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Thirteen years ago, the University of California changed its ban on flying business or first class on the university’s dime, adding a special exception for employees with a medical need.
What followed at UCLA was an acute outbreak of medical need.
Over the past several years, six of 17 academic deans at the Westwood campus routinely have submitted doctors’ notes stating they have a medical need to fly in a class other than economy, costing the university $234,000 more than it would have for coach-class flights, expense records show.
One of these deans, Judy Olian of the Anderson School of Management, has at least twice tackled the arduous 56-mile cycling leg of the long course relay at Monterey County’s Wildflower Triathlon, according to her expense records and race results. She described herself in a 2011 Los Angeles Times profile as a “cardio junkie.”
With a medical waiver granted by UCLA, however, she has an expense account that regularly includes business-class travel. She spends more on airfare and other travel expenses per year than any other UCLA dean or the chancellor, and she also far outpaces her counterpart at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
Olian’s travel is part of a pattern of lavish spending at the public university, which routinely bends its rules for its top academic officials, according to an analysis by The Center for Investigative Reporting of documents obtained through the state Public Records Act.
Officials have taken flights costing more than $10,000, taken chauffeured town cars to the airport and spent nights at a Four Seasons hotel at university expense.
The UCLA officials added luxury and comfort to their travels while the UC system underwent one of the worst funding crises in its history. Undergraduates have seen tuition and fees increase nearly 70 percent since the 2008 school year.
Overall, Chancellor Gene Block and 17 deans who oversee the schools of business, film and theater, law, medicine and others spent about $2 million on travel and entertainment from 2008 to 2012. About half a million went to first- or business-class airfare for the six deans with medical exemptions, according to documents.
UCLA is not the only place within the state’s public university system with liberal spending on executives. The UC Board of Regents this month approved an annual car allowance of $8,916 and a "relocation" bonus of $142,500 for incoming President Janet Napolitano, the departing Department of Homeland Security chief.
Considered one of the best universities in the country, UCLA justifies its expenses as a way to personally connect with wealthy donors and compensate for years of declining state support.
Patrick Callan, president of the nonprofit Higher Education Policy Institute in San Jose, Calif., said no one would deny that university officials need to travel. But well-compensated administrators, he said, do not need to live luxuriously to raise money.
“Maybe we have to throw fancy parties sometimes for them (donors),” he said. “But that we have to live that lifestyle ourselves as senior higher education administrators seems to me to be pretty questionable.”
The UCLA expense reports were submitted for attending meetings with donors, stoking new educational partnerships in foreign locales and attending academic conferences and film festivals.
For all six deans with medical exemptions, UCLA spent $486,000 on 130 business- or first-class airfares from 2008 to mid-2012, university records show. UCLA could have saved at least $234,000 by purchasing economy-class tickets based on an analysis of typical fares from the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics and the Airline Tariff Publishing Co., which provides fare data.
Overall, the university paid about $296,000 for Olian’s premium airfares from 2008 to May 2012. Airfare for a June 2010 multistop trip to Washington, D.C., and Asia cost the university $12,000.
In contrast, UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business dean, Richard Lyons, spent $107,000 on travel and entertainment from 2008 to 2012 – about one-sixth of Olian’s $647,000 tab for meals, lodging, registration fees, car service, airfare and other expenses, according to records obtained from UCLA Records Management and Information Practices through a public records request.
For some government watchdogs, the spending appears excessive. Callan said that while he could not comment on the propriety of each individual trip, the pattern of spending damages the public credibility of the university.
"The question is whether this kind of upscale travel is appropriate at a time when there’s so much belt-tightening going on inside the university, with the faculty not seeing salary increases and students who were seeing huge tuition increases during that time," Callan said.
"It strikes me as not very good judgment. It’s not very appropriate."
UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton said in a written statement that travel is an essential component of campus leaders’ efforts to cultivate relationships and engage alumni around the world. He said unforeseen circumstances and practical considerations sometimes warrant exceptions to travel policy.
“While today’s times demand financial prudence, UCLA must make investments in travel and entertainment-related activities to continue its trajectory as one of the world’s top research universities and a national leader in securing gifts and research funding,” the statement said.
The expenses troubled a state lawmaker who has been a frequent critic of the university’s spending. Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, said the deans’ expenditures should be examined further.
“Sadly, the UC system has a bad track record when it comes to spending public money openly and responsibly,” Yee said. “It is worth looking into the matter so we can assure our tax dollars are being spent wisely.”
For Olian, 61, the costs add up quickly because she has a doctor’s note that allows her to fly business or first class on her frequent trips to the East Coast and abroad.
At the same time, she competes in athletic events. In April 2011, she conquered the Wildflower Triathlon’s considerably difficult cycling leg in about four and a half hours. The course includes a dreaded five-mile hill that climbs 1,000 feet, earning it the nickname “Nasty Grade.”
A month before joining a university-sponsored triathlon relay team in the 2011 race, Olian used a doctor’s note to justify flying first class to Florida, where she met with a donor and attended The Wall Street Journal’s Women in the Economy conference. UCLA paid about $2,400 for the airfare, nearly four times as much as the average fares at that time.
None of the deans would comment about their expenses or medical waivers. UCLA Anderson spokeswoman Allison Holmes declined to identify Olian’s medical condition but said it allows her to bike.
“There are many medical conditions that enable individuals to do certain activities, but not others, (such as) fly in confined spaces for longer flights,” she said.
UCLA’s Anderson School of Management provided a list of $49,000 in travel and entertainment expenses that officials said had been reimbursed by outside organizations. But there was no way to verify that these credits corresponded to the documents provided by UCLA Records Management.
The business school also expects to be reimbursed by external groups for an additional $29,000 in travel expenses. The school has not yet received the money, even though Olian took the trips between June 2009 and February 2012.
Holmes said the business school does not use state funding to pay for travel and entertainment expenses, relying instead on sources such as tuition revenue and donations. She said the school considers travel and entertainment to be necessary investments.
“Fundraising is therefore vital for the dean of UCLA Anderson in the face of diminishing state support, in order for us to remain the world-class school that we are and have been,” she said.
“Globalization is one of the biggest priorities for Anderson, and the dean’s results have been remarkable, including many new global alumni chapters and global immersion programs, a new global center, two joint global degree programs and an applicant pool that is now over 50 percent from abroad.”
About 6 percent of the business school’s budget comes from state funds, with the rest coming from tuition, fundraising and revenue-generating operations. That will change this fall under a self-supporting model approved in June by outgoing UC President Mark G. Yudof.
The change means state funding that previously went to UCLA Anderson will go to other UCLA programs, and the business school will be able to retain all of its tuition revenue. The move gives the school more flexibility to set tuition, and officials hope it will encourage donors to provide more philanthropic support.
Citing privacy reasons, the university would not disclose the specific details of medical needs or disabilities used to justify extra expenditures.
But unredacted travel records obtained by CIR said “medically diagnosed back issues” made it impossible for Teri Schwartz, dean of the university’s School of Theater, Film and Television, to fly coach.
Last year, Schwartz met with donors and potential supporters in London and attended the Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship in Oxford. The university paid $6,500 for her airfare on that trip.
In all, UCLA paid $45,000 to book or reimburse business- and first-class flights for Schwartz from July 2009, when she started the job, to May 2012. She also used the medical note to justify flying first class on shorter flights, such as an hourlong hop from Los Angeles to Las Vegas that cost $543.
For Schwartz, a former producer whose credits include “Sister Act” and “Beaches,” no expense has proved too small to put on the university’s tab.
On her way to and from the airport in a hired town car, Schwartz would ride with her dog in tow, expensing $5 each way for an extra stop at a kennel. In March 2010, an official from UCLA Corporate Financial Services told Schwartz that she could not ask the university to pay the extra $10, calling it a personal expense.
The next day, the limousine company sent an email to the film school apologizing for sending incorrect invoices. The original receipts showed itemized $5 charges for “Extra stop: kennel.” The new invoices charged the same amount but no longer itemized the pet pickup and drop-off.
From that point forward, records show, Schwartz submitted invoices that charged the same amount but no longer itemized kennel stops. UCLA reimbursed the full amounts.
Leveraging policy’s exceptions
UC travel policy requires employees to fly coach with the following exceptions: when there is a medical need, when coach is unavailable, when using coach would be more expensive or time consuming, or when the trip involves overnight travel without time to rest before work begins.
UCLA has paid $75,000 for premium flights for School of Nursing Dean Courtney Lyder since his tenure began in August 2008. Lyder used a doctor’s note – redacted by UCLA – to justify nearly half of these trips. Other times, he skirted the restriction because he said he needed extra rest on the plane before a busy schedule of meetings.
From 2008 until she stepped down in July 2012, Dr. Linda Rosenstock, then-dean of the Fielding School of Public Health, billed UCLA for about $40,000 in premium flights, mostly to Washington, D.C.
For most of those flights, Rosenstock used a doctor’s note that allowed first-class travel for flights of more than two hours.
In one trip to Washington to talk to legislators about the school’s Global Bio Lab in April 2009, Rosenstock used UCLA funds to purchase premium flights for herself and a major donor at a cost of $2,200 each – an approved exception to UC travel policy, which generally prohibits paying for travel expenses on others’ behalf.
Rosenstock’s expense report noted that the presence of the donor, whose name was redacted, was important because of her relationships with lawmakers.
After Rosenstock stepped down, her successor, Dr. Jody Heymann, quickly obtained her own medical note justifying premium flights. She has used it at least once since she took the reins in January to fly business class to London for meetings.
Franklin D. Gilliam Jr., dean of the Luskin School of Public Affairs, has billed UCLA for roughly $17,000 in premium airfares since September 2008, when he started the job. His doctor’s note cites a medical disability that requires business-class accommodations for extended travel – including trips to the East Coast, Midwest and Australia.
Gilliam also has used the note to justify using a car service. An expense report for 2009 limousine rides between Gilliam’s home and the airport said that “because of Dean Gilliam’s disability, it is recommended that he travel with business class arrangements to allow change of positions.”
The university reimbursed School of Dentistry Dean No-Hee Park for about $12,000 in premium flights since 2008, each time using a doctor’s note that advised using business class or higher for flights of more than four hours.
Several officials have sought exemptions successfully to other travel policies meant to contain costs.
Block’s expenses include about $40,000 for chauffeured car service from 2008 to 2012. The chancellor, who does not have a medical exemption, often justifies the expense by saying he needs a “private setting with ample light” to review documents and prepare for meetings, according to UCLA documents.
The film school’s Schwartz, 63, has hired a chauffeured vehicle routinely instead of a regular taxi, including two town-car trips costing $665 between London and Oxford. She uses her doctor’s note to justify traveling to and from airports by car service.
UCLA paid Red Carpet Limousine $842 to take Olian from Los Angeles to San Diego and back for a donor’s 80th birthday party. Olian gave the donor, whose name was redacted from university records, a $234 pair of engraved cufflinks, which also was expensed and reimbursed.
Olian’s expense report explained that the car transportation was nearly half the cost of flying to the event and staying at a hotel overnight.
However, if Olian had booked an average round-trip premium fare to San Diego of $260, a $200 hotel stay, her typical $160 round-trip car service to and from the Los Angeles airport and a $20 breakfast, the cost of flying still would have been about $200 less than the car service.
Staying close to home
The university does not have dollar limits on lodging expenses, requiring only that room rates be “reasonable.” The accounting department occasionally questions the high price of a luxury hotel, but by and large, these expenses end up getting reimbursed.
In 2009, Rosenstock, the former public health dean, expensed a $724-per-night room at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Fla., because that’s where the Society of Medical Administrators was holding its annual meeting.
She also stayed in a $675-per-night room at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York in September 2008 for the Clinton Global Initiative.
UC rules state that hotel stays shouldn’t be expensed unless an employee is attending an event at least 40 miles away from UCLA. But on several occasions, that rule has been ignored for the comfort of the university’s top leaders.
For a conference in Pasadena, 26 miles from UCLA, Block stayed at The Langham Huntington hotel for two nights at a cost of about $250 per night because events began early in the morning and ended late in the evening.
For Schwartz’s attendance at the February 2010 TED conference in Long Beach, UCLA paid more than $1,000 for a four-night stay at the Westin Hotel – even though it was about 30 miles away from UCLA.
When UCLA’s travel department questioned the expense, Schwartz responded in a note that she had to attend after-conference meetings each night, making a hotel stay necessary.
“THIS SHOULD BE SELF-EXPLANATORY AS TO WHY EVERYONE STAYS AT THE HOTEL!” she wrote in all caps.
UCLA approved the expense.
Allison Baird-James, associate vice chancellor and controller, is in charge of approving expense reports for the university's deans. In a statement, she wrote that when a portion of a UCLA official’s expense report appears to fall outside the university’s travel reimbursement policy, it is returned to the requester for further clarification or personal payment.
She declined to comment further.
In some cases, expenses are denied. In 2009, Timothy Stowell, then dean of the Division of Humanities, purchased a business-class airfare from Los Angeles to London for $2,200 and requested reimbursement for $1,900 – claiming this was the cost of an equivalent coach fare.
But an auditor from UCLA accounting flagged the request and said the university’s travel department could have gotten a coach fare for $1,400. Stowell’s staff reduced his reimbursement request as a result.
This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.