D. J. Bernstein
What it's like to work at UIC

MSCS grant mismanagement, part 2: ignoring PI payment requests (2005)

At a competent university, whenever a researcher asks for grant money to be spent, he receives a prompt report saying either (1) that the payment has been made as requested or (2) that the payment won't be made.

At UIC, payment requests are often delayed or simply ignored. Successful payments are not systematically reported, so the missing payments aren't visible as missing reports. This page gives several examples of UIC payment screwups. (Deliberate refusals to pay are different from screwups and are covered on a separate page.)

Delayed course-buyout payments

NSF's grant CCR-9983950 to UIC included money for some course buyouts for me: i.e., for UIC to hire lecturers to cover some of my courses, so I could spend more time on research. There was one course buyout in 2000-2001, one in 2001-2002, one in 2002-2003, and one in 2003-2004.

I noticed halfway through 2001-2002 that UIC had not yet collected any money from the course-buyout line. I promptly notified the department head. He was pleased and promptly scooped up the money.

Payment delays can easily cause problems. The danger appears when you ask how much money is left in an account, or in a particular line in an account. If payments have been authorized but not made, then the money is still in the account, so you have an unrealistically large notion of the amount of money left. (This isn't a problem if you keep track of accruals rather than cash, but the department doesn't know how to do that, even though the old and new university accounting systems have a column for it.)

This particular delay didn't cause problems, because I knew in advance exactly what was supposed to happen with that line; but the possibility of delays is still worrisome.

Delayed equipment orders

In September 2002, I asked the UIC MSCS grant accountant to order a small piece of computer equipment. In November 2002, having not received the equipment, I asked the grant accountant to check on the order. She didn't place the order until December 2002.

Even worse, the grant accountant never ordered another piece of computer equipment that I asked for in November 2002.

Many of my colleagues have reported similar problems: for example, having to apologize profusely to their visitors for UIC still not having reimbursed the visitors' travel expenses.

Silly calculation errors

Grants can pay professors in two ways. The first is ``summer salary'': professors have 9-month jobs and can accept 2 months additional salary from grants for summer research. The second, less direct, is a ``course buyout'': the university can take some grant money and hire a lecturer to cover a course for a professor, so that the professor can spend more time on research. (Actually, the university spends only about half the grant money on a lecturer; the rest goes to the university's general budget.)

Either way, when the university takes money from a grant salary line, it takes additional money from the grant to cover employment benefits such as retirement funds and medical insurance. (Almost none of this money is actually spent on medical insurance, but that's beside the point.) The current benefit rate for me is 25.2%: $252 benefits for every $1000 in salary.

UIC agreed to accept a total of $35000 from one of my grants for three course buyouts. The UIC MSCS grant accountant, attempting to divide $35000 into salary and benefits, made two mistakes:

So she ended up with a budget of $27250 salary and $7794 benefits.

I pointed out this error in a message to the UIC MSCS department head, and the UIC MSCS associate head for administration, on 25 September 2003. After I received various account records on 16 April 2004, I sent several further messages explaining that the correct budget was $27955.27 salary, $7044.73 benefits.

I'm pretty sure that the university ignores the department benefit numbers, and recalculates 25.2% of the salary number, turning the accountant's incorrect $27250+$7794=$35044 into $27250+$6867=$34117. The correct $27955.27+$7044.73 would have provided more money, namely the agreed total of $35000. In other words, the 25.2%-versus-28.6% error outweighed the division error.

But the department repeatedly refused to fix the errors. The UIC MSCS associate head for administration even spent a while claiming, fraudulently, that I had signed the $27250+$7794 budget. Amazing.