Thursday, February 07, 2008


Of Owl Pellets and Cynical Wisdom: A Budgetary Snark

One of the real shocks in moving from Proprietary U to a cc was the change in budget rules. I ran into that yet again this week.

At PU, there was one operating budget for the entire campus. It was overseen by a Vice President I'll call Darth Vader. DV was solely responsible for the whole darn thing; my budgetary authority as a dean capped out at twenty-five dollar petty cash reimbursements. (Even those were only available on what seemed like alternate Tuesdays when Jupiter aligned with Mercury.) When I wanted money spent on, say, owl pellets for the Environmental Science class, I had to go to DV and plead my case. It was annoying and sometimes degrading – the thought crossed my mind, I'm begging for owl poop? -- but if you learned which arguments to make, you could get the job done.

At the cc, the rules are entirely different. Here, the college is divided into administrative units, each with its own divisions, departments, subunits, and the like. Each little area has its own budget, though some of the budget items (notably full-time employees' salaries and benefits) are administered out of a central budget. Certain rules are college-wide – don't get me started – but subdirectors and sub-sub-directors often treat their budgets as if they were their own money. Worse, budgets are set two years (count 'em!) in advance, and budget change requests are taken as prima facie signs of management failure. So some folks get very, very good at leveraging the rules to benefit their own little subunits, even to the detriment of the college as a whole.

This week some folks on campus are snickering that they took me for a ride. I think they need to get lives. You be the judge.

Age and heavy use finally caught up to the photocopier in one of my departments. It died, and we don't have money in this year's budget for a new one. (I may be able to find money in next year's, but that won't be relevant until August or September at best.) So the faculty there are making do as best they can, running back and forth to the print shop (thereby draining another budget) or just doing without. The folks are running a little ragged, and there's an actual impact in the classroom.

Another college subunit – not in my purview – was able to replace its fading-but-not-dead copier this year. So it put out an all-campus email offering the erstwhile machine free to a good home. I took it, sending it to the needy department as a stopgap.

To the martinets, this was painfully, hopelessly naïve.

My mistake? Copiers are considered hazardous waste, so there's a disposal fee to get rid of them. By adopting the Clinton-era machine, I was foolishly taking that disposal fee on myself, thereby unburdening the other unit. The astute thing to do, I'm told, would have been to let this go by, thereby sparing my budget the disposal fee. Tell my faculty to keep skating until Fall, and cackle at my cleverness in dodging a budgetary bullet. Don't worry about the classroom.

To my mind, solving the problem in the classroom in a way that doesn't cost the college as a whole any more money is a good thing. Whether the disposal fee comes from their budget or mine, ultimately, it comes from the college. If we can squeeze another six months out of a machine we've already paid for, and provide a better classroom experience by doing it, I consider that a win. The disposal fee is ultimately the same either way.


It's a small thing, but it's one of those Dilbert-ish moments that makes you wonder what other silly inefficiencies are really subsidizing egos. Back in the day, Piotr Sloterdijk defined cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness,” and I think he had a point. In this system, my move registers as naïve, and I look like someone's dupe. But it was the right move. The 'higher wisdom' of turfy, me-first cynicism is, at bottom, false. The college isn't here for its administrative divisions. The divisions are here for the college. But acting on that big-picture knowledge requires seeing beyond the silly little chess game of the day.

Am I missing something here? I know it's a minor case, and it's not the first time I've seen it, but it strikes me as symptomatic of something deeply dysfunctional.

It solves the copier-less department's problem, at least in the short term, right? Sounds like a good move to me. Maybe it depends on the disposal fee? If it's MASSIVE, maybe that's a problem? (Which you have to spend on that department's dead copier? Any way to trade that over?)
Speaking from the perspective of one of many student victims left holding the bag in the High Stakes Academic Ego Game, I for one, applaud you for finding a SOLUTION now (rather than later) to a problem that was ultimately affecting the quality of the classroom experience.

Is there no way, in these days of budding green enlightenment, that the equipment can be "stewarded" back to the manufacturer for a lower or no cost?
You never "lose" when you put students first!
I'm sorry to say the above comment is not always true. Yes, the students, and perhaps the faculty may "win," but "you," the individual dean or manager or whatever, lose. And the "loss" will manifest itself in the form of a budgetary short fall, which will be made up through extra effort and work.

I'm not saying that the extra work/effort isn't worth it for the sake of doing the right thing. I'm saying that the "logic" born of the structure and design of the institution says it isn't worth it.
Straight up, you did the right thing.

By solving one problem, you created another one, but it's not entirely unsolvable.

How long do you have to dispose of a dead copier? The "original" dead copier is gone. Was it's disposal budgeted for? Let's assume it was and that money has been spent. When was the original copier's disposal fee budgeted? At the time of purchase? Did it sit on the books for "X" years "just in case?"

What I would try to do is "float" a disposal fee. When the new-to-you copier dies, throw a sheet over it and make yourself a nice table until the next budget cycle you can get the fee on the books. Use the fee to dump it at that point, even though that fee would be for the for-real-new copier you bought with the new budget.

Save your sheet for when it dies; apply, rinse, repeat.

The part that strikes me as insane is that you simply have to live without a copier because it's "not in the budget" as if the budget created two years ago is some magical document that can predict the future. Clearly it cannot. That there's no institutional solution for dealing with unpredictable copier deaths (and other legitimate emergency needs) is problematic.

Note -- I'm not putting that on you, Dead Dad. Just reflecting on the fact that there should be some way to deal with a situation like this without just making the faculty "live without it" and making the students suffer as a result.

I'm with the others -- kudos for filling the need right now, and biting the bullet knowing you will have to find another solution for another problem later. If nothing else, you've given yourself more time to find a solution to a problem that will occur down the road, and you've solved a problem that was occurring RIGHT NOW. That strikes me as smart management.
Several thoughts - first, ignore the snarkers and when they snigger, look down your nose at them and say, "I had a problem that I needed to solve now - this was the cheapest way to do it. When's the last time you were able to manage something like that? Hmmmm?" Second, I'm hoping that very soon a Clinton era machine is the most modern and up-to-date 2009 instrument.
Yep, definitely a good move, especially this early in the semester. Were the copy costs at the copy place higher than the ones in the department? I'd suspect they might be. Therefore, maybe you've saved some money there. I don't know if that savings can be used toward the disposal fee, but at least there might be some financial savings in there as well.
this is normal.. pettifogging bureaucratic infighting is the norm when budgets are set at the department level. Never mind the good of the company, how can I make my numbers look good ? is the question on every 'dressed in a little brief authority' administrator's mind.

Bravo to you for doing the right thing.
This may be hopelessly naive in a time of programmed obsolescence, but is there any chance that the dead copier might have still-useful parts for the elderly copier? In that case it might be worth keeping it around, which doesn't save you the extra disposal fee but postpones it for a while.

Otherwise, there's always the Office Space solution. . . .
Why yes, you have spotted the core problem of budgeting as it's handled at my institution at least. All sorts of silly subterfuges get perpetrated , and hundreds and hundreds of hours of people's time wasted every month, finding a way to save one's own unit a dime at the expense of someone else's. And it is stupid, stupid, stupid.

For example. In theory our university is deeply into interdisciplinary studies. In practice each department has its own budget which is based at least partly on enrollments. And if you teach an interdisciplinary class with a colleague from another department, the university will not let you either split the enrollments down the middle, each department to take half, or split the enrollments according to the majors of the students. One department gets to count all the students; the other department gets to count none of them.

But each department is supplying 1/2 a teacher for the class. One department is getting to count all the students, so it's a good deal for them. The other department has just expended 1/2 a teacher and got no enrollments in return.

So how often do interdisciplinary classes get taught? You'd be right to think that the answer is "never". Because with all the university rhetoric about the importance of synergistic interdisciplinary yada yada, they are completely unwilling to alter the regulation that says that you can't split the enrollments down the middle when 2 departments are teaching the same class.
Dean Dad, thanks for explaining to me why a dead copier has sat in my office for 2 years. Know I know....
First, I find it extraordinarily amusing to read that an administrator who complains about the long time it takes faculty to reach a decision in shared governance is now complaining about the slow pace of the "administration" as if he were not part of it!

You have in excess of a two year budget cycle? (I say "in excess" because you remark that items that are expected to vary are carried forward by default. That means that next year's budget was mostly determined three or more years ago.) Our budget for next year is being set right now, and anything not carved in tenure stone or part of an N-year project is open for discussion. Not quite zero-based budgeting, but close.

What you did was right, but you need to extend your concern with inefficiency to the people who are making it hard for you to do your job of making it possible for us to do ours.

Oh, and next time, lease it.
FYI they're not owl poop, they're giant owl hairballs that the owls hack up. Gross, huh?
I can't imagine living without a copier.

At my cc, we have a dept number that we can use for any copier, anywhere. I can even use the number on different campuses.

If one copier is broken, I just find another one somewhere else.
Can someone explain the differences between prop. U, R1, etc. I am new to college teaching and am in need of some definitions.
I outlined the general properties of each major category of higher ed in a blog last summer that is part of an (incomplete) group looking at physics jobs in higher ed. It explains R1 as a subset of the PhD-granting category.

The only part of that discussion that is specific to physics is when I say that the group of MS institutions is small. Many (most?) of the schools that only offer a BS in physics will have a masters in some other area, like Ed or Business or an Evergreen discipline.

Prop U is DD's pseudonym for a propriety university he used to work at, most likely a 4-year school that offers some MS or MA degrees. It is in the same category as any 4-year school, but the management situation is very different from public schools in the same category.
Here are two possible solutions for getting rid of the half-used copier when the time comes: 1) send out a general notice to faculty and staff, and see if someone's church or other non-profit institution can use it (if it is still running). Someone is always in need of a free, functioning copier, even old ones, as you proved. 2) A company like GOTJUNK? might remove it for free. With the price of metal these days, there should be plenty of people willing to come take it for free, just for the metal content, and they will dispose of the toxic materials along with the toxic materials from other products.

Also, I contacted someone that I know, who is the Director of Facilites for a global company, to see if he has any ideas beyond these. If it produces another viable option, I'll let you know.

By the way, I think you did the right thing for your teachers and students.
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