For about 5 years, I’ve been the treasurer of the Association for Computational Learning, otherwise known as COLT, taking over from John Case before me. A transfer of duties to Phil Long is now about complete. This probably matters to almost no one, but I wanted to describe things a bit for those interested.
The immediate impetus for this decision was unhappiness over reviewing decisions at COLT 2009, one as an author and several as a member of the program committee. I seem to have disagreements fairly often about what is important work, partly because I’m focused on learning theory with practical implications, partly because I define learning theory more broadly than is typical amongst COLT members, and partly because COLT suffers a bit from insider-clique issues. The degree to which these issues come up varies substantially each year so last year is not predictive of this one. And, it’s important to understand that COLT remains healthy with these issues not nearly so bad as they were. Nevertheless, I would like to see them taken more actively into account than I’ve been able to persuade people so far.
After thinking about it for a few days before acting, I decided to go ahead with the transfer for another reason: I’ve been suffering from multitask poisoning. Partly this is Ada, but partly it’s many other things, each of which takes a small bit of my time, in aggregate leaving me disappointing people, myself in particular. The effect of this has been quite obvious in terms of the posting rate on hunch.net.
Fortunately, Phil Long was ready to take up the duties, and he’s well positioned to do so.
Despite the above, I found being treasurer not particularly difficult. The functions of the treasury part of ACL have been
- Self-insurance for the conference each year. Prior to the formation of ACL-the-nonprofit (which Bob was instrumental in), COLT used to buy insurance against the possibility that some disaster would strike canceling the conference while leaving the local organizer on the hook for substantial expenses. When I came in, the treasury was a little bit low for this function, and when I left, somewhat too high.
- Budget fragmentation avoidance. Local organizers typically have a local account from which they spend for expenses and collect registration fees. Without the ACL, dealing with net positive or negative local accounts from year to year was awkward. With the ACL, it’s easy to square things up at the end of each year.
- A stable point of contact for funding related things. COLT is partly sponsored by several big CS-related companies including IBM, Microsoft, and Google. Providing a stable point of contact definitely helps ease this process. This also helps on the publishing side, where Omnipress is the current publisher of proceedings.
- Budget advice for local organizers. Somewhat to my surprise, the proper role of the treasurer was typically asking the local organizer to reduce registration fees rather than increase. The essential observation is that local organizers, because they operate out of a local account, tend to be a bit conservative in budget estimates. On the other hand, because ACL has an adequate interest bearing account, we should expect and desire to spend the interest in each typical year. In effect, ACL is naturally in a position to sponsor COLT to a small but nontrivial degree.
After having been treasurer for a little while, I’m convinced that having a nonprofit to back a conference is a good idea easing many difficulties with relatively small effort.