google-site-verification: googlea33552291e834fff.html Education: Pensions, Politics, and the Failures of Leadership

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Pensions, Politics, and the Failures of Leadership

The Task Force charged with making a silk purse from the sow's war of President Napolitano's pension agreement with Governor Brown issued its report on Friday.  To no one's surprise, the Task Force indicated that the task was impossible; given the limits the Task Force faced most faculty and many staff (especially in the health sciences) hired from July 1, 2016 will face dramatically reduced retirement benefits compared to current employees.  This situation results from two interrelated factors: the actual budget deal that President Napolitano accepted and the desire on the part of Vice-President Brostrom that there be savings produced by the new 2016 tier.  In exchange for a relatively small (about 5% of UCRP's unfunded liability) short-term State contribution to UCRP, UCOP has agreed to reduce the compensation for generations of employees to come.

In this post I am going to do several things:  first, describe the contexts within which the Task Force was presented with its impossible task; second, provide a broad indication of the Task Force Majority's recommendations; and third, describe the process to come with some suggestions and comments on the situation facing faculty and unrepresented staff (as is often the case represented staff may have more control over their situation since they are entitled to collectively bargain on these matters).


You will recall that following UCOP's Fall 2014 proposal for a 5% tuition increase, UC and the Governor's office established the so-called "Committee of Two" to examine the cost structure at the University and secretly negotiated a budget agreement.  (For the Senate's Committee on Planning and Budget's critique of this process see here).  Despite the hullabaloo that accompanied those high level discussions it was clear from the start that the Governor was only interested in cost controls and that the likelihood that the University would gain in substantial ways was quite low.  In the end those expectations were met.  Although UC received a promise from Governor Brown that he would extend his planned base budget increases for an additional 2 years he succeeded both in locking UC in an ongoing under-funding and also in increasing the demands on the University.  In addition, the threat of tuition increases alienated the Legislature and, at least indirectly, led to UC having to agree to expand resident undergraduate enrollment without sufficient funding to pay for the increased costs.  We have commented on the weaknesses of that deal before (here, and here).  But as part of that deal President Napolitano accepted a permanent reduction in pension benefits for future employees in exchange for the Governor's promise of a temporary State contribution to UCRP.s unfunded liability of $436M over three years.

Under the terms of President Napolitano's agreement with the Governor, UC is committed to reducing the cap on the amount of income that can count in calculating an employee's pension benefits in UCRP.  UCRP as you know is a Defined Benefit Plan.  As a result an employee is promised an annual payment after retirement based on a calculation that takes into account an employee's three highest salary years, years of service, and age at retirement.  For employees hired before July 1, 2016,  earnings up to the Federal Cap (now about $265,000) could be counted.  For those hired on July 1, 2016 or later the University is proposing to shift to the PEPRA State Cap (now at $117,020 and tied to inflation). It is important to recognize that these numbers are limits NOT on retirement benefits (which are lower) but on the amount of earnings which can be used to calculate retirement benefits.  Starting with those hired on July 1, 2016 earnings above the PEPRA cap will simply not be included in the calculation.  The Task Force estimates that these new rules will affect roughly 25% of employees hired on or after July 1, 2016 (13-14).  These individuals tend to be concentrated in the Ladder Faculty, the Health Sciences, and Management (13) Because of the large number of represented nurses. about 40% of these individuals will have the ability to engage in bargaining over these terms.

The Task Force was charged with figuring out how to change the retirement system.


The basic parameters of the proposal can be sketched quickly (and you can find them at pages 5-7 of the Report).

The Task Force is proposing that new employees be given two options:

1) The first (Plan A) is hybrid plan.  In it an employee would participate in the Defined Benefit Plan offered by UCRP (with benefits calculated on income up to the PEPRA cap) with a Supplemental Defined Contribution Plan (with University contributions) on income between the PEPRA cap and the Federal Cap.  Employees who choose Plan A would continue to vest after 5 years (as is the case now) and would continue to contribute the same amount annually to their pension as do employees hired before July 1, 2016. Once in Plan A you would be committed to Plan A.  Plan A is proposed as the default choice.  It is important to note that the Defined Benefit portion of this proposal would operate under the conditions imposed on the 2013 Tier--who already had a later retirement age than earlier hires.

2) The Second (Plan B) is a Defined Contribution Plan with both the employee and the University contributing up to the Federal Cap.  Again, the amount that the employee would contribute would be the same as Plan A.  Employees who chose Plan B at hiring would be allowed to switch to Plan A after 5 years of employment (this would be a one-time opportunity).

A Defined Contribution Plan, as you know, promises a certain amount of annual contributions to a pension fund but no obligations as to payouts after retirement. The risk in the latter type of plan is borne by the individual (just as s/he accrues greater portability and the benefit of any investment brilliance).  A DC plan can be better for shorter term employees.  But the employee bears the risk of either poor investment performance or longevity risk.  It is not exactly clear why the Task Force chose to include a DC plan (it was not required by the Budget Act).

The actual details of the proposal are considerably more complex and depend on a variety of options concerning the actual amount of contributions (by the University) to the different plans, the expected annual growth of the value of the DC plans, the costs to the University of choosing between different contribution levels, the age of hires and the distribution of choices between plans, etc.  These questions mean that the actual effects of these two plans are still in flux as both the Task Force Report and Senate Leaders Dan Hare and Jim Chalfant make clear.  So university employees are being asked to respond to a concept without precise numbers on which to make that decision.

But despite the complexities it is clear that the retirement benefits for affected future employees will be dramatically reduced. (for a quick way to see this effect see 84)


The Academic Senate (and I assume staff associations) have until February 15th to formulate responses to the Task Force Report.  The Senate, in turn is asking for comments and responses by February 5th.  I want to underline these dates because they show quite clearly the closed-off nature of the process.  Despite the claims by both UCOP and the Task Force about consultation, faculty and staff at large have less than a month to respond to a proposal that will significantly change the compensation for future employees with an unknown effect on the University as whole.  Given this situation I would argue that the Senate and other faculty and staff organizations proceed on two tracks.

The first, involves a series of technical considerations but is politically the easiest to do.  This option would be to insist that wherever the Task Force provides alternatives in the amount of the University's contributions to retirement income that President Napolitano and the Regents choose the most generous alternative.  In addition, the proposed opportunity to switch from Plan B to Plan A should not be set at 5 years but later to allow for faculty to make the decision after their cases for tenure have been resolved.  The guide provided by Chair Hare and Vice-Chair Chalfant is the best place to start for evaluating these different questions.  But this avenue is the conventional one.

The second and more significant option is to reject the proposal.  I think that the Task Force did the best that they could under the circumstances.  And I recognize that trade-offs often need to be made. But the funding gained under this agreement is not worth the damages done to compensation nor the potential damage done to the University as whole.  The Senate should oppose this deal even if it means returning the initial payment of $96M.  There are a variety of reasons for this:

1) As I indicated above there is no question that acceptance of this deal will reduce retirement benefits for a significant portion of future employees.  Nor is there any reason to think that the University has any real program to make these losses up in other ways.  Indeed, as the Report indicates, the University does not have an accurate idea of total compensation and competitiveness (the last report having been done in 2009).  (64-65)

2) What does the University get in return in financial terms?  Not much.  As I indicated above, the three year state contribution addresses only a very small amount of the unfunded liability. And according to the calculations of the Task Force, establishment of the New Tier under present conditions will speed up the elimination of the unfunded liability minimally if at all.  In fact, under certain scenarios the elimination of the unfunded liability might be faster under the 2013 Tier (with borrowing) than under most of the 2016 options.  (57)  Nor does there seem to be much savings in yearly terms.  And these savings are placed far down the road as individuals hired under the 2016 come to replace the 2013 Tier in retirement.

3) The pension deal and the Task Force proposal mark a crossroads for President Napolitano and also for shared governance within the University.  It is conceivable that the President did not realize the extent to which the pension deal would reduce benefits.  But faced with the Task Force report it is clear that the reduction would be significant and that the financial benefits are limited.  If there is significant opposition to this proposal President Napolitano would have the option of concluding that the deal was a mistake.  If there is significant opposition President Napolitano would also have the option of demonstrating an openness to shared governance on policy rather than just on implementation of policy already decided by senior managers.  It is possible, of course, that UCOP has calculated that given overall market conditions they are willing to weaken recruitment and retention of top faculty and staff (that certainly is the implication of the Governor's position).  But at least we would be clearer on that.


1) If the University wants to consider revamping the retirement system it should, at the least, demand that the State acknowledge its own obligation to funding of UCRP and restart contributions on an ongoing basis.  Much is made of UC's "pension holiday" and it clearly went on too long.  But it is important to remember that there has been a State "pension holiday" from funding UCRP as well (as it funds other public employee retirement systems).  Renewed ongoing funding would enable UC to eliminate the loss in retirement income or total compensation on the one hand and to reinvest in core functions on the other.

I recognize that this is a politically challenging route.  Taking this route would not be without its dangers in terms of relationships with the governor and the legislature or in terms of motivating those who are opposed to all pensions (especially public ones) But the Governor is at best disingenuous on this issue.  If you look at his 2016 budget proposal, he includes UCRP as part of the debts and obligations under Prop 2 when he wants to indicate how much debt the State has.  (3)   But as a matter of policy he refuses to acknowledge that UCRP is a permanent state obligation.  Moreover, even the short-term funding is only a gubernatorial promise at this point.   The Task Force, to be honest, was less than forthright in this regard when they open their report with the statement that "As part of the 2015/2016 Budget agreement between the University, the Governor, and the Legislature, the State will provide a total of $436 million for the University of California Retirement Plan (UCRP) over the next three years." (4)  The Legislature has not engaged in any multi-year promise.

2) If nothing else, the Report of the Task Force is another indication that UCOP's tuition gambit and subsequent "Committee of Two" process was unsuccessful.  Although I commend President Napolitano for actually advocating for increased State funding (something her predecessor was particularly poor at doing) the Tuition strategy seems to have backfired.  The Legislature was alienated, the budget deal that resulted showed little if any improvement from what the Governor had indicated previously, UC has now agreed to take large numbers of additional students without adequate funding, and the pension deal was a mistake.  Moreover the secrecy of the process not only sidelined effective shared governance but, as with the proposal on the governance of the health sciences, precluded an effective mobilization of debate and ideas about the best ways for the University to move forward.  As with so much of the debate over higher education today, efficiency and speed is held in higher regard than thoughtfully considering the long-term implications of policy and practice or aiming to improve the quality in higher education (as opposed to simply lowering spending). Rushing to produce a bad idea just means you produce a bad idea more quickly.

For your convenience:

The Task Force Report can be found HERE.

The Guide to the Report produced by Chair Hare and Vice-Chair Chalfant can be found HERE.

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