The Perfect Example of Why I am Leaving


I am sure I could and will have many “perfect examples,” but today is really perfect (at least for this nanosecond).

I have been very successful for the past five years in landing research funding from a variety of federal sources. Having worked the federal side, I do know that there is a whole level of administravia that makes what I am dealing with at a state-funded school look like peanuts. This is not one of those cases.

One of my grants is just starting up its fourth year out of five. We have funding. No problem. However, one of our laptops died. It happens. The monitor crapped out. It is three years old. The price to fix the monitor (on a 3-year old laptop) is about $1000. We just need something to get us through. So one of my grad students put in a purchase request to get a laptop that was under $600. Cheap, right? Seems like a good solution, right?


Our purchasing folks at the University of Illinois got involved. You see, the grant only included the purchase of a single laptop and so now all kinds of flags are raised. I explained that this was to replace a broken laptop and needed in order to complete the work. I then get the third degree. The purchasing approver rode me fifty ways until Sunday about how the laptop was only allowed for the given research (that is all it had been used for anyway), that he needed to know exactly who would be using the laptop and when (my research group has been as many as 11 graduate students, 20 undergraduates, and a postdoc or two), what the plans were for disposal of the old laptop, etc.

The message to me was loud clear: “We do not trust you as a scientist and faculty member to manage you research.” And I get it. I don’t think a month goes by where someone in purchasing or grants and contracts has not said to me, “The rules at Illinois are this way because we have so many former governors in jail.” I am neither a governor or a child or a criminal. But these “rules” are always put in place as a knee-jerk response to protect some random person from thinking they might go to jail for fraudelent spending or some other bullshit.

Like I said, I get it. But the idea that these rules are “needed” in order to “protect” someone from getting in trouble is a fallacy. People are, in general, not criminals. Consider the case of Aldrich Ames, who was a CIA officer turned spy for the KGB. The CIA had required polygraphs of their employees in order to prove that they were not spies and yet Ames managed to pass two polygraphs without registering and lying. Now, in the mean time, you have a ton of people working at places like the CIA and elsewhere who are subject to polygraph testing to weed out potential moles, and yet it also causes those people a great deal of stress if they potentially don’t pass this test.

In other words, a knee-jerk response to one or two criminals has resulted in a lifetime of stress and grief for the majority of people who are not bad people because the optics of giving the test looked right. And yet, this test regularly doesn’t catch the true bad guys.

Lest you think this is just about spy agencies, I hope my example of trying to buy a laptop illustrates that universties do this same kind of thing all the time. Illinois might be better at over-regulating than most, but they all do it to some extent. My fingers are crossed that my next employer will be a bit more rational.

Written on July 14, 2017