Thursday, October 06, 2011

You May Go Now

Some of my colleagues in the US and abroad either have to provide details of their professional travel plans to their university before travel or, in some cases, have to get permission to travel, even when classes are not in session. At some institutions, these policies apply to both domestic and international professional travel, and at others, only to international travel.

Note: I am not talking about cases in which faculty are applying for travel funds from their university. I am talking about travel that is covered by a grant or other external sources of funding.

I know what my university's rules are for allowable travel expenses, airline and fare class selection, frequent flyer miles, use of a business credit card (rental cars and plane tickets: yes! casino chips and massages: no!), and the reimbursement process. Every once in a while I hear a rumor about a notification policy, but so far, it seems that either there isn't such a policy or it is not enforced. 

For a while, faculty in my department were supposed to provide travel plans in advance to a certain administrative assistant; if we didn't, we were told, we might not be covered by health insurance or workers' compensation if a problem arose during travel.

That did not seem quite fair to me. If I traveled to a major city for perfectly legitimate professional reasons and then, while walking to my hotel, I am struck on the head by a piece of plywood that falls off a building under construction (true story), would I be ineligible for coverage if I hadn't told my department I was making the trip? Maybe I don't want to know the answer to that.

Anyway, when that pseudo-policy was in effect, some of us dutifully filed our travel info, some of us didn't, and eventually the AA pleaded with us all to stop sending her this information, so we did (stop).

I can see why a university might want to know quickly and accurately who is where if major disaster strikes in a particular location. I am not sure, however, that knowing what country and city we are in would be that useful for any practical purpose in an emergency. I could be quite wrong about that: Do universities that know the general whereabouts of its employees (I am not including students in this; that is different) during a major natural or other disaster provide any useful help, or is travel info just a record-keeping exercise for general bureaucratic purposes?

I do not know the answer to that question. I have been in/near some disasters during travel, but in those particular cases I did not need assistance from my university to deal with whatever I needed to deal with (for example, alerting family, friends, and colleagues that I was fine).

Do you believe that universities collect travel information out of concern for their employees and students? Some of my more cynical colleagues think there are darker motives for collecting such data.. (and if you can't guess what these are, that's great -- it means you are not (yet) a paranoid cynic).

Some things like this (travel plan reporting) may still be the domain of departments or other sub-units of an institution, so policies and/or enforcement may vary even within a single university. This may change: it seems that there is a move to centralize some functions that were formerly dealt with in departments; none of this has increased efficiency, as far as I can tell.

I hope the day never comes when such a policy either comes into existence or is enforced in my little corner of academia, dramatically decreasing our freedom to hop on a plane and travel incognito to Tuvalu on a whim, while adding to the amount of paperwork that we all have to do and that may well not have any real purpose.

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think we are meant to notify admin if we are away from our desks, whether on holiday or travelling for work. The stated reasons are (1) to check we are taking enough holiday(! 6 weeks in UK), (2) to check we are covered by uni travel insurance (3) so student & admin people know how to get hold of us.
I normally forget to notify anyone, but I probably would give advance notice if I were taking a field trip somewhere dangerous and might need the insurance / support.

Science Professor Mum said...

This policy has just been introduced at our place following two employees being in Tokyo at the time of the earthquakes/tsunami and people being unable to get hold of them. We have since been required to lodge travel details with our PAs before we go anywhere, particularly abroad. Just as we got used to this system, the university brought in their own for overseas travel whereby exactly the case you state applies - we are told if we don't give them the info, we might not be insured. Fortunately the Dept has decided to scrap it's scheme to reduce filling in two sets of forms...

I fully expect to see this information turn up somewhere in statistics about how much we travel... either positively in terms of international impact, or negatively in terms of economy and carbon footprint...

Anonymous said...

How timely. Just yesterday I wrote our admin staff asking about policy on this issue and offering my itinerary, in preparation for a trip to a lesser developed country. I don't normally bother with trips in the US and Europe. As far as I know, neither our center nor university has a clear policy. A previous quasi-academic employer did require approval of travel, extra approval for international travel, and among the reasons they cited issues of on-the-job injury and insurance. In my opinion, if you consider yourself to be travelling on behalf of the university, it shouldn't seem like an unreasonable request.

Many years ago when travelling to a less developed country to teach a several-week-long class, I had to ask my department head to write a letter stating that the university would be legally and financially responsible for my conduct in that country - the country's visa process required such documentation (I suppose in case I caused havoc, killed somebody in an automobile accident, etc...). Luckily for me, my department head assented.

Chris said...

We have to get permission from a "supervisor" prior to any travel. Its clear to me from the permission form we have to file that this policy came about out of reasons of acountability in the administrative side of campus. For example, on the form, this a line that says "How will this trip benefit the University?" (Which I often fill out with snarky things like "My colleagues are happier when I am away from campus.") So it seems to me that this policy came about because of admin worries that staff were taking junkets and charging the university willy nilly. It has *nothing* to do with safety.

(Although, having said that, we are also advised to let the travel office know when we are overseas, so that they know in case there are insurance issues while we are on travel. That makes sense to me.)

mOOm said...

Yes, we have to do this. Ideally, two weeks in advance and signed off by the director of our school (= department, who has 60 faculty members). We all travel a lot too. It's supposedly for travel insurance purposes. It's called an approval to travel form and is a common format across the university. But we have to get the tickets booked and everything up front before submitting it, so it isn't really an approval we have to seek. Oh, and if we travel for more than 5 days we have to submit a "travel diary" form when we get back. This is supposedly for fringe benefits tax purposes but has to be filed even if the university didn't pay for our travel... This is in Australia...

Geoknitter said...

Oh, I definitely have to comment on this one! While working as a postdoc at a government lab, I received an invitation to give a talk at a semi-major international conference. Obviously, at that early stage in your career, you do not say no to invited talks in international settings (provided you have some results to talk about). However, the lab I was at required about 6 months notice for any international travel. I received the invitation about 4 months before the meeting, which is standard in our discipline.

I ended up having to quit my job to attend the meeting! It's not quite as bad as that - I was coming to the end anyway so I really just left about two weeks early. Still, that was a significant amount of pay to me at the time, and it meant I had no source of funding for the trip. Fortunately, the inviter was very kind and paid for my travel and lodging. I hope to pay that forward some day with another junior researcher.

mjphd said...

My University requires us to tell them about international travel (business for sure, personal travel optional), but that is because they purchase international travel insurance for us. It's nice to know that if something were to happen my medical bills (and medical evacuation) would be mostly covered. The policy they get requires listing the cities/areas where we will be.

I also find it nice/convenient that they will even provide the insurance for personal international travel. Small price to pay for the piece of mind.

Anonymous said...

It's supposedly for travel insurance purposes. It's called an approval to travel form and is a common format across the university.

This is a clear case of bureaucracy creating busy work at the expense of researchers. I've fought back against such rules at every institution I've been at and in all cases they relented, proving that the need was completely unnecessary.

To be clear, I don't doubt in the least bit that insurance companies require proof that the trip was for work purposes. The point is how hard could it be to prove after the fact that the trip was taken for work purposes? Surely you are attending a conference you previously registered for and/or have an email track with a colleague you are meeting there.

Anonymous said...

Grad student in the States. When I traveled (on a university grant) to do research Tanzania, I also decided to go visit a friend/research site in Kenya after my time in Tanzania was over. This was just after the political unrest there and so Kenya was on the State Department's "danger" list. I was asked by the travel office if I was going for research or pleasure. Because my friend is in my same field, I could have answered either way, so I asked why it mattered. I was told that if it was for research (despite not being on university funds) I'd have to get permission from all the way up at the provost level. If it was pleasure, then there was no such requirement. So it seems to me any notification/permission thing has to do with liability; the university doesn't want to get sued by your family if you die overseas -- they want to be able to claim due diligence. Like another commenter, I also think it's reasonable that your university know your whereabouts if you're representing your it. (I've also worked in government where your *personal* travel can be denied if it's deemed too dangerous, so I think a mere informing policy of work-related travel is very reasonable.)

europas_ice said...

Yeah, College of Science at our university (in the USA) has gotten REALLY picky about this one. You pretty much HAVE to get a travel authorization form signed BEFORE you go, even if the funds will come out of a grant, or they won't reimburse you.

I think the reason here (that they got picky about it, I think the policy has been in place for quite a while) is all the state budget cuts we've been dealing with. They want to be able to say no, you can't do that travel, so they can save money, if they need to. I think maybe the major craziness here is that they don't have a separate procedure for grant travel vs. state funds travel. I think (I hope) they'd be hard pressed to deny grant funded travel.

It's a pain to have to remember to fill the form but it's not that big a deal in the end, I guess.

Junior FSP said...

Each fall our dean sends an email saying that absences of greater than two weeks must be voiced to one's respective chair and dean. The university does not want to set up a situation where faculty members not on sabbatical are away from campus for long periods of time. Teaching usually structures one's whereabouts enough, but this policy, instead of being safety/disaster oriented, is so that faculty are available as resources even if their teaching schedule does not require their presence on campus multiple days a week. It makes sense to me.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

To amplify Chris' comment about the rules being for the administrative side of campus three of my last four academic employers had a model for travel expenses that assumed you would

1. Goto to remote site
2. Stay in a hotel and eat at restaurants for a few days while attending some function
3. Return.

which is great for attending conferences, but kinda breaks down when the trip is for five weeks on site at the experiment, staying in an apartment provided by the grant, and cooking your own food bought at a grocery store.

I mean, how can I provide a receipt for breakfast on day 22 when I made an omelet with materials bought on day 19 and shared with half a dozen other meals?

In the worst case I wrote a script to generate a bogus breakdown because there was no other way to turn in the expenses. Later I learned that every other member of the research group had a similar tool.

There is no way that helps accountability.

plam said...

We're asked to tell admin about when we're away from campus (but not where we're going). Apparently faculty sometimes used to disappear for months at a time during their non-teaching terms, leaving their students somewhat mystified (and unpaid---no signatures on salary approvals).

Note that non-teaching terms aren't like summer terms in the US: faculty are paid for 12 months.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

My university requires department chair approval for any absence from campus, and dean's approval for anything over 4 days. No reason is given for this policy, but I suspect it is to keep track of those faculty who are not doing their teaching jobs (a very small number).

In our department (as in most where travel is common), the process is purely a bureaucratic rubber stamp, which just wastes everyone's time.

Alex said...

I don't get the medical insurance aspect of notifying them and getting travel approval, at least for domestic travel. If, this weekend, I were to go somewhere for fun, and I got hurt, my medical insurance would cover it (leaving aside possible "out of network" issues for the moment) because it's a benefit that I have. But if, this weekend, I were to go somewhere and give a talk, and I hurt myself, my medical insurance won't cover it because I didn't get permission to give the talk? (Assume that I didn't trip on the power cord by the podium or anything else that might qualify as an injury due to the work performed, I'm thinking more like I'm just walking down the street and I get hit by a car, i.e. something that could have just as easily happened if I had stayed home.)

What if I went somewhere and gave a talk on something that was not related to my work at the university? Like, say, a panel at a conference of hobbyists of some sort? (Not that I go to such things, I'm just trying to understand how this works.) If, while walking down the street after that talk, I get hit by a car, would my employer's health insurance cover it? Would it depend on whether I got travel authorization?

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is very eye-opening. I've generally not had to state plans or ask permission at the institutes I've been at. And now I may be at the same university as mjphd. But my university, as far as I can tell, seems to be genuinely concerned for student safety -- the required international travel insurance is paid for by the university and it covers evacuation from natural and political emergencies. Faculty seem to have been added to this requirement as an afterthought. We just enter our travel info into a website and don't have to file any forms or bother any admins.

Anonymous said...

My department requires a form for ANY TIME I travel out of state. A little "big brother". For example, I had to do one when I was on a NIH study section, even though that is outside my job. Makes me wonder if they'd notice if I started giving a lot of "invitation seminars" one early spring, and suspect they were actually job talks?

These seem to be purely to keep tabs on where you are, and if you have made accommodation for the teaching you are missing.

Anonymous said...

This is anonymous 10:23.

So it seems to me any notification/permission thing has to do with liability;

Ok, so this is lawyers creating busy work for professors. Harder to push back but still can be done.

My institution has a rather short list of dangerous locations for which you need approval to visit. They notify the embassy of your presence there and keep track of your expected day of return. This is not busy work, but a realistic precaution.

Asking everyone to notify the chair because of the odd guy who travels to a current hot spot, is, as I said before, just busy work.

Anonymous said...

I'm at a university in the UK and, in our department, we have no official policy, but our admin asks us every term to let her know our travel plans just in case of an emergency. Last year, during the ash cloud debacle, this was actually a life saver, as a number of us were stranded in various places and our admin, who is a total star, was able to coordinate our emergency alternative travel arrangements to get us all home overland without too much misery. So in short, yes, sometimes it is actually useful for your department to know this sort of thing, provided your department is staffed by insanely capable people.

Dr. O said...

Both places I've worked at require notification prior if you're going to ask to get reimbursed (even if it off of your own grant). Technically, you're supposed to do it no matter what, but I don't think most adhere to that rule.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

We have to file travel plans for even unfunded work-related travel (though not in the summer). These "requests" have to be countersigned by the chair, dean, provost, and president (no kidding). If we travel internationally, we need to pay for supplemental insurance, which can be $50 for western Europe, up to several hundred dollars for other places.

Every year, it's something new. On many days, I feel like actually going to conference and research trips is an act of defiance to a bureaucracy that seemingly wants me never to leave the campus.

EliRabett said...

In the US if you are injured on travel and cannot work for a period, the Uni's workman's compensation policy may require that you were given permission to travel on University business.

Anonymous said...

We have to notify admin about travel outside the country for insurance purposes. We do not need to notify anyone for national travel. This is not a case of extra bureaucracy but rather saving money.

However, the new swipe card system is clearly being used for more than just keeping the bad people at bay ...

ProfessorWhoShallRemainAnonymous said...

My university has a policy requiring notification. It is ridiculous and clearly created by some bureaucrat who has no clue.

Most faculty respond by just ignoring the policy and travelling anyway.

I actually took the time to schedule a meeting with the bureaucrat at our travel services organization who created and was responsible for the policy, and explained why it was nuts. They listened politely, but were not willing to change the policy. Apparently they said they get some big discount on the insurance policy if they report details on people's travel to the insurer. I pointed out that they while they think they are reporting details, their sample is badly contaminated by the fact that most people don't report travel. I also pointed out that if they really needed the information, they could extract it from our reimbursement databases (which already contain information about payments for flights etc). The person in charge of the policy wasn't interested.

I asked the person: what happens if an employee or faculty travels on university-related business without submitting the official notification, and something happens to them? She said, candidly, the university's policy would probably pay out anyway.

So I gave up, and went back to doing what everyone else in my department does: ignore the policy, and travel without bothering to submit the stupid notifications.

And people wonder why faculty make fun of the bureaucracy...

ProfessorWhoShallRemainAnonymous said...

P.S. In case it is not obvious, I consider these travel notification requirements totally unreasonable. As someone who travels several dozen times a year, they take up time for no good reason -- which means they are costing the university time that I could have spent on helping a student or doing better research or something.

For those who think they are a good idea, I would love to see the travel department that imposes the requirement have to account for the cost, in terms of faculty's and employee's time, in the travel department's own budget. Suppose they had to take a charge of several millions dollars, because of the cost of their silly requirement? We all know the requirement would disappear in a minute.

So one reason I rail against these requirements is that they are doing cost-shifting, but in a stealth way that doesn't show up on their accounting sheet -- and if we actually account for the true costs, we'd probably find that they are inefficient and not a good use of time.