Grant projects face obstacles

“TurboTax for grants,” she calls it.

Shauna King, Yale’s vice president for finance and administration since last year, is discussing the division’s future projects, among them a single-website portal for faculty members to manage the government grants they hold. But while the program would make that task easier, the dream is still as many as three years away from becoming a reality, and it is not the only proposed change facing delays.

The pace at which finance and administration unveils new initiatives has had to slow down significantly, King said in an interview late last week. Head honcho of Yale’s business side, King wants to run the University more efficiently, but that desire has come up against a decentralized structure that differs markedly from the corporations where she has spent much of her professional career. Compounding the problem has been the federal government’s now 15-month-long investigation into Yale’s grant administration.

The changes that have gone into effect, many of them in less than ideal circumstances, are not limited to the finance division. Faculty members are also facing new challenges, though some professors said they felt insulated from the adjustments.

The roll-out of initiatives in finance and administration at the University has not gone as well as expected over the last two to three years, King said. As a result, some of the more extensive changes King had hoped to implement will be delayed. For example, the full roll-out of one Web site that science professors will use to record how they spend their time is now being pushed back, with only a select few faculty members piloting it this month.

“We can’t just lob things over the wall and expect departments to figure it out,” she said.

And there were too many people who had to figure it out on their own, King said. Last spring, the University named approximately 300 staff members as “business managers,” but noted that they do not report to the vice president for finance and administration. Having so many business specialists without a connection to the central finance and administration division is a far cry from how major corporations work, making changes harder, King said.

“It is a little bit the sheer number,” she said. “At Pepsi you could get six [Chief Financial Officers] in a room.”

Beyond the number of business managers, the diversity of departments at the University makes it more difficult to find solutions that can work as well in the English department as they do in Chemistry. There is less commonality among Yale’s divisions than there was at PepsiCo, said King, who served as a top official at the company before coming to Yale.

In an attempt to overcome these obstacles, the 300 Yale business managers now report to and hear from just seven senior directors of business operations, grouped by academic specialty.

“Now you have seven people speaking for the 300,” King said. “I still think it’s a great model.”

The federal investigation into Yale’s grant accounting — announced in June 2006, less than a month after King formally took on the role of vice president — also contributed to the difficulties in making changes. The move forced administrators to adopt a slew of accounting and reporting practices at an even more rapid pace than usual, which King called “Band-Aids.”

These changes have extended to the faculty, some professors said. Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Professor Joel Rosenbaum said he has noticed Yale becoming more like a corporation, not just for business managers but for professors as well. He attributed the changes to governmental pressure, both a result of the grant investigation and changes in grant reporting that affect every university with federal funding.

“There’s sort of a new type of bureaucracy taking over,” Rosenbaum said. “That bureaucracy is asking the faculty to do a lot more things: reporting, listing, enumerating — things that they’ve never had to do before. There are all sorts of things that are becoming pervasive that makes Yale more of a corporate entity than a family.”

But at least one department seems to be insulated from the changes to administrative reports. Jon Morrow MED ’76, chairman of the pathology department at the School of Medicine, said the changes have been handled so well by his department’s business office that he has not noticed any problems with them. While he has noticed an increase in paperwork, the changes have had little real impact on his work, he said.

“I’m sure people complain, but I’m not one of them,” Morrow said. “It’s crabgrass on the lawn of life, here, I guess. I haven’t found it overwhelmingly onerous.”

King will have plenty of time to implement changes, even at a reduced pace: She plans to stay at Yale for 10 years, King said on her appointment in 2006.

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