Pension Fears Prompt Surge of Retirements at Ill. Universities

September 21, 2012 ( Worries about looming changes in the state’s beleaguered pension system have prompted a surge in retirements across Illinois’ public universities.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that in some instances, retirement rates have doubled as longtime faculty and staff members have rushed out the door in time to lock down pensions, based on current payout levels. The shrinking labor forces are creating, at a minimum, temporary staffing headaches. And in other cases, they are forcing schools to increase class size and reconsider the services they offer.  

The state has dug an $85 billion hole in the pension system. It may take 30 years to get out of it,” said Glenn Poshard, president of Southern Illinois University, according to the news report.  

The university’s campuses in Edwardsville and Carbondale have witnessed substantial increases in retirements. The Edwardsville campus saw 115 employees to leave this year, compared with an average of 74 who have retired over the previous three years. At the university’s Carbondale campus, 294 employees took retirement this year, compared with an average of 130 over the previous three years.  

“There are real concerns that they are going to lose the benefits they’ve worked so long for,” Poshard said.

The newspaper said what makes the losses on both campuses particularly tough is the fact that the schools are in the midst of a three-year hiring freeze as they cope with state cuts in higher education spending. That means most of the early losses will have to be absorbed on campus.  

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign also has seen a spike in retirements, losing 464 employees. Typically, the school loses around 220 a year. For now, it is coping with the loss of veteran professors by hiring part-time adjuncts and retirees, but that is only a stopgap measure while the school completes the hiring of new full-time faculty members, spokeswoman Robin Kaler told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  

So far, there’s been nothing close to an agreement on how to close the $85 billion gap between the state retirement system’s assets and obligations—which has helped Illinois earn one of the lowest credit ratings in the nation. Lawmakers do not yet have a plan to fix it and are not expecting to take up the issue until after the November election.