New Level of Absurdity Reached! Achievement Locked Even More!

I’ve written several times about nonsense in Higher Education. Administrators in Higher Education love bureaucracy like zombies love brains. Some bureaucracy has to exist. We want to make sure people are treated fairly. We want to ensure people have access to appropriate amounts of financial aid. We need to document course work and hours. We need to ensure federal and state laws are followed. I get all of that. Over my 18+ years of higher education experience I’ve learned a number of things about the inner workings of higher education. No doubt I have many more things to learn.

I’ve run up against a new, nearly insurmountable form of bureaucracy. I think they are called, “Accountants.” Under normal circumstances, I would be “Pro Accountants.” I have a lot of respect for numbers, and decimals points, especially numbers including a $ or €. I like ∏, and while I was never good at ∫ or ƒ I still appreciate them for the mathematics each represents. In fact, I like a lot of the Greek alphabet.

But, my beef has little to do with the math or numbers falling within the wheelhouse of accountancy. My beef has more to do with what appears to be nonsense policies contrived with what I can only surmise is either an excruciatingly myopic interpretation of some obscure IRS guideline, or is simply a means not to do any work.

A colleague of mine and I are conducting two workshops. The first workshop is in April, the second workshop is in June. We are going to train people on geomentoring. A geomentor is a person who has received instruction or who works in a geospatial field and can help transfer geospatial knowledge to young people. Participants in our first workshop are mostly students with a couple of staff. Participants in our second workshop will be teachers, middle and high school educators.

We hope. Hoped. I’m not sure at this point.

We received a small NASA grant to develop and host a workshop to communicate and demonstrate NASA educational materials to two local populations. When news came our proposal was accepted, we were really excited. Finally!

And then my university accountants got involved.

Our workshop had an Achille’s Heel we did not see coming. See, we wrote into our grant the capacity to reward, e.g. compensate participants with $50 each in the first workshop, and teachers in the second workshop with $150. I’ve been in workshops where I have received materials, or an Amazon gift card as a means of saying, “Thanks!” I know of faculty who have gone to other universities for workshop who have received similar expressions of gratitude for attending and participating.

However, at my uni, if you attend a workshop and could potentially receive some form of gratitude that has a monetary value, you must become an employee in order to receive it.

For the last two weeks I and my colleague have been waging a Logic War against accountants. The accountants want to treat our workshop attendees as employees. The attendees will be assigned employee numbers. The attendees will have background checks performed by Human Resources. The attendees will have to provide Social Security Numbers and fill out an IRS I-9 form.

On our side, on the side of workshop facilitating, we also have a number of ludicrous chores. We have to distribute our workshop flyers next week for our June workshop. Not a bad idea, really; people need a chance to plan. However, we have to do this so that anyone interested in the workshop can begin the process of becoming a university employee, so the individual can file their I-9, submit a copy of their Social Security Number, and fill out their background check paperwork.

♣”How many participants do you have?
“Nine or ten.
♣”So, you’ll need ten I-9 form so we can do withholding. And, we need their social so we can begin their background check.
“Background check? What? Why?
♣”Well, they are receiving compensation for their work. Being so, we need to enter them into our HR system so they can get paid. Background check is part of the process.
“What work? This is a workshop for educating people about geomentoring.
♣”It is a “work” shop, correct? They will be doing work. If they are doing work, and are working for you, then they are employees, and we have to do withholding on their pay.
“Yes, it is a workshop. We are educating them and training them on some NASA educational materials. But, we aren’t hiring them. Workshops don’t hire people? Are you high…maybe just a teensy-weensy stoned?
♣”Do you control the time of the workshop? When it starts and ends? Do you control the hours they work? Do you tell them what to do?
“Well, of course. It is a workshop, after all. That’s the point. We train them over a given time period. We show them how to do stuff.
♣”So, we are in agreement, then. They show up when you tell them to. They sign in to computers. They follow your instruction. They are then working for you. The gift card is their compensation.
“What? No! They don’t work for me. I have not hired them. I am giving them a $50 gift card to thank them for their participation.
♣”Yes, I know; just like the uni “thanks” you for your work, you get a paycheck.
“Huh? No…wait, I do real work. I teach, I consult, I manage. These people are guests who have signed up to learn how to integrate GIS and remote sensing and NASA educational materials into their classroom.
♣”Who else do they work for? If they are working for us, are the workshop hours going to increase their work week hours into over-time?
“Oh, for shit’s sake, I’m refuse to entertain any more questions because none of this is rooted in Reason or Logic. I refuse to be infected by your crazy-conflation of workshop participants into university employees. By engaging with you, I am complicit in making this Pratchettian situation a reality. I’m not going to play the Copenhagen Interpretation with you, as I fear by humoring you, I bring this absurdity into existence.

While this dialogue is contrived, about 80% is real. The part I concocted is the very last comment. Seriously. 

Additionally, we have been saddled with answering the following questions for each workshop participant:

1. Has the individual provided the same or similar services to other unrelated entities or to the general public as a trade or business during the last 12 months?
2. Will the department provide the individual with specific instructions regarding performance of the required work rather than rely on the individual’s expertise?
3. Can the university set the number of hours and/or days of the week that the individual is required to work, as opposed to allowing the individual to set his/her own work schedule?
“Has the individual provided the same or similar services to other unrelated…” Pardon my French, but how the F should I know?? And what bearing does this have on giving someone in a workshop a gift card to the university bookstore? If Michigan State University can do this with no problem, then why is a small regional university in the South experiencing conniptions about a gift card.
And herein lies the rub. This really isn’t about a gift card. This is really about an obscure policy not simply impacting people in a workshop but imposing a will which has already damaged the reputation of a small regional university with a large Division I research university.
I did not grab Michigan State University’s name at random. As I learned this week, my uni has become, uhm, “uni non gratis” at Michigan State University. Evidently and singularly the result of dealing with our finance department (and potentially HR), Michigan State refuses to work with my university. Too much of hassle.
In my earlier years, I had a few buffers between my contact with contracts and the stream of funds. For a number of reasons, I am much closer to the money, now. I heard tales of ridiculous encounters, paperwork lost, paperwork delayed, micromanaged paperwork. In those days, my superiors would find ways around our local bureaucracy, such as funneling grant or contract money through another university or state agency simply to avoid the Event Horizon of my uni’s accountants. Recently, though, another colleague of mine told me he had worked without a contract for the first month of the semester in 2014. He had recently received a promotion, from Assistant Professor to Associate Professor. In order to clear his old title, he had to be deleted from the payroll system as “Assistant,” then added back as “Associate.” In our system, this cannot be handled by checking a box. Evidently, the process is handled with two mutually exclusive processes, potentially by two different people. One person deletes the entry in the database; the other adds a new entry into a database – when the paperwork arrives. What if the paperwork is never passed along after the “Associate” entry is deleted? Well, you aren’t an employee any longer, that is what happens. When he discovered this (discovered because he no longer had insurance coverage, either) a letter from the college dean and the provost was required to document his employment. “Yes, he is still an employee of the university.”
Neither I, nor my colleague on the workshop, nor my dean, nor the staff of our Sponsored Programs Office have been able to communicate to our Accounts Department, “You cannot treat workshop attendees this way. This literally makes no sense.” I have run across a hand-full of faculty and professional staff who simply do not engage our local community in adult-level workshops due to the obstacles created in our Accounting Office. In a few cases, they network with faculty at other schools in order to use that particular schools accounting office and circumvent our own.
These bizarre and capricious accounting practices damage reputations, both faculty and institutional. They reduce cooperation among schools and institutions. On the one hand, administrators encourage grant submissions, yet the supporting financial offices actively work against the grant awardees and any other associated institution.
My questions are, “Does this ring as familiar with anyone? Has anyone experienced similar situations at their institution? Or, perhaps run across similar problems maybe not at their own school but with another institution?”

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