Just when things were looking great for USF, it had to happen.
The football team had moved closer to success. Well-respected humanitarians were visiting campus to give lectures. Enrollment was up.
Then it was discovered that there was nearly $275,000 stowed away in the English Language Institute.
This cannot look good for USF. It’s still a fledgling school in the national perspective, and it’s counting on respectable events – such as a victorious football game or an influential orator speaking at an event – to build its good name. The discovery of this money just makes the University look irresponsible in the media. (To be honest, if USF allowed this debacle to continue for as long as it did without sensible bookkeeping, the University was irresponsible.)
My question is this: Was Patricia Baker a thief or just negligent? I can understand Baker seeing $32,000 in cash, becoming a little too excited and stowing the currency in her office for personal use. But the $243,000 in checks? I can only assume that they were not made out to Baker.
Somehow, the delusional Baker thought that she could pilfer money specifically intended for USF. Unfortunately for her, any bank worth the money invested in them wouldn’t allow her to cash checks made out to the University. Even if she had signing authority on one of the accounts, if the check was made out to an academic institution or one of its subsidiaries, the only action that bank could take would be to deposit the money in the corresponding account. How, then, did Patricia Baker think she was going to get away with this money?
Furthermore, banks will not accept stale checks. If any of these checks were more than a year old – and I am lead to believe the majority of found checks were – then they are officially worthless.
Did someone in the ELI notice that nearly $300,000 in funds was not available for use? That’s a lot of money for a business to just “lose.” Did the students whose money was concealed even notice that the three-figure check they wrote to the institute was never deposited?
When I write a check, I budget around it, anticipating those funds to leave my account relatively quickly. I wonder if the students checked their accounts on a regular basis, only to find those funds still there. And had they noticed, did they call the Institute to inquire as to why they didn’t take the student’s money? (If any student whose finances were entangled in this situation is reading this, please respond via Letter to the Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
If banks won’t accept these stale checks after an explanation, then how will the ELI recover the funds? They certainly can’t try to cash the checks. Could you imagine checking your balance one day to find a few hundred dollars missing out of the blue? I know that would certainly interrupt my budgeting and perhaps even send me into overdraft.
Will the ELI call students and beg for new checks? I don’t know how many students will voluntarily hand over more money, especially after round one of the checks was handled so irresponsibly. What if some of the remitters of the checks have recently graduated? Contacting these students would pose a problem, just like forcing them to repay an institution of which they are no longer a member.
Part of me wants to give Baker the benefit of the doubt. I want to believe that she was just being lazy and careless, that the money would eventually make its way to a financial institution. Vice Provost for Faculty and Program Development Dwayne Smith seems to believe there was no criminal activity involved. But I cannot see how allowing that much money to inhabit an office for so long that the majority of the funds become stale isn’t intentional.
If anything else, Baker is guilty of reckless management. Now, if ill intent was a motivation, then it is certainly prosecutable. I think it should be. This is students’ money. If this is allowed to slip, then what is next? $300,000 is a “tiny” mishap in comparison to the quantity of money flowing in and out of USF every day. As students, we work very hard to pay our tuition. It’s a slap in the face to have the fruits of our labor pilfered and stashed for so long.
If there is anything that we can ascertain from this and last week’s column, it’s that it is so much easier to be financially immature than it is to be conscientious. Be above the bar. Take responsibility for your spending, even if your money comes from mommy and daddy’s hard work, not your own. Spend your money wisely, and track it every step of the way. Don’t let your money be taken for a ride, even if it is an entertaining rollercoaster.
Taylor Williams is a junior majoring in English education.