Finally, two items on the matter of alleged criminal activity.
First, we have advanced changes to the disciplinary rules process that would expedite cases involving allegations and investigations of serious criminal activity by university employees.
Such matters arise very, very rarely among our faculty and staff, but when they do, we want to bring them to an appropriate, fair and just conclusion more quickly than we have sometimes been able to in the past. I will recommend to the Regents at their meeting next week a new policy that will enable us to do just that.
Also next week, we will bring to the Regents an entirely new policy to require criminal background checks for all new hires in the UW System. If this is adopted by the Regents, we will work closely with our faculty and staff to have specific implementation procedures approved and in-place no later than May 1, 2007.
With that, you can see that it’s been a very busy 47 days for us since the LAB report was released. I think you’ll agree that the long list of actions I just described reflects a sincere commitment by this university to openness and responsiveness.
Limited, back-up and concurrent appointments
Regent President David Walsh has provided written communication to the co-chairs that specifically addresses the topic of limited, back-up, and concurrent appointments. Regent President Walsh is here with me today to provide any clarification you might want from the Board’s perspective.
Before the November 2005 Regent action, the terms “back-up” and “concurrent” were, at times, used interchangeably by the university when referring to certain “limited” appointees – not to be confused with “limited-term” employees.
We have since attempted to clear away some of the fog, but let me run through the glossary of terms:
- Limited academic staff members are “at will” employees who serve at the pleasure of the appointing authority.
- A subset of limited employees hold “concurrent” appointments. By law, employees who move from existing faculty or academic staff jobs into a “limited” appointment carry with them the right to return to that faculty or staff position when their limited appointment is ended.
- Prior to July 2005, some limited appointees who came from outside the university were granted “back-up” appointments – specific contractual employment protections in exchange for accepting these “at will” positions within the university.
Again, let me be absolutely clear – that practice of offering back-up appointments ended definitively in July 2005.
The correspondence from Regent President Walsh clarifies these terms in much greater specificity.
Regent President Walsh also presents the following data:
- In November 2005, we had 698 “limited” employees who held “concurrent” appointments, in accordance with Wisconsin Statutes. At the same time, we had 321 “limited” employees who held contractual “back-up” positions.
- Since that time, 106 new employees have been hired into limited appointments across the UW System, generally replacing people who previously held the same jobs with some type of concurrent or back-up protection. In each of these 106 cases, we hired people into these “at-will” roles without any back-up provision or statutory protections.
If we previously had 321 limited employees with contractual back-up appointments, and we’ve replaced 106 of them with employees who have no such rights, that’s a decline of approximately 33 percent. As people retire, separate from service, or move into new UW positions, this number will naturally decline further.
I acknowledge the opportunity for misinterpretation that arises from confusing and seemingly inter-changeable sets of personnel terminology. Our goal is to achieve a clear, consistent, and shared understanding of the facts, so that we can clarify the controls we have indeed applied to the scrutiny and elimination of contractual back-up appointments.
Sick Leave and Vacation Reporting
On the matter of sick leave and vacation reporting by unclassified UW faculty and staff – I should first state that I believe, as I’m sure you do, that our faculty and staff, as a group, are ethical, honest, dedicated, and productive. These are qualities we should all celebrate and reward.
The LAB report acknowledged that the university work environment is different from that of other workplaces. In their report, they wrote:
“UW System workdays are scheduled according to academic rather than business practices and typically include nonstandard work hours to accommodate research and related activities.”
That observation is certainly true. We believe that these non-standard work schedules and academic settings are one major contributing factor in explaining the lower-than-average utilization of sick leave, especially among our faculty.
There are other contributing factors. For instance, faculty and staff who hold 9-month academic-year appointments have the unique ability to defer elective medical procedures to the summer, when they may not be on the payroll at all.
Comparing our usage to that in state agencies can be problematic. To my knowledge, there are no state employees similar to the UW’s 9-month faculty. However, there are fair comparisons to be made with our 12-month unclassified staff.
The average UW faculty or staff member with a 12-month appointment carries forward about 8½ unused sick days in a given year, while comparable professional state employees carry forward nearly 10 unused days.
In the coming months, we’ll undertake a careful examination of the “cause-and-effect” relationship between utilization rates and the conversion value of unused sick leave to pay for healthcare after retirement.
At the same time, we’ll examine research that examines how sick-leave utilization is affected by salary level, age, job autonomy, professional status, and other factors across all private and public sectors.
We will come back to you by the LAB’s required deadline of June 1 with the results of that careful review. Along the way, I will ask Regent Loftus and his special committee to consult with you and other legislative leaders on your review of the state’s sick leave conversion program.
In closing, let me refer to today’s Wisconsin State Journal, which cites the outstanding work of three faculty members:
- Stacey Schultz-Cherry, whose work on “peptides” may stem the spread of bird flu.
- Nancy Mathews, who has helped us better understand how CWD is transmitted among the deer population.
- Paul Weimer, who is exploring new ways to use the by-products of ethanol fermentation.
The State Journal editors remind us to “never lose sight of UW-Madison’s broad success,” in the midst of particular controversies.
I hope that we will never lose sight of how the entire UW System contributes to the growth of our economy, the strength of our communities and the vitality of our entire state.
Whatever we do in the way of reforming policies and management practices, we must preserve a system that helps our public university recruit and retain gifted teachers and researchers like Professor Schultz-Cherry, Professor Mathews and Dr. Weimer.
I reiterate my sincere appreciation to the Legislative Audit Bureau for their hard work on this report and the valuable perspective they have provided. We will report back to this committee in June with specific action plans for implementing each of the LAB’s recommendations.
For now, I’d welcome the opportunity for members of the committee to share their advice on how the University of Wisconsin System can best respond to these issues and recommendations.