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

MSCS grant mismanagement, part 4: making payments not requested by the PI (2005)

UIC sometimes uses grant money to make payments that were not requested by the researcher that the grants are supposed to be helping. This web page describes several incidents: These incidents are at varying levels of severity, but the overall pattern is that UIC steals grant money that was supposed to be spent on the designated research.

Theft of grant funds is obviously not specific to UIC. One time I heard from a colleague at Ohio State that her grants had been charged $3 every month without explanation; she wrote a letter asking for an explanation; the $3 charges ceased; she never received an explanation. But UIC seems to steal considerably more grant money than any other university I've heard about.

Payments from the wrong line

I received written approval from NSF to use $8425 in research-assistant funds as research-associate funds. (A student worked with me for one semester after graduation.)

The UIC MSCS grant accountant instead took the $8425 from course-buyout funds. I didn't find out about this until many months later.

Payments from the wrong line are dangerous for two reasons. First, anyone who looks at the line that was used incorrectly will have an overly pessimistic idea of the amount of money available in that line. Second, anyone who looks at the line that should have been used will have an overly optimistic idea of the amount of money available in that line; this is the same as the reason that delayed payments are dangerous.

Both problems occurred in this case:

I've now learned of several incidents of other people in the department being given wildly inaccurate statements of the amount of money available in the grants that are supposed to be supporting their research.

Payments from the wrong account

Payments from the wrong account are even worse than payments from the wrong line. Not only do they create planning problems, but if the error isn't caught and fixed then one account ends up losing money.

In early 2001, as I've described in more detail on another web page, a colleague instructed the department to spend about $10500 from his account, and I instructed the department to spend about $9500 from my account. For unknown reasons, the department grant accountant changed $9500 to $10500. She also discovered that there was only $6000 in my colleague's account, so she moved approximately $4500 in purchases to my account, without telling me. As a result, she overspent my equipment line by thousands of dollars, and she created planning problems for both of the researchers.

Beyond this, my grant accounts have made many direct payments that I never requested. Quite a few of those payments appear to be payments that should have been made by other people's accounts. Most of these payments were caught and fixed behind the scenes, but some of them weren't. The corrected errors include, for example, several hundred dollars in travel payments to someone named ``Marin Djendjinovic'' in December 1999; my account was reimbursed by someone else's account in March 2000. The uncorrected apparent errors include, for example, a $69.44 payment to someone named ``Lee Maria'' in January 2000; several levels of UIC administration have ignored my repeated written requests for an explanation of this payment.

UIC has been thoroughly uncooperative with my attempts to audit the grant accounts that are supposed to be supporting my research. Consequently, I don't have the complete story behind most of these payments. I wouldn't be surprised if a few of the payments I've identified are legitimate. It's conceivable that every account error was caught and fixed, and that every remaining payment is legitimate. But I doubt it.

Extra payments to the university via equipment misclassification

I ordered a small piece of computer equipment in September 2002. The equipment was a replacement CPU and CPU fan: one of the CPUs in my office was having severe heat problems.

The university, funded by NSF through grant CCR-9983950, paid $64.00 for this equipment on 5 December 2002. It also took $35.39 in overhead charges on 31 December 2002. Overhead charges aren't adequately labelled in general, but this particular overhead charge was clearly for the equipment order.

According to my understanding of how equipment overhead is supposed to work, this overhead charge was in violation of NSF rules. Someone at the university entered the order as a non-capital ``supplies'' purchase (category 2130); the rules required it to be entered as a capital ``equipment'' purchase (category 6xxx). From what I've heard, this error is rather common, and it's practically always made in a way that gives extra money to UIC.

There are other examples that I'm sure about, and a $539 example that I'm fairly sure about.

Extra payments to the university for no reason at all

NSF's grant CCR-9983950 to UIC has a 55.3% overhead rate, as specified by a university agreement with the government.

In April 2004, after a huge amount of effort, I finally managed to get my hands on some account statements. I added up the direct payments, subtracted tuition remission (which isn't charged overhead), subtracted the amounts labelled by the university as capital equipment (never mind the amounts incorrectly labelled non-capital), and multiplied by 55.3%. The resulting number was hundreds of dollars smaller than the actual overhead payments taken by the university.

On 19 April 2004, I asked the department about this, pinpointing four unexplained overhead charges that together account for the discrepancy. After a year, after repeated email requests to several levels of university administration, I still don't have an answer.

Payments from allegedly frozen accounts

On 10 December 2002, I asked the department to freeze UIC's account for NSF grant CCR-9983950. ``No other charges will be made unless I have your permission in writing,'' the department grant accountant responded. On 30 April 2003, I instructed the UIC Director of Grants and Contracts and various department personnel to freeze all of my grant accounts. I lifted the freeze on 15 May 2003.

Despite this freeze, UIC took money from that account on 20 February 2003, 13 March 2003, 26 March 2003, 31 March 2003, and 30 April 2003.