UT Board of Regents Chairman Colleen McHugh likes to live comfortably when she travels on university business.
McHugh ran up $950 in charges in January at the Montage Beverly Hills hotel while in California to attend the BCS National Championship game between UT and the Alabama Crimson Tide. She also reported $687 in airfare expenses for that trip.
The costs weren’t unusual for McHugh, who spent more than $22,000 in UT System funds to attend official University or UT System events in 2009 alone, according to reports obtained by The Daily Texan. Those costs included $12,578 in lodging for football games and board meetings that year, mostly at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin.
McHugh is not the only regent to rack up large expense bills. Three other regents have spent at least $10,000 in UT System funds in a single year on official business since 2005, her first year on the board. But McHugh — who could not be reached for comment — has reported expenses of $10,000 in four separate years herself, not including $8,822 in the first half of 2010.
Though the University has had to pinch pennies to avoid laying off employees and cutting classes, in 2008 and 2009 the UT Regents spent $116,750 of the system’s endowment payout on top-dollar luxury hotels, travel to football games and other travel expenses related to official duties.
Regents are reimbursed for travel and hotel expenses from the Available University Fund, the UT System’s return on investment of its endowment assets. At UT, the endowment payout funds internship programs, technology services, library services and visiting lecturers — but in recent years, because state funding has not kept up with rising costs, UT has relied on AUF money for electricity and similar expenses.
UT System spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said the regents — who are unpaid for their work — volunteer their time and effort to support UT and attend UT football games as part of their official duties.
“It provides them opportunities for engagement with other friends and supporters of the University such as donors and alumni,” de Bruyn said.
Faculty across the UT System have had to cut back on their own travel expenses, and some say they wish to see the regents share in that fiscal discipline.
James Ramirez, a travel and purchase information specialist with the state comptroller’s office, said unlike other state employees who travel exclusively on the taxpayer’s dime, the regents have no technical limit on what they can be reimbursed for out of the AUF, according to the Texas Education Code.
“As far as reasonable expenses, it could be almost anything,” Ramirez said. “Generally, we find that the Board of Regents are the ones that really take advantage of everything.”
UT System travel-expense reports from the past five years show that the regents often frequented high-end hotels such as the Four Seasons in Austin, the Ritz-Carlton in California and the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
Lodging expenses were even higher for football games. Since 2005, the regents averaged $570 per hotel visit for UT football games, and 18 of those charges were more than $900. Hotel stays unrelated to football games cost $335 on average. In Austin, the regents spent a total of $122,000 at the Four Seasons over five years, mostly for football games and board meetings.
Former regent John Barnhill, a retired executive vice president of Blue Bell Creameries, reported the largest expense when he was reimbursed for $1,669 in 2006 for a stay at California’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Marina Del Rey during the Rose Bowl. He reported $1,065 in other travel expenses for the game.
Other regents filed only a few expenses or did not file any since 2005. Former Regent James Huffines, who spent four and a half years as chairman of the board, never filed one expense report in the five years of data acquired by The Daily Texan. Huffines declined to comment for this story.
Former Student Regent Ben Dower, a UT law student, said he saw several important conversations between the regents and alumni in the football stadium skybox with the other regents. Dower said it is not enough to send a letter or an e-mail to high-level donors who may donate $1 million to UT, and the regents must help foster a relationship between the alumni and UT.
“You have to keep these people involved and give them a vested interest in the institution so that they feel like they’re not just giving money, they’re participating in an ongoing relationship,” he said. “This isn’t about the game to them. They’re working on a whole other level.”
Classics professor Thomas Palaima, a former UT Faculty Council chairman, said it is hard to understand how expenses such as McHugh’s could be justified as a legitimate business expense for the University. He said business can be conducted at regular meetings, and there’s no need to charge the University for $300-a-night rooms.
“I don’t understand why the regents can’t be setting an example of frugality,” Palaima said.
Todd Richardson, a literature professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, said faculty travel has been on the chopping block during tight budgetary times.
“Ideally, faculty would like to see everyone share that burden equally,” Richardson said. “We certainly like to think that we’re all in this together for the good of the students of Texas and that everyone will be willing to make sacrifices.”
Robert Hard, an associate anthropology professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said the system is facing large deficits, but he understands the regents’ job is to entertain and build relationships with people in the Legislature.
“Part of their job is to have good relationships with people, and this is how they do it,” he said.
In the grand scheme of things, the regents run up large expenditures because funds are classified as discretionary, so there is less of a feeling that one has to use the money wisely or carefully, Palaima said.
“If you earn money by working in a steel mill and at the end of the week you earn $800, you’re going to spend that money in a different way than if somebody walks up to you and says, ‘Hey, here’s $800, I just found it, you can use it however you wish,’” he said.
— Additional reporting by Ryan Murphy