Statewide civil service reform to benefit classified staff

It’s been a long time coming, but reform for Ohio’s classified civil service employees is finally on the way, says Rebecca Ferguson, associate vice president for human resources.

An effort begun in 1996 by concerned legislators and human resource officers in higher education culminated last December in the signing of House Bill 187 by outgoing Gov. Bob Taft. The law, which went into effect July 1, charges the Inter-University Council (IUC) presidents to appoint a committee to create guidelines and standards to be used by the boards of trustees of four-year colleges and universities concerning matters of governance.

“These are the standards we will live by,” Ferguson said.

Human resource officers at state universities greeted the bill’s passage with enthusiasm, she said. The Human Resources Committee of the IUC was granted its request to take the lead on identifying the relevant issues and proposing the standards. That IUC subcommittee, co-chaired by James Kemper of Ohio University and Larry Lewellen of Ohio State, associate vice presidents for human resources at their respective universities, began working intensively July 1 and will take recommendations back to the IUC presidents by Oct. 1. Though the time frame is short, the group has been involved in the issue for more than a decade and is well familiar with its aspects. In addition, the general counsels of the participating universities are providing valuable support, Ferguson said. They include attorneys from OSU, Kent State and Ohio University.

“Our group believes that change for institutions needs to be done in a controlled and incremental fashion,” Ferguson said. “We’re also adamant that we will not do anything without collaborating with the constituents.”

Reasons for reform
The personnel administrators are eager for the update because “rules defined in Chapter 124 of the Ohio Revised Code have not met the strategic needs of the universities nor kept current with the pace of change in the modern university workplace,” according to a February 2007 IUC Human Resources Committee report. A 1999 IUC report cited a need for greater efficiency in many aspects of state government. The human resource-related issues driving the need for modernization, then and now, include the:
• changing labor market—universities need greater speed and agility to compete for the most talented and diverse staff;
• changing workplace—the nature of staff job duties has shifted dramatically over the past decades, requiring new conceptualization of the employment arrangement;
• need for efficiency—greater efficiencies are needed on our campuses if universities are to be nimble enough to adopt world-class practices and attract top-caliber faculty and staff.

“We want to take a commonsense approach that will cut through and streamline processes for employees while maintaining protections,” Ferguson said.

The House bill was written broadly enough to allow the IUC subcommittee to incorporate many areas that need to be addressed, including classification and compensation plans; processes for recruitment, selection and appointment, performance, discipline and termination, and layoff and reduction in workforce; as well as paid and holiday leave, benefit programs and appeals processes.

BGSU and some of the other state institutions already have in place much of what the guidelines will call for, Ferguson noted, but “we hope the changes in the law will enable us to establish consistency and ‘best practices’ statewide.”

Importantly, it allows universities to craft their regulations as best fit their institutions while maintaining standards. A key element will be a requirement for universities to work in conjunction with those affected to develop policies for their campuses. “We want to ensure that when discussing any changes, each institution consults with its staff and community, posts proposed changes and holds forums and focus groups,” Ferguson stressed.

Possibilities for improvement open up
One longstanding area of concern is the ability to build a catastrophic leave bank to which classified staff could contribute. Prior to July 1, classified staff could withdraw from such banks but could not contribute to them, which has deterred state universities from creating the banks. The changes in the law now permit four-year state universities to have programs that all constituents could contribute to and draw from, Ferguson said.

Lorrie Sawaie, immediate past president of BGSU’s Classified Staff Council (CSC) and secretary to the Ohio Staff Council for Higher Education, said, “We’re looking forward to being part of the decision-making process here at BGSU. We feel this will be a good way to bring equality to all four-year, state-funded universities across the state of Ohio.”

CSC and Administrative Staff Council have been following the effort’s progress, and members from both staff groups will serve on an ad hoc committee to create a catastrophic leave bank. Joe Luthman, Information Technology Services, will chair the committee.

Next steps
After the IUC Human Resources Subcommittee presents its findings to the IUC presidents in October, the state’s 14 four-year colleges and universities may begin rewriting their policies under the new guidelines. The committee plans to provide campuses templates of resolutions they may use when adopting the concept of reform.

Ferguson will present an update to the BGSU Board of Trustees at its October meeting.

July 30, 2007