Wednesday, 5 October 2011

You May Go Now

Some of my colleagues in the US and abroad either have to provide details of their professional travel plans to their university before travel or, in some cases, have to get permission to travel, even when classes are not in session. At some institutions, these policies apply to both domestic and international professional travel, and at others, only to international travel.

Note: I am not talking about cases in which faculty are applying for travel funds from their university. I am talking about travel that is covered by a grant or other external sources of funding.

I know what my university's rules are for allowable travel expenses, airline and fare class selection, frequent flyer miles, use of a business credit card (rental cars and plane tickets: yes! casino chips and massages: no!), and the reimbursement process. Every once in a while I hear a rumor about a notification policy, but so far, it seems that either there isn't such a policy or it is not enforced. 

For a while, faculty in my department were supposed to provide travel plans in advance to a certain administrative assistant; if we didn't, we were told, we might not be covered by health insurance or workers' compensation if a problem arose during travel.

That did not seem quite fair to me. If I traveled to a major city for perfectly legitimate professional reasons and then, while walking to my hotel, I am struck on the head by a piece of plywood that falls off a building under construction (true story), would I be ineligible for coverage if I hadn't told my department I was making the trip? Maybe I don't want to know the answer to that.

Anyway, when that pseudo-policy was in effect, some of us dutifully filed our travel info, some of us didn't, and eventually the AA pleaded with us all to stop sending her this information, so we did (stop).

I can see why a university might want to know quickly and accurately who is where if major disaster strikes in a particular location. I am not sure, however, that knowing what country and city we are in would be that useful for any practical purpose in an emergency. I could be quite wrong about that: Do universities that know the general whereabouts of its employees (I am not including students in this; that is different) during a major natural or other disaster provide any useful help, or is travel info just a record-keeping exercise for general bureaucratic purposes?

I do not know the answer to that question. I have been in/near some disasters during travel, but in those particular cases I did not need assistance from my university to deal with whatever I needed to deal with (for example, alerting family, friends, and colleagues that I was fine).

Do you believe that universities collect travel information out of concern for their employees and students? Some of my more cynical colleagues think there are darker motives for collecting such data.. (and if you can't guess what these are, that's great -- it means you are not (yet) a paranoid cynic).

Some things like this (travel plan reporting) may still be the domain of departments or other sub-units of an institution, so policies and/or enforcement may vary even within a single university. This may change: it seems that there is a move to centralize some functions that were formerly dealt with in departments; none of this has increased efficiency, as far as I can tell.

I hope the day never comes when such a policy either comes into existence or is enforced in my little corner of academia, dramatically decreasing our freedom to hop on a plane and travel incognito to Tuvalu on a whim, while adding to the amount of paperwork that we all have to do and that may well not have any real purpose.

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