Proposed: November 20, 2008
Adopted: November 20, 2008
MEETING OF OCTOBER 24, 2008
President Lee C. Bollinger, the chairman, called the Senate to order shortly after 1:15 pm in 102 Jerome Greene Hall. Fifty-six of 91 senators were present during the meeting.
Minutes and agenda: The minutes of September 26 and the agenda were adopted as proposed.
President’s report: The president noted the inauguration the day before of Barnard president Deborah Spar, and congratulated Biology professor Martin Chalfie, who recently won the Nobel Prize. He said Columbia faculty have won five Nobels in the last eight years.
The president said that the world’s financial condition is now highly uncertain and deeply stressed. The main uncertainty is about the direction of the global economy over the next few months and years. He said knowledgeable people are predicting a significant, deep, and fairly prolonged recession for the United States, and then the whole world, even if some financial stability is restored in the near future.
The president said this situation is bound to affect the university, and all units are now planning for difficult economic conditions. He wanted to avoid excessive optimism as well as alarmism about Columbia’s financial position six months into the future. So far the impact on the university has been more than minimal, but less than substantial. Interestingly, he said, fundraising has not been affected yet. But the endowment can’t be expected to perform at the levels it maintained during the last few years. Under Columbia’s guidelines for spending endowment income, which calculate an average return over the previous three years, there is a lag between a downturn in the market (and therefore the endowment) and its impact on the university. So Columbia will have some cushion.
The president said federal research funding was already stressed. He said others in the room had a better understanding of the eventual impact of the financial downturn on Columbia research. As at the September plenary, the president noted that sometimes universities do well in difficult financial circumstances. He said Columbia’s physical plant expanded significantly during the Depression of the 1930s.
The president said the administration would communicate regularly about the financial situation with the university community. He said he wanted to be completely candid, but had little to add for the time being. He invited questions and comments. There were none.
Resolution to approve an M.S. in Sociomedical Sciences (School of Public Health). The president switched the order of the agenda to go straight to the new degree resolution, which
he hoped would be uncontroversial.
In the absence of Education Committee chair Letty Moss-Salentijn, Sen. James Applegate (Ten., A&S/NS) presented the resolution, which he said had been reviewed and recommended by Sen. Moss-Salentijn and committee member Kathleen Kehoe.
Without further discussion the Senate voted without dissent to approve the resolution.
Resolution to Limit Standing Committee Chairmanships to Two per Person (Structure and Operations). The president said this business was growing older and older. He noted that the Senate again did not have three-fifths of its full membership present and so could not vote on the resolution [more senators arrived later in the meeting, and there would have been enough to vote on the measure, but by then a comparable number of senators who had been present at the start had left].
--Update from the subcommittee reviewing a new policy statement on financial conflicts of interest in research. Executive Committee co-chair Sharyn O’Halloran said the new policy, which deals with conflicts of interest related to externally funded research, is complex. She asked senators to comment on the latest draft, dated October 8, which had been distributed. She anticipated public hearings on the policy early in November, one on Morningside and one at the Medical Center. It will then go to the Senate, either on November 20 or at the next plenary, on December 5. She hoped the policy would be thoroughly vetted before it reaches the Senate.
Sen. O’Halloran said the purpose of the new policy is twofold: to comply with federal regulations and to standardize its own regulations across the campuses. She appealed to senators to participate in the deliberative process.
--ROTC update. Sen. Duby said he had nothing new to report on his effort to learn more about the experience of students involved in off-campus ROTC programs. He invited student senators Rajat Roy (SEAS) and Monica Quaintance (CC) to report on efforts to arrange a survey of students on ROTC.
Sen. Quaintance said the undergraduate schools had been talking about holding a survey. The idea of surveying all Columbia students was also discussed by the Senate student caucus, without an immediate decision. But the purpose of a survey would be to gauge interest in establishing a Naval ROTC program at Columbia. There is now an Army ROTC program at Fordham, but no NROTC program in the immediate area. The ROTC program that was at Columbia until the late 1960s was a Naval program. Sen. Quaintance said she thought there was a demonstrated need for students across Columbia schools who wish to receive support from the Navy, but particularly among Engineering students. She and Sen. Roy had been in contact with the student councils of Columbia College, GS, Barnard, and Engineering.
Sen. Quaintance said plans for a survey had encountered some technological difficulties.
Sen. Roy said a survey, for undergraduates only, had been scheduled for November 17. He had hoped to launch a university-wide student survey at the same time, but there is no budget to pay the fee that CUIT will charge to run the survey. Sen. Roy said every student would eventually be polled, and he also hoped to learn the opinion of faculty and other Senate constituencies.
Sen. Quaintance said there had also been discussion about holding town hall meetings or other forums to present the history of the ROTC at Columbia, as well as the pros and cons of bringing it back. She hoped to arrange the broadest possible discussion, but so far the main activities have been discussions in Lerner among undergraduates.
Sen. Roy repeated that the issue will ultimately need university-wide consideration. In 2004 College student and ROTC cadet Sean Wilkes raised the issue within Columbia College. This time the impetus will be from a broader set of student constituencies, and it remained to be seen how the student caucus would decide on the issue.
In response to a question, Sen. Roy said he had made inquiries at the National Defense Institute, among other places, about whether the Navy would be willing to set up an ROTC program at Columbia. He said there has been a resurgence of interest among students in training for the Marines at what are called officer candidate schools, which provide substantially fewer benefits than ROTC. He said there are now about 20 Columbia students in these training programs.
Sen. Roy said he was waiting for more replies to his inquiries. He added that bringing a NROTC program would be more useful than adding Air Force or Army programs, which already exist at nearby campuses.
In response to a question from Sen. Robert Pollack (Ten., A&S/NS), Sen. Roy said the survey results will go to the student caucus, which he understood would then vote on whether to bring the issue to the Executive Committee for review.
Sen. David Rosner asked whether student deliberations on ROTC would be just an up-or-down vote or a deeper consideration of historical and other issues.
Sen. Roy anticipated two town-hall meetings, one at Barnard, the other on the Columbia Morningside campus. To prepare for those meetings, Sen. Roy said as much information would be disseminated as possible. He said the heads of the undergraduate councils have a full history of Senate deliberations on ROTC, and as much additional objective history as can be gathered.
Sen. Quaintance said the idea was to present the final survey with as little additional baggage as possible, so it would be essentially the yes-or-no question.
Sen. Suzanne Bakken said she thought any review of ROTC would encounter the same issue that was at the center of the last round of Senate deliberations on ROTC—the conflict between the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which bars homosexuals from military service, and the university’s anti-discrimination principles.
Sen. Roy agreed, but said important changes in national leadership might be imminent, which might lead to major policy changes. He said that the deliberative process he had described would leave time to address all relevant issues.
--Update from Anne Sullivan, EVP for Finance, on procurement issues. The president left the meeting shortly after the start of EVP Sullivan’s report.
Using PowerPoint slides, EVP Sullivan updated the Senate on conditions that she had described last April. When she had focused on problems that had attended the introduction of a new technology in Accounts Payable in October 2007. Its purpose was to provide an electronic record of all invoices and reimbursements going into the system, with the goal of eliminating paper in local departments as well as in AP, and improving tracking. The implementation of the technology took longer than expected, and actually created unanticipated processing backlogs.
By last spring the backlogs were diminishing, thanks to a number of other changes that had been instituted. EVP Sullivan had described those, and fielded questions about purchasing issues. She had also been asked to come back in the fall to give an update. She had brought Joe Harney, vice president for procurement, to help answer questions.
As for processing, EVP Sullivan said the electronic document (EDM) technology instituted a year earlier was now fully integrated, and about 60 percent of departments are scanning invoices for AP. She expected this fraction to rise further with the recent implementation of EDM throughout Arts and Sciences. Remaining invoices are sent by local mail, then scanned by AP. In response to feedback from departments, new fax lines have also been added for missing paperwork.
Last year’s backlogs forced administrators to take a needed look at internal processes, including management reporting during peak periods. As a result, processing times improved, first returning last spring to the levels that had preceded the new technology—five business days for travel reimbursements, 12 to process invoices, after all the paperwork reaches AP—and since then down to two days for travel reimbursements and three to process invoices.
The key lesson from the review of these processes is that the biggest delays occur not in Accounts Payable, but in the local departments submitting the invoices. EVP Sullivan showed a slide of a nameless Columbia school with its full processing cycles. The total average time for travel reimbursements was 44 days. The table showed a 20-day interval from the first submission of information to the local department to the actual entry date in AP. For paying outside vendors, these intervals rise to 30-40 (sometimes as high as 50) days.
The next step, from the arrival of the invoice at AP to the settling of all questions about the documentation, takes another 10 days on average. What remains is the time AP needs to process the transaction, which had by now been reduced to two or three days.
Better communication is a key step in reducing delays, EVP Sullivan said. Senior business officers in the schools need to see the data, so they can diagnose problems in the departments. For example, it might be a matter of reassigning of someone who is out of the office. This information had been distributed a month earlier for the quarter that ended June 30, and similar data would be distributed soon for the next quarter. She thought these steps would be helpful to both central and school administrators.
Sen. William Simon (Ten., Law) asked for more detail about the 10-day period that follows the first submission of an invoice to AP. EVP Sullivan said AP may have queries about the business purpose of an event, or a missing receipt, or dollar threshholds for different kinds of expenses. Now, in addition to notifying departments that a transaction is on hold, AP reminds them if they have not addressed the problem after five days
Sen. Simon said the fraction of submissions with inadequate documentation seemed high. EVP Sullivan said Procurements was now providing information on the volume of different kinds of documentation queries, so business officers know what kinds of training to emphasize.
Sen. John Brust (Ten., P&S) said delays grew longer a couple of years ago with the requirement that hotel bills were no longer sufficient documentation for travel reimbursement, and that one had to wait a month and produce one’s credit card bill. What was the point?
EVP Sullivan and VP Harney said this policy change preceded them. EVP Sullivan said there are times when reimbursement can go faster, but only with proof of the actual payment. In rare instances, she said, people have fraudulently submitted multiple charges for the same invoice.
Sen. Brust said he didn’t understand how a detailed hotel bill would be less satisfactory than a number on a credit card statement. EVP Sullivan said she would be happy to discuss the compliance issues later with Sen. Brust.
Sen. Savin said one problem may be that the offices responsible for submitting the invoices or reimbursement requests may be understaffed, and unable to respond quickly to the news that an invoice has been sent back for more documentation. He had suggested to VP Harney that if such notices were sent back to the initiator of a particular request—the person who wants the money—and not the processor, then the clarification process might go faster. Another problem, he said, was apparent arbitrariness or capriciousness in some decisions to reject documentation. For example, for only one out of a dozen meals during a recent trip of his, the documentation was kicked back with a question about alcohol.
EVP Sullivan said adequate communication of university policies to everyone affected by them is essential. Toward that end, she had established an AP working group of senior business officers in schools and department to help provide feedback on policy and process and to identify whether the real problem is a basic confusion about policy or a staffing issue. She thought that graphic displays like the one she had shown on an unnamed school—which she called dashboards—have helped to sort things out.
To clarify specific policies, EVP Sullivan said, she had begun a series of “road shows” with administrators in the schools, starting with General Studies a few days earlier and concluding by the end of November. She asked for feedback about the best way to educate faculty about specific policies. She said changes were also in the works for the AP web site, to be implemented early next spring.
EVP Sullivan said another major improvement has been in the AP service center. A long-vacant position for a senior AP manager was finally filled in June, and the new person has been responsible for dramatic improvements in response rates for both phone and email inquiries.
As for purchasing issues, EVP Sullivan said, her office had rolled out similar dashboards for schools and departments, and is trying to step up the rate of reminders about inadequate requisitions, as it has done with AP submissions. In addition, the process for forwarding completed purchase orders back to vendors has been shored up, with better vendor data.
Sen. Savin said one problem must be simply attributable to understaffing in Purchasing or AP. Are there plans to increase staffing to handle the volume better?
EVP Sullivan said she and VP Harney monitor this situation constantly. Recently a position was added for service agreements, and staffing has been increased for business services. She said better communication will reveal whether the problems are on the Procurements side or the department side.
Sen. Jessica Brann (Research Officers) expressed dissatisfaction with some of the university’s pricing agreements. Recently an order in her lab for a microscope setup was changed by Purchasing to a more expensive vendor with no notice to the lab. In that case her lab was able to correct the error, because the original vendor did not hear from Purchasing and started raising questions. Is there a notification process for cases like this?
VP Harney said sometimes there are reasons for changing orders that are apparent to Purchasing but not to labs. But he agreed that if the lab was not getting the notice, it should be.
In response to a question from Sen. Brann, VP Harney said the person notified by Purchasing was the administrative person who transmitted the order, not the person in the lab who submitted it. He said it was not possible for Purchasing always to notify add the person in the lab, but it was possible to prompt the administrative person to relay information to the person in the lab.
Sen. Brann said the administrative person now has no incentive to contact the lab. She said it would be a big help if Purchasing were to contact the source of the transaction. VP Harney said this idea made sense—especially for expensive items.
EVP Sullivan said the more information her office has about situations like this, the better. That will help her people figure out whether the problem is a business process issue, or something that could just be changed through technology, or poor judgment calls in Purchasing.
In response to questions at the previous meeting about pricing, EVP Sullivan said her office looks for kinds of purchases with high spending volumes and then negotiates university-wide purchasing agreements for those goods. Columbia now has about 120 such agreements, with about 20 to be renegotiated this year. She welcomed feedback about experience with particular vendors, and about competitive pricing. She said pricing isn’t the only criterion in purchasing agreements; quality of service also matters, as well as arrangements for resolving disagreements.
EVP Sullivan said there is a competitive bidding process, but Columbia also uses outside benchmarks and considers what consortia and buying organizations offer.
Sen. Silverstein asked if there was any reason why Columbia can’t consult with other universities in New York City about their purchasing agreements.
EVP Sullivan said Columbia does that kind of consulting informally when it can, though in some cases, like its peers, it is bound by nondisclosure agreements with vendors. Such information gathering is more likely in cases where vendors are not maintaining the original terms of an agreement. But she said she would welcome information from faculty about peers’ arrangements, as long as it doesn’t violate their agreements.
Sen. Savin said he had just learned that a particular European vendor supplying equipment for his lab will have to fill out a U.S. tax form with a U.S. tax ID number, in order to get paid. This requirement will add significant time to the transaction, Sen. Savin said.
EVP Sullivan said this is a routine IRS requirement for foreign firms doing business in the U.S. She said Procurements has made an effort to educate people about such requirements, which vary from country to country.
Sen. Savin asked why it should be necessary to fill out an income tax form, when Columbia is simply buying a product, not paying a salary.
VP Harney said the form required is probably a W-8—a kind of international version of the W-9, which provides vendor information. Whether or not there’s a requirement to withhold taxes, there can also be a requirement to report. He said Purchasing can work with vendors if they have questions. This is a kind of enhanced compliance activity, VP Harney said, so some people may perceive it as a new requirement. It’s usually requested for honoraria, but it can be also applied to the entire range of businesses providing goods and services.
Sen. Roy asked about communication within the university from Columbia units that have advantageous equipment deals. Can other units learn about these? EVP Sullivan said Purchasing certainly wants to know about such arrangements.
She said the effort to improve communication would include presentations to every school administration by the end of November.
EVP Sullivan mentioned another planned improvement that would benefit both purchasing and AP processing. If a Columbia department uses Corporate Express to buy office supplies, the transaction can be charged automatically to a departmental account, and doesn’t have to go through AP. About $1 million a year being spent on office supplies now is not going through Corporate Express, adding about two weeks’ worth.of invoices to the AP system.
Another reduction in AP processing is expected from the full implementation of purchasing cards (P Cards), EVP Sullivan said. Still another may come from the current quest for a single supplier of medical and surgical supplies for the Medical Center. She said the bidding process for such a supplier will begin in December.
Still another efficiency will be a new template for business service agreements that can save the university from negotiating these agreements one by one.
In response to a question from Sen. Savin, EVP Sullivan again reviewed efforts to help departments shorten the first stage of getting invoices and reimbursements into the AP system.
Sen. Savin said departments are already aware of their own staffing issues and need to know if the university will provide the additional staffing needed to process the AP transactions.
EVP Sullivan said it will take some time to figure out whether the preliminary period is 20 days long because of staffing issues or because people haven’t been paying attention to this particular stage of the procurement cycle.
Sen. James Coromilas (P&S, NT) expressed with having to wait for his credit card statement before he can be reimbursed for travel expenses. He said the best time to file the reimbursement form is right after the trip. Now there’s at least another month of delay in submitting, and 3-6 months can go by before the reimbursement comes through.
EVP Sullivan said she needed to say more, in another forum, about why these procedures were needed. She also thought it would worth determining whether they actually address the university’s compliance obligations. She said the average time for the whole reimbursement cycle is about 40 days; if it takes longer than that, something is clearly wrong.
Sen. Brust asked how the current procedure reduces fraud. EVP Sullivan said the proof of payment eliminates the possibility of multiple charges. But she said she would check again about the sufficiency of hotel bills and similar receipts.
Sen. Brust said the requirement made no sense, and he was not the only person with that opinion.
Sen. Brann asked if people could use P-Cards for travel, and thereby reduce the waiting.
EVP Sullivan said that idea had been discussed at length, but there remain too many compliance and policy issues to authorize the use of P-Cards for travel at this point. In addition, there are continuing efforts to make sure Columbia has adequate oversight at the local level. With P-Cards the university’s money is out the door right away, and it’s harder to go back to audit and make sure that the transactions have followed university policy.
Sen. Raluca Marian (Admin. Staff/CUMC) asked what would be an optimal processing time within departments before the invoices go to AP. She noted that the lag time on the EVP Taylor’s dashboards includes AP’s own vendor maintenance requirements, as well as internal departmental approval processes.
Another senator asked if the technological improvements include better tracking of expenditures for schools and departments, both within the purchasing system and afterwards.
EVP Sullivan said it has become easier not only to track transactions, but also for Procurement to reach out through “push” communication to notify people they have something waiting. She said that the question of what charges have hit the general ledger is separate from purchasing. She said Columbia’s general ledger is 30 years old, and needs to be replaced.
Sen. Andreas Svedin (Stu., GSAS/NS) asked whether push communication could amount to information overload for administrators. EVP Sullivan took the point. She said the dashboards that Procurements was sharing with the schools leave it to the discretion of senior administrators to pass on information about departments as they see fit. It’s not a matter of Procurements providing departmental administrators with their own individual report cards
Sen. Duby thanked EVP Sullivan and VP Harney for the presentation.
Other issues: Stephanie Hughes (Stu. Obs, UTS), a master’s degree student at Union Theological Seminary, said she had been unable to get supplementary student loans. She said other students were having similar difficulties, particularly foreign students who need cosigners for their loans. Her loan application was rejected, with the co-signature of her father, a coal miner. Ms. Hughes said she may have to withdraw. She asked if anyone at the university-wide level was thinking about these setbacks to students both from here and abroad.
Provost Alan Brinkley said he couldn’t speak to the policies of UTS, but Columbia was facing similar troubles. Only a limited number of institutions had been willing to provide loans to international students without cosigners in the United States, he said, and one by one those institutions had either collapsed or withdrawn. Some money was still coming to Columbia to support international students without cosigners, but much less than in the past. In the midst of the current chaos in the financial world, there was very little likelihood of a positive change this year. Columbia had tried, the provost said.
Sen. Roy asked if there were no mitigating circumstances or actions being considered.
The provost said Columbia has continued to look for vendors who are willing to make loans under these conditions, and there are very few.
Sen. Quaintance asked if there was nothing to be done for students currently enrolled who can’t go to school.
The provost said Columbia could increase the amount of financial aid to students, but only had limited resources for that purpose. It would not be able to compensate for the very large amount of money that was not coming in as loans. So he could not be optimistic.
Sen. Svedin asked if the university could help with the process of co-signing loans. The provost said the university could not take on that liability.
Sen. Samuel Silverstein asked what the order of magnitude was for this problem.
The provost said he did not have systematic information from the schools. He said SIPA faced a very significant problem, although they had managed to get some money, and were doing better than they had expected. But this was a university-wide problem.
Sen. Pollack asked if there was a way to learn the magnitude of the problem.
The provost said he could ask the deans, but said that information would not increase the university’s capacity to mitigate the problem. He said that when the amount of student loan money is made known to the university, there is a process for allocating it to the schools. It is carried out carefully and clearly, though there are disagreements about the amounts. But when allocations dry up in the middle of the process, as occurred this year, the process works less well.
Sen. Silverstein tentatively offered the idea of backing one’s own students with loans, though he recognized the obvious conflicts of interest built into such an arrangement. He said the situation presented a terrible human problem.
The provost agreed.
Sen. Silverstein said there might be other ideas—no less ludicrous on their face than the one he had just mentioned—that could provide some help, if handled the right way.
The provost said the university could not stop faculty from making personal loans, though he recommended against it. But the idea of redirecting other funds that come into a department or school as student loans would be a decision for the dean, in consultation with the general counsel. It might be possible to take such a step, though the process would be cumbersome.
He said an attempt to guarantee a loan would have to guaranteed by somebody’s funds, and not central funds. It might be school funds, but he didn’t know the legality of such an idea.
Sen. O’Halloran said the Engineering School had a pilot program to address this problem for some foreign students. The idea was to have alumni actually provide for some student, say in France, to get loans there to come to Columbia. She said such efforts are on a very small, even individual scale, through a private network. But this approach was a possible model, whose risks and broader application could be assessed.
Sen. Silverstein returned to the problem of personal conflict in the situation of assuring a loan to a student and being the student’s mentor at the same time.
The provost said there are two ways to get a loan for an international student. One is to have a cosigner within the United States, who can be anybody (except the university). The other is to get a loan that doesn’t require a cosigner, and that is the big problem. The funds that do not require cosigners have almost vanished because the institutions that traditionally provide such loans have either disappeared or been put under too much pressure.
The provost said any international student who could get a cosigner could probably still get a loan, but it is usually difficult for an international student to get a cosigner unless it’s a family member, a family friend, or perhaps somebody in the alumni body who wants to take the risk to help the student. The provost said the generosity of Columbia alumni is very great, and it would be worth inquiring whether there are alumni groups willing to take on such a liability.
Sen. Svedin suggested a joint initiative with peers to encourage the production of funds.
The provost said there are already coordinated efforts. There are national organizations that lobby in Washington on behalf of international students. Columbia’s Office of International Students and Scholars is closely tied with this effort. But in the current climate it’s extremely difficult, and no matter what kind of influence Columbia tries to wield, the financial world is now incapable of supporting Columbia’s students as it has even in the recent past. This outcome is very painful for the international students most of all, the provost said, but also for everyone in the university because Columbia prizes its international character, and it’s painful to see its ability to help them diminish in this way. But the university is now in the midst of a historic crisis, the provost said, which will have an impact of everything the university does.
In response to a question from Sen. Amena Cheema (Stu., Arts), the provost said it was unlikely that banks would make uncosigned loans for international students, since these are among the riskiest loans. Banks stopped making any loans like these altogether, and it’s highly unlikely they will resume. But Columbia could ask. Whether the amounts of the loans would be enough to make a difference is another question. Citibank was one of Columbia’s principal providers of these loans, and they first reduced the amount that they would provide, and then stopped altogether.
Supporting the provost’s point, EVP Sullivan said Citibank was by far the largest player in that loan market even three years ago. Banks have withdrawn from those types of loans, and there aren’t many left to choose from.
Sen. O’Halloran said possibilities for pooling risk opportunities and a pilot program of alumni groups guaranteeing loans deserve future consideration.
She and Sen. Duby adjourned the meeting at around 2:30 pm.