Less than three months after University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves was dinged in an internal audit for violating a school policy about flying first and business class, the UT System has made it easier for campus presidents to pay for travel upgrades with schools' discretionary money.
The policy, approved on May 2, allows presidents and their spouses to upgrade their tickets when the travel time is more than five hours. Trips under five hours can also be upgraded with approval from an executive vice chancellor “if the unique circumstances warrant the use of travel upgrades in serving the best interests of the institution,” the policy says. Upgrades can only be paid for with an institution's discretionary funds, not state money.
Karen Adler, a system spokesperson, said the policy is meant to provide clarity and consistency across institutions and was phrased to "provide appropriate flexibility for unique situations." The new rule was requested and approved by former Chancellor Bill McRaven, whose last day on the job was Thursday, and vetted with campus presidents, she said.
The UT System periodically reviews the travel, entertainment and housing expenses of its institutions’ leaders, but schools also have their own policies governing when presidents can fly on premium tickets.
A system audit released in February found Fenves had violated a UT-Austin rule that says he and his spouse should fly coach except under specific conditions, such as with a documented health issue, if a first class seat is the only seat available or if another entity is reimbursing the cost of the plane ticket. The discovery was flagged as a non-priority “medium-level finding” in the report, which concluded that otherwise the president’s expenses seemed appropriate and accurate.
Fenves' travel was paid for with a donor fund earmarked for presidential expenses, not with state or tuition dollars.
But after the audit was released, a school spokesperson, Gary Susswein, quickly said the university would comply with internal policies going forward. "No one will fly business or first class at university expense, except under the allowable exceptions,” he said in February.
Fenves has reimbursed the university $27,000 – the estimated difference between the cost of business and economy tickets – despite McRaven telling him it was not necessary to do so, Susswein said.
"None of his travel was financed with tax or tuition dollars and no reimbursement was requested or required by UT System. Even so, because the president had already stated that he would repay the funds, he honored that commitment," Susswein said.
"Travel is an important part of any university president’s duties and is vital to fundraising and developing research and academic collaborations. President Fenves will be traveling to Asia this month to meet with potential donors, develop partnerships with other universities and visit alumni," Susswein said. He's received an authorization for an upgrade, in accordance with the new System rule.
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