Students & Parents | Costs

First-class bad judgment

ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER   |  August 23, 2013

As college graduates nationwide grapple with overwhelming debt, higher education elite are living it up with first-class airfare, limousine rides and posh hotel stays.

Worse, it appears they are often charging it to the students of California.

The Center for Investigative Reporting, a non-profit and non-partisan media watchdog group, found that six of the 17 academic deans at UCLA’s Westwood campus have used doctors’ notes to skirt a policy against flying first class, racking up an additional $234,000 in flight costs. Add in $724-per-night hotel stays in Key Largo, $842 limousine rides and $665 town car trips in England, it’s easy to see why tuition is on rise.

Tuition across the board at UC schools increased by at least $5,000 in just five years. At UCLA, where the high-flying deans have billed students for their own luxurious trips, tuition jumped from $7,277 to $12,686 between 2007 to 2012, according to the report “Best Laid Plans: The Unfulfilled Promise of Public Higher Education in California.”

Yes, travel is absolutely essential and comes with the territory. But so does an ethical responsibility to the students. While the tuition increases aren’t solely because of the deans’ luxurious travel habits, the scenario is symptomatic of a system that sees itself as increasingly above scrutiny.

UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton told the CIR in a written statement that travel is necessary and unexpected hiccups can warrant occasional exceptions to the travel policy.

“While today’s times demand financial prudence, UCLA must make investments in travel and entertainment-related activities to continue its trajectory as one of the world’s top research universities and a national leader in securing gifts and research funding,” the statement said.

In total, UCLA’s Chancellor Gene Block and 17 deans racked up a $2 million tab for travel and entertainment between 2008-2012, according to the CIR. First and business class airfare for the six deans with medical exemptions accounted for almost a half a million dollars of that travel budget—and this cost could have been slashed nearly in half if the chancellor and deans didn’t demand that extra leg room and complimentary glass of wine.

Perhaps some of the deans needed the perks that come with flying first class. The doctors’ notes were redacted and the deans aren’t talking—and, because it’s personal medical information, that’s understandable. But one is left wondering when at least one of the deans who used a doctor’s note, Judy Olian of the Anderson School of Management, took on a demanding 56-mile cycling leg of Monterey County’s Wildflower Triathlon. Twice.

It should also be added that Olian’s total tab for travel and other expenses tops $647,000 over four years—more than 11 times Los Angeles County’s median household income.

It’s time that universities—especially public universities—recognize the economic struggles the middle class is facing, and cut back like the rest of Americans. Our educational system is the envy of the world and is our greatest hope for future economic success. The system isn’t working when the only options for admission are to be born wealthy or to saddle yourself with crushing student loans. Education doesn’t have to be expensive to be excellent.

But that may be of little comfort for the students who leave UCLA in debt. They start their professional lives an average of $18,814 in the hole.

So yes, in the midst of a flurry of doctors’ notes, there is a sickness at the University of California—and its symptoms include bloated budgets, painful student debt loads and what appears to be an aching desire to ensure tuition continues to soar ever higher.

Have a nice flight.


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