Monday, October 03, 2005

Incomplete Information, or, Why I Give the Runaround

At least once a week, some exasperated professor or department chair accuses me of giving her/him the runaround. It’s usually true.

It comes down to a lack of information. I’m not a subject matter expert in every academic field in my jurisdiction. That’s not unique to me; nobody who oversees more than a few closely related departments could reasonably be expected to be an expert in all of them. That means that when members of the departments that fall outside my own scholarly training come to me with funding requests for the latest gizmos they “need,” I have to make a judgment based on extremely limited information. I usually ask for more information, which they call the runaround.

Which it is, in a way. But it has to be.

At the beginning of the fiscal year (July 1), I get a lump sum to cover ‘contingencies’ in the departments for which I’m responsible. Contingencies, by definition, are unforeseen. As chairs bring me requests, I have to make fairly quick yes/no calls, taking into account my estimation of how candid they’re being (some are fairly restrained, others ‘round up’ pretty aggressively); my estimation of the impact the expense in question will actually have on students; whether or not there’s another possible funding source (i.e. Perkins); and whether I’m spending too quickly and setting a collision course with budgetary reality in, say, May. (I don’t want to get into a situation where we can’t replace a projector bulb for the film class in April because I bought somebody’s vanity project in September.) So I ask questions, I hem and haw, and I try to get a read on each chair’s and professor’s fiscal style.

It’s tricky, because the incentives are all screwy (candor could easily result in getting less than you want), and I don’t have the objective knowledge to know by how much to discount for salesmanship.

Departments have their own funds for anticipated repairs, and a small slush fund for the occasional unforeseen repair (copier machine, piano tuners). They come to me for the above and beyond stuff, which tends to be the hardest to judge.

Any ideas out there? If I could get the incentives right, I suspect that much of the (admittedly arbitrary) judgment would go away. I just haven’t figured out how to get the incentives right.