Beki Grinter

Micro Management

In academic management on October 18, 2010 at 11:33 am

I don’t like being subject to micromanagement, but that’s not what I want to write about in this post.

In my continuing search to try and explain why I am so busy, I want to discuss micro management instead. I am a micro-manager, a very small business operating within the University. The business that I am the manager of is the one that is associated with my grants and the research they support. One way to think of this business is the business of academic supervision that culminates in Ph.D., M.S., or B.S. degrees. That’s the intellectual way to think about this business, also known as “the fun part.” But there’s another way to think about this business, one of financial management. I have great support in this from people who understand this financial business, but I remain its manager.

At the front end, I am responsible for writing grants and proposals.It’s what happens when they get funded (hooray!) that I want to focus on, because there’s a whole new set of things that I have to manage kicks in. This is all the non-intellectual work associated with my micro business of which I am the micro manager.

Each semester I have to decide which grant what student is going to be paid from. The first decision is of course whether it’s appropriate to pay a particular student from a particular grant. That’s the easier part. The next part is to see whether those grants have the appropriate resources for hiring people. One reason why this is non-trivial is because budgets are estimates, salary computations for labor are made at the start of a proposal (which can be a year before the grant comes to fruition) and so there is possibility for the estimated salary to not quite match the actual salary at the time of the grant. Of course we plan for salary increases, but this is inherently a business of estimates.

Another piece of decision making turns on the future. For example, if I support this semester and that other grant doesn’t come through, I may have to ask the student to TA. It also includes deciding how many students can be supported on a single grant, which gets more complicated if the grant is shared with another Principle Investigator. All of this determines who else can be hired, although some (all?) NSF grants offer a supplement especially to support undergraduate students, so that can sometimes factor in to some hiring decisions. Finally with respect to hiring there is the question of whether I get hired. Most academics only get paid for the nine-month academic year, so there are three months in the summer where an academic is required to support themselves out of grants. (At least three months, but that’s another message).

Then there’s travel, equipment, miscellaneous purchases and so forth. Just the other day, some computer memory was required, and I have to make the decision not just what to purchase, (something I can ask the student to do, thank you), but also which grant I should charge that cost on. I’m in the loop on every single decision, whether it’s a matter of a few dollars or several thousand. The latter seems sensible, the former are a part of life.

Another area of micro management is the fascinating thing about money in academia. Not all types of money are the same. All though all money is in the U.S. dollar, in academia not all money is the same. $1 does not always equal $1, because it depends what type of dollars we’re talking about. In the University, there are rules associated with the expenditure of different forms of money. These rules exist because of the sources of that money. Contract research, for example, follows the rules of contracting. Government funding, resources that stem from the tax-payer, follows a set of standards of appropriate expenditure. And foundation, a category of money that is a donation, follows a third set of rules. So, for each spending decision, I have to pay attention to the rules of the source of the money. Some of the rules are relatively simple, but of course there are “special cases” that defy any particularly obvious logic. I am the sort of person who likes to follow financial rules, which I find easier to do when I understand their logic. This slows me down at time. So I have three sets of rules in my head, and a decision about that $27 bill, and the help of fabulous staff who make sure I haven’t completely botched up the odd cases.

And then there’s the accounts themselves. I’ve been very lucky to have a variety of sponsorship (thank you sponsors). Over time that’s turned into a reasonable list of different account numbers. Yes, each different source has it’s own account number, so that it can be accounted for. That makes sense, until you see the list of course. I micro manage a list of numbers, each with a title that is either extremely reflective of what that money was for, or a bit more ambiguous (I have one that is so unidentifiable to me that I remember it by a process of elimination actually). One thing I try not to think about is the sheer number of account numbers that must exist when considering the faculty as a whole. And of course, my list also includes access to numbers that belong to another faculty member. Anyway, it’s just more time spent micro managing.

I don’t think I can think of a way to organize this system that would make any more sense, while simultaneously observing all the rules associated with anything that involves money. On the other hand, I also see this as being part of my role as the head of a micro business which requires my micro management.

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