School dollars paying for exotic trips

HOUSTON More bills, exotic travel, and dinners which most people could never afford were all paid for with student tuition money.

We'll go sightseeing because you might want to know how some of that student loan money you had to borrow has been spent and how a big university keeps lousy records.

There's no more famous tourist attraction in India than the Taj Mahal.

Tuition money paid for University of Houston Provost John Antel and six other UH officials to travel to India to explore educational exchanges and a possible UH facility.

"Things would have to evolve much further than they are now to warrant having a campus in India," Antel.

But they took time out to sightsee. Tour guide records show the 11-day trip included sight-seeing in three cities during three days, including a trip to the Taj Mahal.

"Well, it takes like half a day to get there," said Antel.

That meant thousands in travel and hotel bills. How did that sight-seeing help kids here in Houston?

"Taj Mahal is something if someone wants to be conversant of history and culture of India, that's something you should know about. That's all," said Antel.

Dean William Fitzgibbon went to India about the same time to recruit graduate students. His airfare was four times as much as his colleagues...but business class usually is.

His wife was going too, but UH doesn't pay for her airfare. There was even a pre-trip dinner with a Houston chamber official to prepare for the trip, complete with filet mignon, vodka martinis and wine. You've got to get ready for a road trip.

You know how much the U of H central campus spent just on foreign travel last year? More than a million dollars.

UH is now reviewing travel policies because of lax documentation, like an eight-day trip to New Dehli. The only UH travel records provided list a meeting with one official. There's no way of knowing what else this dean did.

"We're going to be responding to some of those issues," said Antel.

Education watchdog Tom Smith said, "It's outrageous. The kind of things they teach their own students about, careful accounting principles, accountability, about being able to justify the work you do in the workplace, is not being done by upper management of the university."

"Our documentation has been lax and that's being corrected," said UH Regent Chairman Welcome Wilson.

Add the foreign travel, the business meals, and the liquor account and now you know where millions of students' tuition money has gone.

"I think it's a sense of entitlement or elitism," said Smith.

Under state law, college deans are no better than any other state employee. Their meal limit is $36.

"This is a state university," we said to Anetel.

"Right, but not all the money that we spend comes from the state," he said.

UH makes its own rules, tripling the dean's per diem to $100 per person. It's $200 if you bring the wife along for a business meal because they're using the kids' money. And it's hard to find an administrator's meal that doesn't include alcohol.

"Universities have to remember that they have customers and those customers are students and their parents," said Texas Senator Dan Patrick of Houston.

"We're going to look at that, we're going to fine tune that, build on that," said Antel.

"You're going to make it smaller?" we asked.

"I don't know if we're going to make it smaller," he replied.

If the dinner bill is more than $100 per person, the deans usually use money donated to the university.

"The fact that any university would think it's appropriate to spend money to party and wine and dine is unacceptable," said Senator Patrick.

Dean Fitzgibbons did refund the university $25 for a dinner at Smith and Wollensky with an advisory board member. Of course, dinner for two cost $275, with more than $100 just for the alcohol.

"I don't want to stop people from entertaining because a lot of what we have to do to compete in our marketplace is entertain," said Antel.

"These are the kinds of tests you ought to be asking for every expenditure at a university," said Smith. "What's it doing for the kid? What's it doing for the athlete? What's it doing for the research that we are doing? Not is it going to help my spouse to a fancy dinner?"

Late Thursday, the chancellor told us by email that U of H is going to strengthen and clarify its travel policy and require better documentation.

Documents related to this story

UH announces travel policy change after 13 Undercover investigation (pdf)
Letter from UH Chancellor/President Renu Khator (pdf)
Texas Tuition increases from Fall 02 to Fall '08 (xls)
Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board: Tuition and Fees (ppt)
Discretionary spending by UH President/Chancellor Renu Khator (xls)

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