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

MSCS grant mismanagement, part 5: hiding grant accounts (2005)

At a competent university, researchers can see grant accounts. The university provides regular statements---at least monthly, preferably more often---listing all new payments; researchers can check for differences between what they expected to happen and what the university actually did.

At UIC, grant accounts are hidden. I've had occasional glimpses of grant information, but I've also had to go to a huge amount of effort to get that information. Inaccurate grant summaries are easier to obtain but are not particularly useful.

Inadequacy of the information provided

At various times between 1996 and 2003 I received department account statements. The basic problem with these account statements was that they were not the real books. They were maintained entirely within the department and had all sorts of differences from the university accounts. Tiny example: the department accounts don't report the apparently unauthorized $69.44 payment to ``Lee Maria.'' Huge example: the department accounts don't report overhead payments.

The UIC MSCS grant accountant sometimes reports that a line has no money left, or lots of money left. These reports are even less accurate than the department account statements, with errors on the scale of $10000, as discussed elsewhere on these web pages.

No payment confirmations

UIC doesn't report the payments it makes. For example, in September 2002, I ordered $59 in equipment; in November 2002, having not received the equipment, I asked UIC to check on the order; in December 2002, UIC placed the order (for $64), but nobody told me this until much later. The equipment was delivered to the department but wasn't delivered to me for five months. A message I sent in April 2003 shows clearly that I thought the order hadn't been placed.

As a larger example, on 15 May 2003, I asked the UIC MSCS grant accountant to initiate a summer RA payment; to tell me the standard costs, broken down by lines, of that payment; and to tell me the standard costs, broken down by lines, of PI summer salary. The grant accountant decided that I obviously wanted her to go ahead and pay summer salary, even though I had said that I would specifically initiate each payment. She didn't tell me that she was doing this. I didn't find out until later, when I noticed the university sending money.

UIC also doesn't report the payments it doesn't make. For example, UIC never placed a $53 equipment order from November 2002, and never notified me.

UIC also doesn't report the changes that it decides to make in requested payments. For example, in February 2001, the UIC MSCS grant accountant deliberately made a $4512.63 payment from my account rather than from an account of one of my colleagues. She made no attempt to notify either of us. Neither my colleague nor I learned about this until December 2002, nearly two years later.

No payment lists, even upon request

When a payment is unauthorized and unconfirmed but nevertheless made, the only way to catch and fix the error is to review complete payment lists. This type of review is also useful as a double-check on confirmations, like balancing your checkbook. This type of review is also important if you suddenly realize, after years of authorizing payments, that you need to keep track of payments yourself rather than trusting the department to do so; how do you find out what payments were made before?

In email to the UIC MSCS grant accountant (cc'ed to the UIC MSCS department head) on 12 December 2002, I initiated an audit of all my accounts at UIC. In a subsequent phone call, the department head convinced me to give the department a few months to collect the account records; I made the mistake of agreeing. On 1 April 2003, the department provided me with a small fraction of the records and with various useless summaries.

The department business manager said that I ``may be able to get further information from John Ward (Director of Grants and Contracts).'' I wrote to the UIC Director of Grants and Contracts and asked for complete copies of the records for my accounts. He repeatedly refused. Eventually, in a phone call on 19 April 2003, he stated that his office was not paid to retrieve records for me. He did indicate, however, that he would accept a request from the department administration or the college administration.

I contacted the college on 28 April 2003, asking them, among other things, to obtain the records from the UIC Director of Grants and Contracts, and to cut the department out of the loop in managing my grants. The college responded that it had ``great confidence in [the department head]'s ability to handle all financial and personnel issues in Mathematics Statistics and Computer Science.'' I responded that the department head had had ample opportunity to address the problems I had identified. I asked how severe grant mismanagement had to be before it became a problem for the college. The college did not respond.

At this point I notified NSF that UIC was hiding its books from me.

The department head and I spoke on 1 May 2003. He asked me to withdraw my written requests for information in favor of (unrecorded) face-to-face meetings; I refused. I asked him to ask the UIC Director of Grants and Contracts for my account records; he refused, saying that he would feel silly using up ``several hours'' of secretarial time. (Never mind the fact that my grants have paid over $100000 to UIC for ``facilities and administration.'')

I again complained to the college. There was no response.

On 9 May 2003, I contacted the UIC Vice Chancellor for Research. He asked the department head to meet with me. In that meeting, the department head again asked me to withdraw my written requests for information in favor of face-to-face meetings; I again refused. On the other hand, the department head specifically told me to go ahead with the two urgent tasks that I had described to the Vice Chancellor for Research, namely hiring a postdoctoral research associate and hiring a summer research assistant.

Unfortunately, the department head didn't stick his neck out similarly for hiring two research assistants in Fall 2003. Perhaps the difference is that, after reviewing the secret account records, he was sure that enough money was available for the summer expenses, but he wasn't sure that enough money was available for the fall expenses. There are other possible explanations.

Refusal to preserve grant records for an audit

NSF requires grantees (universities) to retain all records for three years after submission of the final grant report. NSF also requires grantees to retain all records while an audit is in progress.

In my email message to the department initiating an audit, I mentioned that UIC would have to make sure that it did not destroy any relevant records. A few months later, when the department failed to provide the records it had promised, I asked the UIC Director of Grants and Contracts to confirm that no records had been, and no records would be, destroyed. He ignored the question. When I repeated the question, he said that the university has ``policies and procedures.'' When I asked how long the records would be retained for account 9600083 under those policies, he didn't answer the question; instead he sent me a copy of the university's ``retention of financial records'' policy, which appeared to

When I asked the UIC Director of Grants and Contracts to assure me that records would be retained at least for a few more months, he refused. When I asked him if he would respond the same way to an NSF auditor asking for records, he ignored the question.