By Erica Perez and Agustin Armendariz
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 moving allowance 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, 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.
In all, UCLA paid $45,000 to book or reimburse business- and first-class flights for Teri Schwartz, dean of the university’s School of Theater, Film and Television, 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.
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 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 4½ hours. The course includes a dreaded 5-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.
Officials at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management said about $80,000 of Olian’s expenses have been or will be reimbursed by outside organizations.
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.”
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