Friday, May 25, 2012


This post is a continuation/follow-up on a post from last September.

Before I rip into what I consider the incompetent and corrupt practices of those who build and renovate university facilities such as, say, a Science lab, let's first spend a moment being grateful for the skilled, efficient, and polite people involved in this important work. I have not met any recently, but I believe they must exist and I am glad to think that they exist somewhere and wish that some of them had been involved in my recent project.

Now please join me in a collective scream of anger at the other ones. What boggles my naive little professorial mind is that these people work at a university and, in theory, know how a university works and know that we professors don't have endless sources of money for any particular project. Consider my situation in which I

(1) got an estimate for some work,
(2) put that estimate in a grant proposal (with a bit of a cushion to account for likely unanticipated price increases of other expenses),
(3) got the grant,
(4) got a visit from the same people who gave me the original estimate, but this time, with the project a reality, they came up with an estimate that was nearly ten (10) times the original estimate.
(5) So I begged, pleaded, sold part of my soul, and got the additional funds to pay for the new estimate, and then
(6) put in the order for the work, and then
(7) watched in horror as the actual amount was way beyond the amount of even the second estimate.

In the end, the total cost was many many many times the original estimate and significantly more than the second estimate. The work was done by the university, with one subcontract. Where does the university think I am going to get the money to pay these extra costs to the university? Why am I responsible for these inaccurate low estimates? The 'extra' costs did not involve anything unusual or unexpected. There is no reason the estimates couldn't have been more accurate, and then I could have used real numbers in my grant budget.

In fact, some of the costs were for things that were not even done, or for time that was not even spent: one item on an invoice says that something took a week but in fact it took one day, as originally planned in the quote. Somehow these imaginary costs add up to many thousands of dollars. Why should I pay these?

I have asked around about what recourse I have if I want to dispute some of these costs. I get lots of shrugs and the typical response, "Oh yes, those guys are out of control. We can't do anything about it."

Maybe I just won't pay the deficit and the university can sue itself?


Anonymous said...

When they gave you the quote, was there anything about whether this was binding? Even if there wasn't, that could still count as false advertising, maybe, and the place to check would be, in New Zealand, the Disputes Tribunal, or in, say, UK- a Trading Standards Officer. :(

Unknown said...

It's pretty stupid how facilities operates at universities. You would figure that something like wireless access to the network would be commonplace and that it's part of general university maintenance. But noOooOooo, I as a PI have to pay for it if I want it in an area that it's not already covered (ie, my lab).

It's the left hand cutting off the right hand...

Anonymous said...

"Maybe I just won't pay the deficit"

Yes, this. If the work is completed, why not try this? See what happens.

I had a similar thing happen with a journal pub charge. The day after the manuscript was published, I got a message from them asking for an additional $1500 beyond their original estimate, which I didn't have. I just didn't respond. Never heard back from them. It's been over a year. I'm sure $1500 is peanuts compared to your estimate, but still, what can they do? Take the lab away? Fire you? Why go out of your way trying to find the money when none of this was your fault?

nanoalchemist said...

If your university has a law school associated with it, you can run over to someone teaching contracts and biz law. Maybe they can make it a student project. Since costs were also incurred by the university for this overage, you should CC the appropriate "upstairs" person (for us it would be the VP for academic affairs. If there is fraudulent billing going on (and if they billed a week for a task that took one day, there sure as heck is) then those folks footing the bill need to know. They will likely then sign the letter generated by the law folks, who probably won't have to do more than send a letter head memo with something like "We noticed that you charged 10 times the estimated cost for this project, and certain items were billed at a 1 week labor rate, yet quoted and performed in 1 day, we are likely to suspend payment until a full forensic audit and on site inspection is completed. This is accord with the universities policy to reduce waste and fraud."

Anonymous said...

nanoalchemist has a good suggestion. I am curious as to whether your overhead costs should cover this? I mean, aren't these indirect costs supposed to cover the roof over your head? I assume that this is what part of this work was for.

Anonymous said...

We had a huge embezzling scandal recently at my university - apparently millions in fraudulent charges over years. I'm amazed that none of the PIs ever questioned the extra charges, but maybe they did and just got "the shrug." I really like nanoalc's suggestion.

John Vidale said...

"Facilities" strike me as basically a way to artificially raise the overhead rate. Lots of stuff the university should pay for is shuffled off to grants to save the administration money. It's not clear whose side the upper administration takes. Our Chair threw a chairs' meeting with the Dean into chaos a few years ago by proposing to strip facilities of the monopoly on campus improvements, which of course didn't happen.

Examples from my research group include making us pay for air conditioning for computers, re-painting walls, space charges, prohibitively complicated phone billing designed to reduce department phone bills. Just forget about replumbing anything. We just got a $20K estimate for moving a sink.

We've watched with amusement the 6-month construction of a $100,000 bike rack outside our offices.

We view it as a test of the department administrator to reign in excesses in facilities billings. The admin monitored the removal of a closet, replacement of 20 linoleum tiles, and repainting of my outer office, and cajoled and bullied facilities into charging a few hundred rather than several thousand dollars for exaggerated and imagined work.

Ada said...

I am so sorry. When I first started at my uni I had to pay half of my lab renovation from startup so I was personally more involved in it than otherwise. It was awful. Just like what you describe. And the manager of my project decided to holiday in Thailand FOR 12 WEEKS without telling me at all. When I asked my chair about what to do about lab delays (and there were more delays not just the holiday), she pointed to me another prof had had her lab delayed by a year. Why the heck do we put up with all this? I'm a newbie prof still and it makes me sad to hear noone has any power over these guys :-(

Female Science Professor said...

Some of the shrugs and 'we can't do anything' responses have come from rather high-level administrators.

Anonymous said...

Um, I'd say kickbacks.

Anonymous said...

The likely outcome of refusing to pay with award funds is that facilities will just take it from your department or college. Typically, most VP's of business worth their salt have figured out a way to compel payment. That said, it still doesn't excuse the quote problem - perhaps you could take it to your VPR? Or perhaps you have a Board of Regents that might be interested? A newspaper?

Alex said...

There are many days when I feel like we work for Facilities, IT, Campus Events, and other support departments rather than the support departments working for (i.e. supporting) the educational and scholarly mission of the institution.

The one that really sticks in my craw is catering. It has been decreed that we must use campus food services for just about everything. They thus have a monopoly and price accordingly. You can imagine what this means when you're planning luncheon seminars and whatnot and you have a strict budget.

Anonymous said...

Document the work that was done, the estimates, and any communications you had as best you can. Pay an independent contractor to provide an estimate for the work that was done. Then just pay what you think you owe. If they come at you, it should be clear whether they're trying to swindle you or simply ran into trouble.

Contracting work is hard to estimate because you tear into things and sometimes problems arise. But those costs need to be justified and it should be clear whether or not they are.

If you really want to get involved, find out who's responsible for managing this service and show them that the university could be saving a lot of money by changing things up. Sounds like the problem is systemic.

Anonymous said...

I'm deeply sorry you're in this situation FSP. My university has wonderfully confident facilities folk who have been in our building for about a year for renovation and also helping some new professors fix up their labs. They are friendly, polite, on time, and often faster than they say they will be. Their charges are reasonable, and yes, they are unionized.

University of Wisconsin - Madison, in case anyone would like to move to this dream land.

Anonymous said...

If you can show concretely (or even believe) that you are being billed inaccurately for work that wasn't done, or charged in excess of work that was done, as you suggest here, and the money is coming from federal funds, you have a pretty serious case on your hands.

Someone brought qui tam actions against major research universities (Cornell among them) about how research time is billed that caused a big kerfuffle and resulted in fines (and a nice pay off for whoever brought the action).

If the operation is billing for work that wasn't done, on grant-funded work, then they're stealing from the feds, and that's a federal case.

(Projects like this are complex, and potentially there are explanations for the charges you don't understand, but, seriously, the way you write it sounds bad, and like the reader above, I was wondering about kickbacks)

Anonymous said...

Can you hire an attorney to settle this? Seriously. I'm not a fan of hair trigger litigation, but what you experienced is extreme and amounts to fraudulent business practices. There is a paper trail and documentation to support you. At the very least I think you should report this subcontractor to the Better Business Bureau. Maybe up til now no one has taken any action against them (everyone just complaining but in the end shrugging and paying up even if they have to sell their souls to do it). Maybe that's why they continue doing this.