UCLA spending - campus photo

In January, UCLA issued new travel guidelines and circulated them among its deans and executives. The guidelines add restrictions on spending that go above and beyond the policies that govern all University of California campuses.Prayitno/Flickr

Even after UCLA was publicly exposed and criticized for approving lavish travel and entertainment expenses by its top academic officials, the university continued to approve luxury accommodations for two of its biggest spenders, newly released records show.

In January, UCLA issued new travel guidelines that restrict several types of expenditures highlighted in an investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting. The story led to widespread criticism and calls for change, including a mention in a student spoken-word poetry video that so far has garnered nearly 2 million views on YouTube.

CIR reported Aug. 1 that six of 17 academic deans at the Westwood campus routinely submitted doctors’ notes stating that they had a medical need to fly in a class other than economy, costing the university hundreds of thousands of dollars over a five-year period.

The analysis showed UCLA repeatedly approved exceptions to travel policies for its top academics. Some of the deans expensed stays at extravagant hotels and used chauffeured car service instead of taxis. During the same period, tuition and fees for undergraduate students increased nearly 70 percent.

For the deans who posted the highest travel bills, habits initially appeared to change, but the reform did not last long.

In an uncharacteristic move, Anderson School of Management Dean Judy Olian – who spent more on travel expenses per year than any other dean or the chancellor – flew coach class to New York in September.

But in later trips that fall to New York, Mexico and Texas, she returned to using a doctor’s note to justify flying in business class.

Olian’s airfare for an October trip to New York and Washington, for example, included business-class flights totaling about $3,600. She met with donors in New York and attended the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington.

UCLA spokesman Steve Ritea said Olian has a back condition that justifies business-class flights. Olian did not want to elaborate further on her medical issue, Ritea said. He also noted that the nonprofit Executive MBA Council had reimbursed the university for one-third of the cost of Olian’s airfare to Mexico and Texas. Olian spoke at the organization’s conference in Houston.

In addition to the premium flights, Olian used chauffeured town car service to and from airports and to shuttle her to a meeting in New York. Olian said in expenditure reports that a driver service is more reliable than a taxi and provides more physical space for her to do work, such as drafting memos and taking phone calls.

She also expensed a $400-per-night stay at the St. Regis hotel in Mexico City, $450 per night at the Mandarin Oriental in Washington and as much as $540 per night at the Sofitel in New York.

Olian visited Mexico City to meet with donors and alumni. During the September trip to New York, she met with donors and attended a meeting of the advisory board for Catalyst, a nonprofit organization focused on expanding opportunities for women and business.

UCLA’s travel accounting department requested further justification for the Mandarin Oriental because it cost more than double the rate the federal government allows in the city. Olian’s administrative assistant explained that Olian stayed there because the conference she was attending was held there.

Ritea said Olian’s airfare expenditures pale in comparison to the $180 million she has raised during her tenure. He emphasized that no state funds or tuition revenues were used to fund her travel or entertainment expenses.

Teri Schwartz, dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television – and also one of UCLA’s top spenders on travel and entertainment – continued to use a chauffeured town car to get to and from the airport for an August trip to the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado. Schwartz cites a medical need to use a car service.

As some administrators expensed posh hotels and chauffeurs, UCLA students faced steep fee increases followed by a tuition freeze for the past three years. It’s unclear how long that will last. The UC Board of Regents debated whether to lift the freeze at a recent meeting, pointing to a $124 million budget shortfall.

Ryan Moody, a student pursuing a master’s degree in production and directing at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, said Schwartz’s spending habits stand in stark contrast with penny-pinching at the school. Moody said the student film festival has suffered budget cuts, for example.

“I don’t understand why there’s a position like that, that gets corporate-style perks, especially when we’re a public institution going through hardship,” Moody said.

Ritea said travel is key to the university’s fundraising efforts. Student scholarships are one of the university’s top fundraising priorities, he said.

During the years examined in the CIR story, “UCLA raised $2 billion – much of it the result of travel to cultivate donors,” Ritea said in an email.

In January, UCLA issued new travel guidelines and circulated them among deans and executives, as first reported by the Daily Bruin.

The guidelines add restrictions on spending that go above and beyond the policies that govern all University of California campuses. Several of the clarifications involved categories of expenses described in CIR’s story.

UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Scott Waugh said in a statement that the university “felt the need to issue the guidelines because of confusion among faculty and staff caused by media reports that lacked the appropriate context.”

The guidelines say the university will not approve full reimbursement for meals that cost twice the allowable limit or more, for example. Employees can spend up to $26 per person for breakfast, $45 for lunch, $78 for dinner and $18 for light refreshments.

U.S. hotel stays shouldn’t cost more than double the federal guidelines set by the General Services Administration. The allowable amounts vary by city.  These limits are more specific than the policy regulating all UC campuses, which requires only that lodging rates be “reasonable.”

Still, it’s not clear that the guidelines will change spending patterns among the university’s leaders. A spokesman said the chancellor maintains flexibility to approve exceptions to the new rules, including the limits on meal reimbursements.

And while university officials acknowledged the guidelines are new, Waugh said in his statement that the university does not view them as changing existing policy.

In addition to tightening some travel rules, the January guidelines warned staffers that their expense reports could be scrutinized and judged improper. The guidelines note that travel expense justifications could show up in news stories or social media.

When employees are justifying their business expenses, they should avoid cookie-cutter language because “standard justifications increase the risk that the expense will appear inappropriate,” the guidelines state.

And reimbursement requests should explicitly indicate whether the names of donors or others who are not university employees should be redacted in the event of a public records request. 

CIR has not reviewed travel expenses reimbursed after the new January guidelines, so it’s unclear what impact they have had. UCLA took 10 weeks to provide records responding to a Jan. 2 request for documents related to a single trip for Schwartz. The university did not release the records until last month.

This story was edited by Robert Salladay and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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Erica Perez is an investigative reporter focusing on higher education for The Center for Investigative Reporting. She came from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where she covered the University of Wisconsin system, the Wisconsin Technical College system and private colleges. A California native, Erica previously covered K-12 education for the Orange County Register. Before earning her master’s degree in journalism, she taught high school English for two years. Erica graduated from Stanford University and the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication.