Des Moines Register
Regent questions travel costs
State university officials spent $55,000 last year, an auditor says.
By ERIN JORDAN
REGISTER IOWA CITY BUREAU
An Iowa Board of Regents auditor is reviewing spending in the presidents' offices
at Iowa's public universities after spending scandals have rocked other
universities as close as Nebraska.
Travel expenses are among costs being scrutinized at the University of Iowa,
Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa as part of the audit
requested by Regent Teresa Wahlert.
"People are interested in and have a right to ask questions to make sure all the
controls are in place," Wahlert said.
The presidents, provosts and vice presidents for finance at Iowa's three public
universities spent more than $55,000 on out-of-state travel in the year that ended
June 30 and nearly $142,000 in the last three fiscal years, according to public
records obtained by The Des Moines Register.
While the out-of-state travel totals don't raise eyebrows with legislators or
students, some people questioned individual expenses, such as high-priced hotel
rooms or a weeklong leadership course that cost more than $5,800.
"I don't think we should have our public servants staying at $400-a-night hotels,"
said Sen. Paul McKinley, R-Chariton, co-chairman of the Education Committee.
"I've stayed in hotels all over the world, and I don't think I've ever stayed in a
hotel that expensive."
Out-of-state travel is crucial for universities increasingly trying to lure nonresident
students and obtain grants and donations from around the world, leaders said.
"You have to visit donors and alumni where they are, and many of the most
generous benefactors and alumni don't live in Iowa," Geoffroy said.
Administrative travel may be worth the cost, student leaders said.
"It is a lot of money, especially when we're feeling hard times," ISU student
government President Emily Jensen said. "But the conversations the
presidents and provosts are having are shaping Iowa State."
Spending by university leaders is a hot topic, especially as student tuition and
fees become a larger share of general education funding at Iowa's public
universities. Students at ISU, U of I and UNI are paying an additional $200
surcharge this year to pay for higher energy costs and faculty salaries.
It is difficult to compare travel costs with other states' because universities track
expenses differently, but recent spending scandals have caused departures of
university officials elsewhere.
Jim Buck, vice president for administration at the University of Nebraska at
Omaha, retired earlier this year after taking heat over spending more than
$100,000 in four years on things like university-related travel, satellite radio and a
country club membership, the Omaha World-Herald reported. In 2005, the
president of American University in Washington, D.C., resigned and the president
of Quincy College in Massachusetts was fired amid controversies about travel
The Register's review of out-of-state travel showed the presidents, provosts and
vice presidents for finance, which included 10 administrators, traveled out of
state 152 times in the three years that ended June 30.
Trips include a bowl party in Houston, congress-ional visits to Washington, D.C.,
fundraising trips to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Boston, and conferences in
Atlanta, Phoenix and Philadelphia.
There were also trips abroad, to Mexico, Egypt, South Korea, Indonesia, Russia,
China and British Columbia.
Former U of I President David Skorton spent the most, with $30,000 in the last
three fiscal years. Geoffroy took more trips than any other leader, with 30 in the
last three years, including 13 to Washington, D.C.
The majority of out-of-state travel was paid for with the universities' general
education funds, which include tuition and state appropriations. Restricted funds
were used on some trips, as was money from the athletic departments and
auxiliary units, such as U of I Health Care.
Travel totals do not, in most cases, include costs paid by the universities'
foundations, which often pay for part of a trip jointly used for fundraising and
other university business.
"I didn't see anything that jumped out at me too hard," Deputy State Auditor Andy
Nielsen said after reviewing the travel records. He noted occasional pricey hotel
rooms and flights, but said it's hard to judge without knowing specific
circumstances of each trip.
The presidents, provosts and vice presidents for finance at the U of I and ISU
were reimbursed more than 40 times in the last three fiscal years for hotel rooms
that cost more than $250 a night. About half of these trips were for conferences.
UNI administrators were reimbursed four times in three years for daily expenses,
which include lodging, meals and miscellaneous, of more than $300 per day.
The universities each have travel policies that require employees to fly business
class, stay in affordable hotels, limit spending on meals and turn in receipts.
Business office staff spot-check travel expenses.
But there are exceptions to travel rules. For example, when university employees
are attending a conference held at a hotel, they are allowed to stay at that hotel
even if there are cheaper options nearby.
"They are typically supposed to reserve the most economical (hotel rooms), but
we allow them to stay at the conference hotel, so we don't have an absolute limit
on room rates," said Johnny Pickett, associate vice president for business
and finance at ISU.
Former UNI Provost Aaron Podolefsky spent $5,800 to attend a weeklong
leadership course at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., in 2004. The $5,300
fee for the Educational Leadership Program's seminar for college and university
chief academic officers included registration, lodging and meals.
"It was more like a course, which is very different from your run-of-the-mill
conference," said Podolefsky, who is now president of the University of Central
UNI did not know how much of the fee went toward the program's registration.
The phone number listed for the program's office in New York City does not
appear to work.
Geoffroy and Skorton each spent $812 staying two nights at the Four Seasons
in Washington, D.C., where the Association of American Universities was holding
its presidents' meeting in April. The $406-per-night reimbursement included the
hotel stay and tax. The Four Seasons standard rate is $565 per weeknight, but
conference attendees often get cheaper group rates.
The AAU presidents meeting includes the leaders of 62 top North American
"It's an opportunity to discuss the major issues confronting higher education in
the United States and share information about how our various institutions
address them," Geoffroy said.
The group will discuss cyber security, women in science and engineering and
collaborations with universities in China and India at its October meeting, he said.
All of the leaders said traveling to sporting events, such as bowl games and the
NCAA basketball tournament, was crucial to interacting with fans and donors.
"We are working the whole time to promote our academic programs," said U of I
Provost Mike Hogan. "It's efficient because a lot of alumni are together at one
The cost of public records
Iowa's public universities charged The Des Moines Register nearly $260 for
information about travel expenses of their top administrators.
Although the information is public and the Register intended to publish it as part
of a story, the universities charged the newspaper for staff time to provide the
The University of Iowa's original bill was $150, which included five hours of staff
time at $15 per hour and $75 for computer programming. The U of I came down
to $100. Iowa State University charged the Register $83.90, which included five
hours of labor at $15 per hour and $8.90 for copies. The University of Northern
Iowa charged $75, which was for five hours of labor at $15 per hour.