OSP rules everything around me

From the moment one signs onto a faculty job, especially at an R1 university like mine, one constantly hears about the three qualities on which a tenure packet is judged: Research, Teaching, and Service. At my New Faculty Orientation, an administrator clarified: “What that really means is ‘Research, Research, Research’.” From my experiences during the last four years, it seems what he really meant is “Papers, Grants, and Grants.”

Based on comments/advice from my senior colleagues, here are some notions about how grants play into the assessment of faculty productivity and promotion at my institution. Each year, the administration looks at space allocated to research groups based on a ratio: grant dollars brought in divided by square feet of office and lab space. When it comes time for tenure, this ratio becomes important in reassessing space:  even if one gets tenure, one might lose lab space based on this ratio, or be asked to give over lab space to another group. Publications are still considered paramount for tenure, but the implicit assumption is that (even in these economic times) publications will lead to grants which lead to money for hiring and doing more experiments, which lead to more publications.

One policy here is faculty salary must be included on every grant. I find this frustrating because my fringe benefits are expensive, and I would much rather pay a tech or grad student more than waste money on myself, given that I get a salary for teaching 9 months of the year. Even if I bring in 100% of my salary with grants, I am not allowed to buy out of teaching (although my teaching load is quite low – 1 course a semester).

I fully accept that I am meant to bring in dollars, and even that my promotion is contingent on my paying part of my salary (although I do think I should be able to buy out of teaching if I bring in windfall monies); these expectations have been pretty transparently articulated. I enjoy writing grants and distilling what it is about my research program that makes me excited to get to work every day. And I have managed to get funding, from private foundations and federal sources.

What frustrates me to no end is the ways in which, despite all parties having good intentions, my Office of Sponsored Projects (OSP) wastes my time, and its employees’ time, in the name of “assisting with grant submission”. The amount of time I spend on the phone with OSP leading up to a grant submission, the number of times that I rewrite documents only to be told that I cannot name a postdoc who has only accepted my verbal offer of a job and must instead write “To Be Named postdoc”  — it makes me incensed. I have had payments delayed due to financial reports being submitted late by OSP. I have had to plead with a foundation officer to consider my grant when my institution’s internal approval to submit came after the foundation’s submission deadline (I actually got that proposal funded, so all was not lost). I was told to specifically delineate how much of a graduate student’s health insurance versus wages I planned to charge in a proposal to a family foundation that asked for a “broad statement of how monies are likely to be spent”. It’s my job to go get the dollars and keep the small business that is my research program afloat; so, why does the process of grant writing seem more complicated than it needs to be?

My biggest expenses (running a mathematical group) are salaries and, every so often, fancy computers/hard drives/cluster nodes. I really like to set aside money for people and their travel to present their work. I think the creation of budgets, both pre- and post-award, could be a much more enjoyable process; I wish OSP approached budgets like a financial planner looks at assets – as a portfolio, with different mechanisms of investment and different uses for those investments. I wish there were a spreadsheet I could access, without troubling my department administrators, to see what balances my accounts have. I wish, when putting in a new budget, I could look easily at how much money I currently have set aside for salaries/consumables/equipment/publication costs, and also what I’ve budgeted for in pending proposals. And I wish post-award I were asked to talk with an officer at OSP to restructure my budget for newly awarded monies, taking into account the other funding I already have.

Instead, we have somehow created a system in universities where (1) faculty are clueless about money and what underlies administrative strictures about proposal submission/budget creation, and (2) financial administrators don’t have time to learn about what faculty really want to accomplish with grant monies. And so we talk past each other, waste each other’s time, and create tension. I’m sure OSP employees find me frustrating too – doing things last-minute, calling at all hours frantically, trying to tell them “oh, this funding agency doesn’t care about annual our inflation adjustments” when they are worried about being audited.

Many of you reading this have your own stories, and I would love to hear them. How many of you have had to attest that the laptop you bought with grant money was not ever going to be used to look at any personal email, and would only be used for one project? How many of you have tried to charge consumables like Sharpies on a grant, and been told that’s a no-no? Or been told that you could not charge conference travel to an unrestricted grant because it wasn’t on your initial budget?

OSP, help me help you. We both want the same thing, after all: Dollar, dollar bill y’all.

5 thoughts on “OSP rules everything around me

  1. The annoyances and inefficiencies you describe in dealing with your OSP are vastly mitigated by a high quality departmental business administrator. I almost *never* deal directly with our OSP, and every interaction goes through our truly magical departmental business administrator (and his staff). It is the jobbe of the departmental business office to reconcile the concerns of faculty for funding and operating their research programs with the concerns of OSPs for obeying a vast array of laws, rules, and regulations (some of which are incredible stupid). Departmental business administrators who are effective at this (like mine) are worth their weight in gold!

    • Effective administrators are indeed wonderful. My department has excellent administrative staff, and they are stretched thin with numerous responsibilities and serving 20+ faculty members. Also our OSP offices are quite small in their staff, which means everyone’s strapped for time and overworked. Not the best recipe for easy interactions. I am glad to hear about your high-quality administrative support!

  2. We had a great person that used to handle all of the departmental grants, then she’d hand it off to the Funding office. It was good, because she was like a translator. Of course, we had enough funding to justify her existence.

    While I was a postdoc, my boss got a grant that was funded, and got held up so long in the funding office, that I ended up having to do a bunch of stuff that wasn’t paid for (including lab work for a core lab). I remember dragging him out of a meeting where he lost it on one of the admins, accusing the office of holding it up so long they were making money on the interest.

    • Hold ups are frustrating, and seem to be common. I recall a colleague telling me about a major award he received as a prize from a funding agency (different from a grant, this was a lump sum payment). And then money got “lost” between OSP and the Awards office on campus, so he didn’t get access to it for over a year from the initial disbursement.

  3. Pingback: Starting over on the tenure-track | Tenure, She Wrote

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