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.