UI defends increase in travel expenses

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By Ariana Witt, The Daily Iowan

University of Iowa employees spent more than $28 million on travel in fiscal 2010, a number that has steadily increased since 2006.

Of the $28,598,515 the UI spent in 2010, $3.6 million went to international travel, and $20.4 million to domestic travel outside Iowa. Almost one-third of the total was spent by the athletics department, which is fully self-sustaining. The figures were provided to The Daily Iowan in response to a public records request.

Officials said the spending was justified.

“It’s part of the business of the university,” said UI spokesman Tom Moore. “It’s a necessary requirement in many cases, and the university works very hard to be good stewards of the resources we have on behalf of Iowans. Travel is a necessary part of any business.”

As budgets shrink, travel expenses have become an increasingly heated issue nationwide. Last month, the president of the University of the District of Columbia came under fire last month for frequent first-class trips and high expenses for auto travel, according to the Washington Post.

And it’s indulgences such as those that have made university presidents increasingly cautious about their travel, said Paul Hassen, the vice president for public affairs for the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

“I think all presidents and everyone in the university community are very sensitive about their expenses, and they think very hard about the money it takes to attend meetings and such,” he said.

UI President Sally Mason likely isn’t contributing to much of the increase as she doesn’t fly on taxpayer money.

Moore said all of Mason’s trips — including some to Arizona, Minnesota, and Florida in the past year, among others — are funded through the UI Foundation rather than through taxpayer money.

Most of her trips are to promote the UI and raise money from donors. There are no clear guidelines about what class she flies in or what cars to rent, although officials try to use shuttles.

Mason will sometimes fly first-class, though Moore did not say how frequently that occurs.

Hassen cited several states that have restricted travel in the last few years — including Missouri, Illinois, and Nevada, which have implemented travel bans among public institutions. California and Arizona have also begun to crack down, he said.

In response, university officials have begun turning to webinars and conference calls rather than plane trips.

But, Hassen said, the money allotted for travel depends greatly on how the state is trying to manage its money. And increases can often be attributed to the higher cost of travel rather than a greater number of trips, he said.

At the UI, many trips are determined by departmental supervisors. Many, particularly for researchers, are funded by grants. The Internal Medicine Department spent almost $1 million last year. Whether departmental figures fly first class or coach depends on the nature of the travel.

“One researcher, as a part of his research grant, was required to travel first class to Switzerland, but the company he conducted the study for paid for the travel,” Moore said.

The UI also has restrictions on how much employees can spend on hotel, food, and mileage when traveling, Moore said, and any extra spending would come from the employee’s personal funds.

Nationwide, other university presidents told the Washington Post that they rarely fly first-class. For instance, former UI Provost Wallace Loh — now president of the University of Maryland —can only fly first-class when traveling internationally and drives a hybrid car when “Earth-bound.”

Moore said UI officials routinely evaluate travel expenses upon the return of UI employees.

Large increases have also come from the UI International Programs and Office for Study Abroad.

International Programs jumped from $380,000 to $473,000 in a year. The Office for Study Abroad went from $225,000 to $360,000.

Leaders of both departments said travel was a vital part of what both departments do, and the trips come at little cost to the UI.

“Part of our mission is to support student and faculty travel abroad to do teaching and outreach and to bring specialists from a board so students can interact with them,” said Downing Thomas, the dean of International Programs. “Travel is an important part of what we do. It’s hard to foresee whether expenses will go up or down in the future.”

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