University support staff should understand universities

Warning: I’m grumpy today.

Every so often I reread one of my old blog posts (usually, it’s one I’ve forgotten that I wrote). Almost all the time, I find myself nodding in agreement – which, I suppose, won’t surprise you.* But this morning I reread University administrators should understand universities, and realized I had it wrong.

Well, not actually that wrong. I’d argued that higher-level university administrators (not Deans and Chairs, I mean, but Directors of Information Technology Services and their ilk) ought to have some idea what a university actually does, and how those of us who actually do it go about the doing of it. I’m still quite convinced that’s right! But then, about 2/3 of the way in, I found this howler:

Universities have, of course, some roles that need performing that are pretty much universal, that involve only routine operations and not strategy or setting of direction.  Perhaps these functions can be executed by professionals who simply know their own work.  Perhaps there’s no need for every financial clerk to understand the nature of the organization for which they’re tracking payments. (emphasis added)

Let me tell you a story.

Not long ago, I approved, and sent to Financial Services, a travel reimbursement claim for one of my student employees. They had done a day trip to deploy a set of mosquito traps for some surveys we’re doing. Part of it was a mileage claim, for 653 km at a standard per-kilometre rate for use of a personal vehicle.

Nothing odd there: over my career I’ve submitted or approved literally hundreds of such claims. But this one came back with a query from the financial clerk who received it. 653 km is a long way to drive in one day, I was told, so they wanted some backup to justify the distance.** Now, the travel involved visiting a set of field sites near 4 different towns, all of which were already named on the claim form; but fine – I opened Google Maps, did a quick route to the 4 towns, and sent that in. It showed 615 km, not 653, though, and you can probably guess the stupidity that came next. Yup, you got it – when the claim was paid, they had unilaterally adjusted it to reimburse for only 615 km.***

After I calmed down (because the $20 difference isn’t trivial to a student), I wrote a polite but firm email explaining that doing field work isn’t a matter of driving straight to the town nearest the destination and then back again. We drive back and forth; we check out a few sites before settling on one; we may need to run into town for extra screws, or duct tape, or lunch. A simple Google Maps itinerary will never capture this (although it confirms the ballpark), and we aren’t going to start submitting Strava logs. I explained that expected my student to receive their full claim (and after a bit more back-and-forth, that’s what happened).

What’s the problem here? A clerk spent time questioning, and I spent time explaining, something that someone supporting the work of scientists should already have known. That wasted time (both mine and theirs) and money, and produced plenty of aggravation. Of course, if this happened once it would be no big deal; but you won’t be surprised to learn that it happens frequently (I bet it happens frequently to you too). I’ve been asked why we need satellite communications (InReach) for field work. I’ve been asked why raincoats and ripstop pants are reimbursable field gear rather than everyday clothing. I’ve been asked why I booked an AirBnB for seven days but only stayed for six.**** Behind all these questions is the same thing: a financial clerk who has no idea what research is like, and therefore wastes their time and mine asking questions they shouldn’t have to ask.

Now, I realize that it’s unreasonable to expect a newly-hired financial clerk to have expertise in field ecology. Or in benchtop chemistry, archival research in history, or whatever. But that’s not what we’re dealing with here. I’ve been asked these questions by people who have worked at my university for many years; and I’ve been asked the same questions repeatedly by the same people. Apparently, our financial clerks expect me to learn how to fill out a travel claim form correctly; but they either can’t or won’t learn what sort of claims are appropriate for the kind of work they’re supporting. [I should be clear that although this particular story is about a financial clerk, the experience generalizes very well across service units.]

So how do we fix this?

Well, the most obvious possibility would be to hire people who care. And some of them do! I’ve dealt with support staff who think deeply about universities and are passionate about them. They’re wonderful, and I wish there were more of them; but I’m not holding my breath.

Almost as obvious, and simpler: surely we could either bring the expertise to the decision making, or bring the decision making to the expertise? Either work would. Imagine that Clerk X, rather than handling claims from anyone whose surname starts with A-F, handles all claims from Biology (or History, or English, or Engineering…). And imagine that each time they ask a question about how things work in that field, they jot down the answer in a notebook for the next time. Imagine that Clerk X had a desk in the academic department they’re supporting and could chat with the people who know what the work is like. Starry-eyed idealism, I know… And I’m sure you can think of your own starry-eyed solution.

Are there bigger problems in the modern university? Defintely. Although an awful lot of them have the same root cause: far too many people work at a university, rather than for a university. Before you can work for a university, you need to understand what a university is, and what goes on there. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

© Stephen Heard  November 1, 2022

Image: me upon receiving the email querying a travel claim. © Microbiz Mag CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com


*^There are, of course, two related but quite different hypotheses for this high rate of agreement. The first hypothesis is that I am very smart and unusually perceptive, and therefore I generally come to the correct position on everything the first time. The second hypothesis is that I believe the first hypothesis to be true even though it isn’t. I can probably guess how you’ll lean on this one.

**^There’s actually nothing in our Travel Policy requiring or even allowing such a request for backup. But an interesting pattern I’ve seen is that the university department that developed and enforces the Travel Policy is rather uninterested in what it actually says – although to their (modest degree of) credit, they do clear this very low bar: if you quote their own policy back at them to show that what you did was correct, they will generally back down.

***^Doing so by altering a document that I had signed, without informing me that they had done so, which smells to me quite a lot like fraud – but that’s a whole other story.

****^Ecologists must be the only people who cut short their travel because the weather isn’t terrible.

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2 thoughts on “University support staff should understand universities

  1. Christopher Williams

    Excellent post as always Stephen. In a sad state of events, we had two exceptional finance officers located in our department and things worked wonderfully. However, our University in their wisdom redeployed them centrally and now all enquiries are centralised and rather anonymous.

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  2. Eric Lamb

    I am sure we all have our own stories about similar incidents. I can spend 15K from Fischer Scientific on anything without question, but spend 15$ on paper bags at a small town grocery store….

    I too find the centralization of admin staff problematic. Our (former) department admin staff were as much members of the department as anyone else. They came to the Christmas party, they knew who was having kids and grandkids etc. In other words they were a key part of the team. We take people who were connected socially and make them remote and somehow expect that things are going to go as well?

    Liked by 1 person

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