For weeks, it's the topic that's drawn thousands of UW-Madison employees into meetings, late night forums and heated debates.
It's not politics. It's not a culture clash.
It's human resources.
Yes, human resources. Usually confined to first-day orientations and annual job reviews, the topic is getting top billing as UW-Madison overhauls its system of titles, compensation, benefits and employee categories for about 20,000 people, including student employees.
"This is really an unprecedented opportunity that we've had to have a campuswide conversation about how best to make sure we can attract, develop and maintain talent," said Robert Lavigna, director of UW-Madison's Office of Human Resources.
University officials sought the opportunity to create a new pay and classification system, and Gov. Scott Walker gave it to them in the current two-year budget. The University of Wisconsin System is doing a separate revamp. Changes will begin to be implemented in July 2013, pending the Legislature's approval.
Eleven teams made up of about 150 people developed recommendations for the new system, gathered feedback and are now revising the recommendations.
But after a faculty and staff group, called the Wisconsin University Union, complained that the groups were deliberating in private, the university opened the meetings to the public. Officials have also held at least 35 forums for employees, including four at 11 p.m. for night employees.
One of the problems is that the UW System is governed by personnel rules that treat it like a state agency, Lavigna said. Instead, UW-Madison is competing nationally, sometimes globally, for faculty and staff.
"We're doing things here that are unique to the university," he said. "It's a whole different set of workforce issues here than you would find in state government."
At UW-Madison, some employees are called "classified," which means the jobs may appear elsewhere in state government — such as an accountant — while others are "unclassified," meaning their jobs are unique to higher education — such as a professor.
That creates a divided workforce and causes confusion, officials say.
For instance, an Information Systems Development Services Specialist is categorized as classified while an Information Processing Consultant is not. The only difference in duties is to whom those employees provide computer services.
But the two staff members get different amounts of vacation and sick leave, and are recruited and assessed differently. In addition, classified employees are eligible to collectively bargain.
An initial proposal to fold all classified staff in with academic staff was met with criticism because it would result in some employees losing collective bargaining rights.
A work group responded with a compromise: only classified employees who earn salaries be combined with academic staff. Hourly classified employees would be in a different category called "university staff."
The work teams are also recommending that UW-Madison use a "market-based compensation system" to set salaries. But David Ahrens, a recently retired researcher who is the spokesman for the Wisconsin University Union, said private sector labor market comparisons could reduce compensation for university employees.
Lavigna said one of the university's parameters is that no one's base pay will be reduced as a result of the new system.
Seven of the work groups have turned in revised recommendations. The other four are expected to publish recommendations on Tuesday.
Then a draft proposal will be submitted to campus in early September, with the goal of getting UW Board of Regents approval at its December meeting.