Tuesday, November 18, 2008

AA: Alcohol & Accountants

My obsession with insane accounting procedures and regulations is continuing unabated. I admit that I have not sought professional help for it, and writing about this problem in my blog has not helped much either because it has made me realize that other people have these same problems, and that is more scary than comforting.

It is tempting to write about the fact that at the moment I am totally unable to figure out, owing to accounting glitches, how much money I have in my grants or the fact that the online effort certification system seems to have gone berserk, but instead I think I will rant about another accounting issue that makes me want to gnaw off my eyebrows: getting reimbursed for a professional dining experience that involved no consumption of alcohol.

I could just as easily write about an annoying accounting issue regarding being reimbursed for a professional dining experience that involved consumption of alcohol, but I will leave that for another time.

Today I certified for the THIRD TIME that a meal, in which I took a visiting department seminar speaker to a small local restaurant for a casual dinner with one of my graduate students, involved no consumption of alcohol.

I don't really care that much about getting reimbursed for this small sum, but it is customary for faculty who volunteer to take department visitors to dinner to be reimbursed up to a certain reasonable amount. If alcohol is consumed, the faculty host must pay for the alcohol and must provide a separate itemized receipt.

It would have been totally fine with me if the visitor had wanted a beer or glass of wine or even a bottle of wine or 7 martinis.. whatever.. But the visitor did not want such things. The small local restaurant did not provide an itemized receipt, and I did not request one. I think it is quite obvious from the low amount of the bill for the meal that the only way we could have purchased alcohol with the meal is if we each only had a small bowl of iceberg lettuce for dinner.

The accountant refused my reimbursement request because I did not provide an itemized receipt, but said that if I wrote in an email message that I certified that no alcohol was consumed, I could be reimbursed. I wrote back and said "No alcohol was consumed."

A week later another accountant called me and said that I had to certify again more specifically that no alcohol was consumed as part of this meal and that I did not have an itemized receipt because I neglected to ask for one. I wrote in an email "No alcohol was consumed as part of this meal. I neglected to ask for an itemized receipt."

Today an accountant stopped me in the office and made me write on a piece of paper "During the dinner on DATE with VISITOR X, no alcohol was purchased as part of the meal. The receipt provided does not include any payment for alcoholic beverages. I neglected to ask for an itemized receipt." SIGNED FSP (in my best, most legible handwriting).

I asked if I should also write that I am very very sorry, that I admit that I showed a shocking level of negligence in failing to obtain the correct type of receipt, that I will try hard to get an itemized receipt next time whether or not alcohol is consumed, and that I will be willing to swear on a stack of accounting bibles that I did not purchase alcohol as part of the meal in question. The accountant thought about this for a moment and then said that it probably wasn't necessary to do those things yet and he would first try getting my signed letter past the next level of accountants.

That's nice, but aside from wondering whether academic accounting attracts insane people or makes them insane, what is it with this obsession with alcohol?

I can maybe see why the department might not want to pay for an alcohol-soaked dinner extravaganza involving consumption of many bottles of expensive wine and whiskey or whatever, but seriously.. Why are US universities so neurotic about paying for a visiting professor to have a glass of wine at dinner? I think it is bizarre, but it is by no means the most bizarre aspect of academic life.

31 comments:

A Life Long Scholar said...

Having grown up in the US and been educated through my Master's degree there, I got used to the fact that alcohol and official university functions didn't mix. This was never a problem for me, because I made the choice not to ever start drinking the stuff, and it was "just the way things are". However, I have noticed since arriving in Australia that alcohol is very much part of official university functions. With every thesis that is submitted, or promotion made, or any significant
happening in the geology department we all gather in the "tea room", where champagne is served to celebrate the occasion. I wonder what the Australian accountants think of the presence or absence of all of the alcohol that is purchased by the department. Heck, I wonder if we get a discount for buying the champagne in bulk?

Anonymous said...

I thought it was the government agency funding that had these rules, not universities.

Fernando Pereira said...

"Why are US universities so neurotic about paying for a visiting professor to have a glass of wine at dinner?" It is not US universities in general, but just certain funding sources, especially federal and state governments, or any event that involves undergraduates who may be under drinking age. I've had many a good glass of wine with dinner when speaking at private universities in the US, and several departments I know have wine or beer at TGIF events for faculty and graduate students.

Ms.PhD said...

It's bizarre, but it's our puritanical American religilous way!

And a symptom of just how much attention is paid TO THE WRONG THINGS.

Leading us to the inevitable conclusion that academia is as fucked up as it is BECAUSE NO ONE IS PAYING ATTENTION TO THE BIG PROBLEMS.

But I digress.

I think your posts are funnier when you're miffed. I particularly liked this line:

"to gnaw off my eyebrows"

because it's so clearly impossible. It involves a level of annoyance that would require peeling off your face. I have SO been there with university rules about accounting.

And I have to admit it is one of my many fears about things being even worse as a PI than they've been for me as a postdoc. What do you think? Do you ever wish you were a postdoc again?

JaneB said...

Here in the UK, this is a problem for research funding of any kind - 'subsistence' has to NOT include alcohol.

The other thing that annoys me is that if I pay for a meal for more than myself - e.g. I pay for the food when my grad students and I get a Chinese takeaway after a 12 hour field day because we're too knackered to cook - I have to write a mini-essay on who 'benefitted from the entertainment'. Any case where I pay and someone else eats is 'entertainment' and therefore apparently open to corruption. Sigh.

Seasaltblues said...

This obsession with alcohol is not exclusive of the US, and effectively hampered our labs work in my previous University. You see, alcohol (ethanol) was rationed (ie, each person had the right to claim only up to 2L/year, or something similar) for lab use, even through grant funding. So the amount of available ethanol any given year available for my group would have to come from pooling of quotas dependant on the number of students and postgrads, and a lot of negotiating with other peoples allowances. This meant effectively that cleaning and dehydration solutions for bench cleansing and glassware drying could not be made with ethanol from, say, March onwards every year on a small sized lab. As a PI, I had to put money from my pocket to buy ethanol in pharmacies and get the job done. No amount of cajolling the accountants resolved this issue. The only explanation for me was that there was an insane pocket of people at admin level, consuming pure ethanol intravenously, which felt the need to regularly throw out experimental accounting rule madness to help spread the fuzzy feelings in there.

Anonymous said...

At our NZ university the alcohol at social functions is pretty much ubiquitous, and allows students a great way to see which professor is likely to have great hands in the lab. Not to mention identifying the bum pinchers. I don't think it could come out of petty cash (too much for starters) although I can't think what other account it might appear under . . .

C said...

In the UK, there is a distinction made when alcohol is consumed; certain things that are education-related can be exempt from VAT (a tax), but not alcohol consumption, so if we are claiming VAT exemption then the alcohol costs have to be separated out from that. So over here, the fussiness about alcohol would be ok as no doubt the accountants have to record these things, but the rest of it? Sheer anality.

L said...

Are you SURE you don't work at UCLA? I used to be a staffer there and this was exactly the reimbursement experience. I used to say they (mis-)spent three bucks on compliance for every dollar actually blown on travel, dinners, etc.

Anonymous said...

At my University, it is school policy, not funding source policy. It may be different elsewhere, of course, but I can vouch for that being true here.

Anonymous said...

Much of the general public (in the US) views academia as a place where elitist, free-thinking liberals have somehow gotten the US government to fund their low-work lifestyle in which we "only work 8 hours per week", drink expensive wine with all meals, and generally scam the government. We also charge yacht maintenance to government accounts, etc etc.

This viewpoint leads them to believe that government must do serious oversight to keep us lazy slouches inline. And that leads our universities (yes, even some private ones like mine) to be hyper-vigilant about accounting because of the fear of government crackdowns.

I became a professor several years after the yacht incident out west (Stanford?), but nonetheless I have watched the enforcement and vigilance get weirder and tougher while I've been here.

amy said...

I always thought the reasoning was this: public universities are funded by the taxpayers. Some taxpayers are morally opposed to alcohol consumption. Thus, taxpayers should not be compelled to fund others' alcohol consumption. For some reason, it's okay for vegetarian taxpayers to fund meat consumption, and for health-nazi taxpayers to fund trans-fat consumption, but alcohol is different.

Anonymous said...

There is definite weirdness with alcohol at my university (in a state recently featured by NYT for having a drinking problem, no less). There are university rules about alcohol, but it is allowed. Our department (physical science) is just uptight about it - I always thought it had to do with the (oddly, in my opinion) very Mormon or other very religious elements in my department.

And you should be pleased that you get reimbursed at all... my advisor has to pay out of his own pocket for visiting speakers dinner if it is not a named lectureship with a budget for that sort of thing.

sandy shoes said...

I don't know what's more depressing... the things we do care about spending money on, or the things we don't care about spending money on.

Anonymous said...

All sounds sadly familiar at our state university, where heavens forfend that we spend any state money on alcohol.

Alex said...

My public university serves alcohol at certain functions. There are many layers of convoluted admin-fu required to get it, but it has something to do with purchasing it on a Foundation account rather than a State account. Foundation money can be spent in all sorts of ways. State money is more restricted.

Despite all that, as chair of the seminar committee I can't get reimbursed for any alcohol that the speaker consumed at dinner after the talk.

aceon said...

My department has come up with an ingenious solution (from the student perspective) to the problem of department functions and alcohol. All the faculty are asked to contribute to a fund (or maybe coerced into it). This fund is then used to buy a keg of beer once a month for a party which is organized by the grad students. It also pays for wine at classier events. The accountants are kept at bay, but we still have to get permits from the police.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

The more important question is why this dumbfuck visiting seminar speaker didn't order a fucking cocktail! If I work my ass off delivering a fucking seminar, I'm sure as fuck gonna have a Jameson afterwards!

Michelle said...

I can't believe the accountant actually took you seriously when you asked if you should state that you were 'very, very sorry for your extremely negligent behavior'. I mean, I get the no alcohol bought with school money thing, but asking you to certify three times that you didn't drink any? Jeez. Maybe you should see if the school would purchase a breathalyzer so you can provide some actual data to back up your no alcohol claims in the future.

yolio said...

Prior to grad school, I did a stint as an academic admin. So, I am empathetic to the hapless schlubs just trying to do their jobs. The alcohol obsession comes from up on high, and it is up to university to develop a policy that shows that they take it seriously. And yes, the point of pretty much all university policy is to survive, or even better avoid, an audit.

The real problem is that admins often aren't well trained in university policy. You should have been asked right away for the correct format of your letter. But whoever you were talking to didn't know what they were doing.

Anonymous said...

At my university, it's not the alcohol that's the problem, it's the TIP. If you leave a tip, since they consider this a gift, it must come from a gift account.

Karina said...

That madness and repetition of tasks sounds exactly like my university. A new assistant professor here mentioned s/he has contemplated looking for a new job thanks to the ineptness of the staff.

female Science Professor said...

Stay tuned for tomorrow's post. It gets better (or worse, depending on your perspective).

Anonymous said...

In my old lab in France, we could order wine with meals at lunches with visiting professors. It was paid for by the group. It was the norm. We also used to have (rationed) champagne in the lab (5pm-ish) at people's farewell parties. There was no problem regarding alcohol consumption. However...

When we went to a meeting abroad and bought stuff for dinner from the supermarket (cheaper option) instead of eating out (more expensive option), the admin refused to reimburse the cost. They would reimburse restaurant bills, but not supermarket bills. Another bizzare set of rules!

EliRabett said...

Welcome to Peoplesoft

EuropeanFemaleScienceProfessor said...

In my country, we are not even allowed to purchase cookies or tea or coffee from government or university funds, which I find utterly ridiculous.

So I end up inviting visitors to lunch or coffee on my own money, which I don't actually see as fair, as these are work visitors, not friends.

Now, I've cooked up some schemes to get cookie money: Put partner links from organizations that offer you kickbacks all over my web pages and invite students to purchase throught this. This is money I can spend on anything.

I can also pick up empty bottles from the trash and return them for deposit.....

I find it so embarrassing - when I go to other country people go out of their way to invite me to things. It is just in my country that they are so horrible about you getting "advantages" from your job.

Of course, that doesn't keep our banks and automobile companies and insurance companies and what not from being so greedy, they kill our economy.....

migratingfishswim said...

i can only assume that accountancy drives one to drink and therefore all accountants assume all other professionals are also driven to drink and so must have it in triplicate that perambulation to drink did not in fact occur.

Professor Staff said...

I am an elected board member of a professional society, which requires me to attend a board meeting prior to a big national meeting.

The society pays for those 2 nights of lodging, and my university travel funds (sponsored research) pays for the lodging for the nights of the scientific meeting.

Seems pretty clean to me.

Every year, when I submit my request for reimbursement, it gets held up. They accountants want me to provide an explanation of why I am asking for $0 reimbursement for those 2 nights. A written explanation. I already explained it on my travel reimbursement.

You would think that as long as the university is not paying for it, they would not care. But sometime not being reimbursed also raises suspicions ...

Progressive Pragmatist said...

I had a colleague who ordered Grand Marnier Cheesecake with dinner while taking a job candidate to dinner and the office questioned why she was ordering alcohol. She ended up having to submit a menu from the restaurant showing that Grand Marnier Cheesecake is indeed a dessert.

Personally, I once submitted a national park map to demonstrate that indeed there were no other hotels near where the conference was happening so I could get a full reimbursement.

Sheesh.

alcohol rehab said...

The academe and alcoholism should really be separated.
Such combination is quite undesirable.

US Government is strictly imposing the policy on alcohol prohibition among teachers because the academe should become the role model on its learners.

Anonymous said...

Comrades,

As an Administrative Member of the Department Team you will be pleased to hear:

1) Reimbursement for per diem and entertainment expenses has ceased. Due to new accounting practices the University will pay up front for all expenses
a) Via purchase order
b) With registered vendors
c) After we've certified the vendor's financial catagory
d) And it will be registered as "Consumables - Other (Non-"Dance Textbooks")" in the financial system.
e) Vendor payment may occur up to six months after the meal.

2) It is perfectly okay to purchase alcohol for University events, or as a function
a) Except you need to fractionally itemise the receipt into three categories.
b) And staff consumption of alcohol will be charged against your funds 2.125x the value of the actual expense. Except for sales tax.

+ + +
Australian accountants at Universities don't mind the booze, but the whole payment system is insane due to the Fringe Benefits Tax rules.

Oh yeah, and Senior University management who purchase a financial system which means we can't report on current balance or resolve transactions in a timely manner. FUN.