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The department’s restricted fund

On Monday, we have our monthly meeting of the Dean with department chairs [1]. This month, it looks like we have a variety of topics to discuss, including what the faculty handbook says about the role of Chairs and planning for the new Research Opportunities for All initiative. I don’t know enough about most of the topics to prepare in any way for the meeting [3]. But one of the topics is Gift Funds and Spending Requirements and I think I know enough about that issue that it’s worth reflecting a bit on the issue in advance of the meeting.

Last fall, we received a message from Dean Latham that included the following note.

If the balance of your department’s philanthropic funds is less than $25,000, please prepare a brief spending plan (using the accompanying form) describing how you intend to spend at least 50% of the balance of restricted gifts available for discretionary use within your department by the end of FY17 (June 30, 2017)

As far as I know, my department’s philanthropic funds are what we normally refer to as the CS department restricted fund. I find the name a little bit funny, since these are the funds that I am least restricted in how I spend. So why are they restricted? I believe it’s because the donors restricted their use to the CS department.

As a chair and as a faculty member, I very much appreciate having the restricted fund since it allows me to support things that for which there is no regular budget, within or outside the department (e.g., buying snacks when students are presenting in class), things that require too much paperwork (e.g., a $10 fee for students to use online resources), and unexpected opportunities (e.g., when students discover a nearby Hack-a-thon they want to attend). You can read about these, and more, in a recent thank-you note to donors.

It’s not at all clear to me that these expenses come in with any regularity. There are years in which many opportunities and needs present themselves. There are years in which few do. I’m still not sure why I’m expected to spend down what I think of as the department’s utility funds.

I think that the rationale is that donors want to know that their money is being used. But I also know the people who donate to the CS department. Most of them want their money to be used sensibly, which means when we need it to be used, not when some policy says it should be used.

But I’m a good citizen [6]. And so I made a plan to spend reserves. Fortunately, we had some large unplanned expenses, including buying stoles for the Pledge of the Computing Professional as well as some larger-than-normal planned expenses, such as weekly lunches with the CS summer research community [7,8].

But then last week, Kate Walker, the College’s awesome treasurer [9] gave a presentation at the Faculty Meeting about the state of the College’s finances. And part of that presentation was about how sensible we were to have a portfolio of reserves that we have set aside for difficulties or opportunities.

Isn’t that what my restricted fund is supposed to be? I don’t think Kate would want to be forced to spend down the College’s portfolio of reserves. Why, then, is the administration asking me to spend down my department’s portfolio of reserves?

Okay, now I should turn that reflection into something to say at the Chair’s meeting. Let’s see …

At last week’s Faculty Meeting, Kate Walker spoke about how important it was that the College has a portfolio of reserves that let us take advantage of opportunities and prepare for difficulties.

I think of my department’s restricted funds and other philanthropic funds as serving similar purposes. I use them when opportunities present themselves, typically opportunities that could not be funded elsewhere. I use them when my SEPC overspends their budget. I also use them to help my students and faculty avoid needless red tape or delays.

Could you explain the disconnect between the College’s desire to maintain its own portfolio of reserves, and its insistence that we spend down our departmental portfolios of reserves?

[1] It used to be the monthly meeting of department, concentration, and program chairs [2]. But I’m told that it’s now just a meeting of department chairs. I don’t pay enough attention to know when the switch happened.

[2] The first year, we ended up with three of the five tenure-line faculty at the meeting: I was there as Chair of CS, Jerod was there as Chair of Neuroscience, and Janet was there as Chair of the Wilson Program.

[3] Well, I can read pp. 11-13 of The Faculty Handbook on the role of chairs [4,5].

[4] I could also read the PDF they sent us of a photocopied version of the printed handbook. I think the original PDF is cleaner.

[5] If I find time, I may write tomorrow’s essay on the roles of chairs.

[6] No. Stop laughing. Really. Please? Will you accept that once in a while I go along with stupid rules? Will you accept that I think that raising troublesome issues is part of good citizenship? Ah hah! See, I’m a good citizen.

[7] They were larger than normal because we had more students than normal.

[8] Hmmm … I wonder if I can make those lunches part of the regular CS budget. Probably not.

[9] No, I’m not sucking up. I don’t always agree with Kate, but I appreciate most of what she does, and I really do think she has the College’s best interests at heart.

Version 1.1 of 2017-02-13.