A Close Call: Student Groups Escape $27K Network, Phone Bill

Student groups were billed $27,000 in unexpected charges for phones and network in June, covering the fiscal year from July 2007 to June 2008. The MIT administration has agreed to cover the charges this year, but plans for who would pay similar charges next year remain uncertain.

A committee including student representatives is being formed to address this question.

Of the 38 student groups affected, most were charged several hundred dollars, though some larger ones were billed over $1,000.

The charges, posted to student groups’ accounts on June 23, were a result of changes to the billing model for phones and network that Information Services and Technology put into place in June 2007.

This fiscal year, departments were billed on a new system that bases costs on employee headcount. But late in 2007, IS&T consulted with MIT’s grants office and decided that student groups, as well as external vendors on campus, would be excluded from the new billing system, said IS&T Director of Finance Angie Milonas. At that time, no new plan for how these groups would be billed for FY2008 and future years was set.

Student groups were not informed of these changes or discussions.

In early June, IS&T, along with Dean for Student Activities Jed W. Wartman and Peter D. Cummings, director of financial planning for the Division of Student Life, decided to calculate charges based on those from FY2007. Each group was billed 10 percent more than last year to cover rising costs. The student groups were not informed of this decision either.

As reported in The Tech last April, IS&T transitioned their bills to departments from charging monthly fees for each telephone and IP address to charging a fee based on number of employees to try to simplify billing and encourage the Institute to make more effective use of telephone and networking services.

Milonas said the later decision to exclude student groups and external vendors from the new billing plan stemmed from federal restrictions on how grant money can be spent, and a requirement that the federal government not subsidize external vendors.

The Tech reported last April that student groups were likely to stop paying for phones and network as a result of the fee restructuring, but no decisions happened in the following 14-month period.

When students began to notice the June 23 charges, some complained to Wartman, who sent out an announcement to the affected groups that evening, apologizing for the lack of notice and explaining the charges.

In interviews, Wartman and Cummings both agreed that important communication with student groups over these charges had not happened.

The final decision that MIT would cover the costs and a committee would be formed to address the question of future charges came as a result of student complaints about the charges, and the lack of notice about them.

Many questions remain as to how the issue of student phone and network charges will be handled in the future:

¶ Would keeping a per IP address charge for student groups restrict them in ways that departments are not restricted?

¶ Should student groups be treated financially more like departments or external vendors?

¶ What should be the basis for the rates student groups will be charged? Should the 2006–2007 usage be used as a starting point?

¶ Would it be fair to apportion the cost over all student groups, without regard to who uses these services at all?

The yet-to-be-formed committee may address some of these questions in the future. Peter Cummings, who also supervises finances for campus dining groups seems sensitive to the issues at hand: “I’d never want student groups to feel they’re a dining vendor,” he said.