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I am a PhD student at a UK university. A small part of my time is taken up by (voluntarily) organizing a monthly seminar series. The seminar is open to all PhD students in my school, and is regularly attended by 30 or so students. I took over this duty in January 2018, before which time there were other student organizers.

Whilst I am an organizer (along with two others) of this seminar, all decisions that we take are checked with a particular senior member of staff - who I will refer to as Prof X. It could be said that Prof X is our organizational "supervisor". They check our posters advertising each seminar, our emails, etc. Very little happens without Prof X's knowledge, if not expressed permission.

As part of the seminar, due to the time of day and its duration, we order a certain amount of pizza to have in a break between talks. The money for this comes out of a particular part of the school's budget. We have always done this, as did the previous organizers. We have never discussed our budget for this pizza, or how much we "can" order. We have always presumed we are within budget, and had no reason to think otherwise. We consider that the amount that we order is entirely reasonable for the number of participants.

I received a surprising email today from my head of school - who I will refer to as Prof Y. This email requested a meeting with all three of us organizers, and explicitly stated that this meeting is due to the fact that our seminar is effectively running over budget, and moreover that this was not approved with them, the budget holder.

This email alarmed me for a few reasons:

  1. Prof Y has, in the past, regularly corresponded with Prof X about matters regarding the seminar, which have then been relayed to us organizers. It is very out of the ordinary for Prof Y to email us directly. Prof Y has in fact never contacted us at all before this email.

  2. Prof X was not CC'd in or BCC'd in to this email. Upon my contacting Prof X about the email, they expressed a great deal of surprise and some concern about the fact that Prof Y contacted us in this way. Prof X did then advise that I should attend the requested meeting.

  3. Whilst we organizers are the ones who request the pizza order, we have no (and have never had any) knowledge of or control over our specific budget. I think it is reasonable to assume that Prof Y knows this, and it is therefore unclear to me what the nature of the discussion at this meeting could be.

  4. Prof Y is head of department. Perhaps they have disciplinary action in mind, or something of the sort. I have no knowledge of procedures or regulations in this regard, and whether we organizers are liable to face any disciplinary action or on what level.

A further complication is that, outside of the organization of this seminar, Prof X is in fact my own PhD project supervisor - I consider them an excellent supervisor and am on very good terms. I am concerned that developments in this situation could effect this.

My questions are:

  • Could I be accused of misconduct?

  • Should I be alarmed about the email from Prof Y? Is it likely/possible that disciplinary action is on the agenda?

  • During this meeting, how careful should I be? Could I be in danger of serious repercussions here?

  • 22
    I would believe it is more a meeting to close the apparently open loop - perhaps the previous organizers were actually told the budget and tracked it. Misconduct seems highly unlikely. Ordering a little too much pizza isn't wrong per se. Not knowing the budget would appear to be an oversight issue, but not owned by you. Go in being ready to beg forgiveness and ask how to move forward. – Jon Custer Nov 20 at 0:18
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    I definitely don't advise you to say this to anyone, but I suspect the dollar cost of the administrative and faculty time involved in this meeting (including time spent setting it up, email written, collateral damage taken away from more important things, etc.) exceeds the amount overspent on pizza, and possibly even the total amount spent on pizza. I realize that Prof. Y might want to clarify or establish rules for this, but the method of carrying it out seems to me like a solution looking for a problem. To me this is a hallway conversation, and then escalate to a meeting if needed. – Dave L Renfro Nov 20 at 13:53
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    It sounds like this seminar is Prof.X's pet project and it further sounds like you and your fellow volunteers are simply doing the leg work to make it happen. It feels like, if this is a meeting intended to cross-examine your spending, all of which sounds like it is authorized by Prof.X, that Prof.X definitely needs to be there. – J... Nov 20 at 14:25
  • 2
    How much are you actually spending on the pizzas? I did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation and figured it's probably around $150/mo. Is that really breaking the bank of the department's budget? – Barmar Nov 20 at 17:33
  • 8
    Perhaps Prof. Y heard you were ordering pizza with pineapple and wished to express strong disapproval. – Jair Taylor Nov 21 at 6:56
88

I think you should be worried that you and your colleagues might have to go without pizza the rest of the semester if you've already (unknowingly) burned through the budget, and not much else.

You could also worry that in the future you'll have to go through a more formal approval process, which will probably loosen once whoever is involved in the approval gets tired of approving it every week and eventually delegates responsibility again.

To me it sounds like everything you've done is completely reasonable. It's somewhat normal for these sorts of things to fall through the cracks.

If there are any serious consequences that come about from this, then there is some deeper dysfunction in your department that is completely unrelated to anything you've done. There are plenty of things for a PhD student to be anxious about, I'd suggest trying your best to not make this one of them. Just show up to the meeting on time and be apologetic if necessary, and also be understanding.

  • 44
    Hmmm. Maybe take a pizza to the meeting as a peace offering??? – Buffy Nov 20 at 0:50
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    I think Buffy is joking, but maybe it's important to make clear it's meant as a joke. Some people are more literal than others and it's hard to decipher tone in text even for those who are great at processing social cues. – Bryan Krause Nov 20 at 1:58
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    "you and your colleagues might have to go without pizza the rest of the semester": And this became known as the moment where seminar attendance dropped :-) – Massimo Ortolano Nov 20 at 3:06
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    Note that people going over budget happens ALL the time and should not be interpreted as malice. (Worked in AP/AR finance department). Especially if you have no means to know what your remaining budget is! – Nelson Nov 20 at 8:34
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    If you get into real trouble over too much pizza your department is doomed – Spark Nov 20 at 11:14
20

There is a UK context to this situation which others may not have picked up on, and also some researchers within UK universities may not have been exposed to the current situation within their own institution.

Putting it bluntly many UK universities are under extreme financial pressures currently, due to various factors which (depending on institution) stem from changing demographics, changing fashions in subjects of study, political and governmental activity which has deterred large numbers of overseas students, league table statistics and the resultant intense competition between institutions for the shrinking pool of applicants. At the same time there has been previous and will be future industrial action by academic staff over pay, pensions and conditions which adds further to the pressure.

In several places voluntary downsizing programmes are in place and there is in the media talk of compulsory academic redundancies. As a result budgets are under microscopic scrutiny by the accountants and much activity which previous was considered "the norm" and funded for many decades past is now being questioned. Things like "postgraduate pizzas" are exactly the type of things that the accountants would find in their forensic reading of the books.

You will have done nothing wrong, and it is unlikely that your head of school is cross with you. It will be that they will have to gently explain the new environment and sadly ask you to consider running the seminar series in the new era of austerity.


Background Reading:
[1] The Guardian: Nearly 25% of English universities in deficit last year, figures show
[2] BBC: Number of English universities in financial deficit increases
[3] BBC: Universities at risk if they admit to cash crisis
[4] Daily Mail: Several UK universities are in such financial difficulties that they are close to bankruptcy, former government adviser warns

  • 1
    +1 for reasons that are obvious. It also clears up a bit my implied suggestion (in a comment) that Prof. Y is a bit of a micromanager with too much time on his hands. – Dave L Renfro Nov 21 at 11:44
  • But the government told us that austerity is over: "Sajid Javid said on Wednesday [4th September 2019] that the government could afford to “turn the page on austerity.”" - The Guardian. – Andrew Morton Nov 22 at 13:49
  • You don't seem to mention that there is a huge oversupply of universities thanks to bad policy of previous governments. – cal97g Nov 22 at 14:18
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    Don't buy the line you are being fed. As a sector, UK Universities made a surplus of £2.3bn in 2016/2017. Wasn't able to find a number for 2017/2018 and 2018/2019, but if you look at hesa data (hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/finances), that says that the average university made a £5m surplus last year. But those numbers cover a whole range of sizes from the tiny Hythrop College to the massive UCL. If you do a weighted mean by operating costs, you find the average surplus is £20m per year. Universities are not broke. – Ian Sudbery Nov 22 at 16:24
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    @IanSudbery Those sorts of averages have little to no meaning on a university, department, or professor level. Universities typically don't go to another university and ask them for pizza money. If your university has a deficit it doesn't matter much if others have a surplus, and surpluses may be necessary in any case for longer-term investments in infrastructure and such. A balanced budget is often not a healthy one. – Bryan Krause Nov 22 at 17:20
19

A student-run seminar series that regularly attracts 30 students is something every school should be proud of. I can't imagine that there will be any discussion of official sanctions. I'm sort of amazed that the head of a UK school would personally involve themselves in anything like this.

I'd encourage you to go into this meeting with a completely open mind, but no fear. You might even watch for opportunities to request a larger budget if you need it, but certainly be ready to say "I'm sorry I misunderstood the spending rules".

  • They may want to increase the pizza budget now that your group is so big. It's the least they can do. – Peter - Reinstate Monica Nov 21 at 10:21
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    I'm sorta thinking that they might want to put more supervision on the series, while trying to take credit for it. Make it a little more official. – Scott Seidman Nov 21 at 13:51
9

As a PhD student, you have no official access to departmental funds. If someone has given you a departmental credit card, they shouldn't have, and they are officially to blame and will probably be in trouble (irrespective of the actual facts on the ground).

Otherwise, someone, somewhere, is signing off on a form that authorizes the spend. Again, not officially your problem. Thus I'm pretty sure it is not possible for any formal disciplinary proceedings to be brought against you. In the very unlikely situation that you are threatened I would go straight to your student's union and/or the UCU, if you are a member (graduate students can join UCU for free) and request support.

But as I said, I think formal disciplinary action is very unlikely. If anyone is going to be in trouble, it's Prof X. But a more likely explanation is that your Prof Y is done this without thinking about it and the effect it might have on you.

  • 18
    "As a PhD student, you have no official access to departmental funds." Academia varies wildly across the world. I am sure there are departments where PhD students can directly spend (small amounts of) departmental funds. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Nov 20 at 14:15
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    Phd students in my department definitely have been given at least temporary department cards – Azor Ahai Nov 20 at 15:49
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    The OP states UK, and I am speaking from a British perspective - I know of no Dept that would be allowed to give students (who arn't employees or any sort of official of the Dept) a corporate card. Even faculty have to fill in a million forms and come up with a good justification to be allowed one. – Ian Sudbery Nov 20 at 16:07
  • Yeah to be honest it really just sounds like Prof Y was having a bad day. – Lightness Races with Monica Nov 20 at 21:02
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    @LightnessRaceswithMonica I think it's more likely that a finance person is bothering Prof Y about a budget issue and they just want to get it resolved so they don't have to deal with it anymore. It might be a bit complicated because the money might come from a rare slush fund that has fewer strings attached than the more typical budget items (alumni donations would be an example) - even though the expense is reasonable, sometimes the restrictions on how funds are used within academia are not. – Bryan Krause Nov 21 at 1:02
4

Not just in academia, but in workplace generally, when a middle manager is not called to a meeting with his people, it spells trouble for the middle manager. Prof. Y is probably trying to understand where this budget overrun is caused and probably does not trust Prof X. Or it could simply be a case where Prof. X skipped some necessary step in securing your pizza funds. After all most profs are busy with more pressing matters.

This inquiry could be about how things work in the base level too, understanding the costs and what could be done to minimize it. This could happen in a situation where Prof. X is not very open about how things work under his domain.

  • I was about to post a similar answer. Another possibility is that Prof Y is in charge of the budget, someone pointed out the pizza scandal, he realized that they overspent, does not want to bother/annoy/embarrass Prof X and just want to tell them to stop spending on pizza and call it a day. – WoJ Nov 22 at 16:01
0

The meeting will answer your question.

This is a complex situation, and nobody really has the big picture. That is the case for you, and just the same for Prof Y.

Both of you had no problem with that situation.
Until something happened that caught the attention of Prof Y. It may be something trivial, like seeing some budget numbers that were not clear to him.

Now, the email is what caught your attention. And you found you have not the full view of the budget yourself.

The situation is at least similar to this. There may be more factors like intentions, assumptions of intentions of others, irritating aspects and a lot more.

All the aspects you describe make the situation so complex that it is hard, if not impossible to predict what the whole thing is about.

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