validation for $1.19

Tonight over beers, I got just enough validation that I felt better about things. At least, I realized that there’s a consistent type of interaction that others have had with a certain midlevel administrator in my place of work. For a while it’s funny when you see aspects of your workplace’s disfunction in every Dilbert cartoon you see; but after a while it just gets depressing. Then, when you realize that others are having the same set of issues, you realize that you’re not crazy.

There are a few particularly defining stories, some of which I didn’t even get a chance to tell. There were too many other great, corroborating stories. And, I found that someone else had also looked up the boss’s “Rate My Professor” commentaries from his previous institution — with enlightening results for someone who advocates reformed teaching for everyone else, even though he apparently prepares consistently dreadful sequences of PowerPoint slides. Turns out my colleague had been prompted to look this up when our leader suggested that such ratings could be a part of an evaluation, something that has clear procedural problems. So, I felt less guilty for being so trite as I found further contradictions between what someone claims to be and how he practices.

In my own experience, and with others, there have been plenty of examples of contradictions, inconsistencies, and just generally being a prick and/or poor listener. They come from random places and out of random situations. Once, he offered to me out of the blue that he “didn’t like to micromanage,” but then proceeded to suggest edits to a document that I had given him a month earlier, yet he still hadn’t begun to actually read. The other day, after I was telling him about an event sponsored by our African American fraternity and sorority, he blurted, “Do we even have Black students here?” I stared at him. So he continued to explain: “I’m not being facetious.” This, of course, didn’t improve my opinion of him.

But the most interesting recent interaction was thanks to a combination of the administrator, administrativia in general, and some bureaucracy gluing it all together. I’m used to a certain level of bureaucracy, working at a public institution of higher learning. For example, I get an email from an internal auditing office every couple of months to ask me to document a purchase I’ve made, to legitimize its purpose. They never ask me about the cases of surgical lubricant I’m ordering during the summer, but are sure to pick on boxes of electronics. That just seems strange to me, but I imagine the poor accountants don’t want to imagine too much. What they should be imagining are not the possibilities of misuses of tens our even hundreds of dollars that are already overseen by a reconciler, an office that manages the grants, as well as the granting agency. Instead, they might want to consider the examples of folks I’ve known about who have managed to launder hundreds of thousands of dollars before getting caught. (And in the process they falsified data, which I should tell a former master’s student about, since he cited them in his thesis.) But that’s all fine. It’s part of the day to day.

On the day I got a note from the college secretary asking me what account we should put “indirects” into, I got excited. For the past two years I’ve managed a grant that draws in a portion of money to pay the institution for the administration of the grant, putting funds back into offices that are tasked with or otherwise connected to the grant program itself. (There are problems with this, and I’m cynical about the process in general, but since I have an office that is supposed to be a campus and community resource with currently zero budget, the funds will help.) The guy upstairs — not God, but he might not know the difference — has told me repeatedly that he’ll make sure I can use these funds to keep my office operational. I’d been told this for a year; and in the meantime I’d been told that he’s “looking for them.” Yes, they got lost.

So imagine how pleased I would be to get this question from the secretary: where would I like the funds? This part was a simple question with a simple answer. It was the following line that perplexed me. “As soon as I get your answer, the $1.19 will get transferred.”

I wasn’t ungrateful. In fact, I thought it was funny that such a strange typo would be part of the message, because the boss could not have possibly gone to the trouble of telling the secretary to process this next step that would amount to less than what I could put into a vending machine? Sure, I said, please transfer the money; and isn’t it funny that you had that typo; just let me know how much the real amount is.

The boss emailed back to tell me that it wasn’t a typo, that in fact they still hadn’t figured out where last year’s funds were (even though I had them all in my ledger), but they found the most recent records and could confirm that my office was owed $1.19. Later, he delivered an envelope to my mailbox with exactly $1.19 in it, as a joke. It would have been funny had anyone else done this, had I not actually needed some of those monies for operations I was being asked to take on.

I’ve sat on this story for a few weeks because it just looked ridiculous on the page. It still does, but tonight, over a pitcher of beer, other stories came out. Not stories of $1.19, but other corroborations and confirmations. It’s all too sordid and frustrating to retell, but there was, in short, a kind of validation by the group of the individual experiences. And then it got a little funnier, like a Dilbert cartoon, except we were retelling our own experience in it. In a strange way, maybe the boss’s shortcomings will bring more of us together. Not a bad return on the investment of $1.19.

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