UH officials spend $126K to travel


By COLIN M. STEWART

Tribune-Herald Staff Writer

Travel expenses among top administrators at the University of Hawaii at Hilo spiked last year, jumping 38 percent over fiscal year 2011.

A five-year review of expenses for 13 of UH-Hilo’s top-paid administrators shows that the university spent $126,796 for a total of 177 trips in fiscal year 2012, between July 1, 2011, and June 30, 2012. That averages out to $716.37 per trip.

In fiscal year 2008, the same administrators — or the people who held their positions — took only 119 trips, costing a total of $83,447.81. That year’s average cost per trip was $701.24.

Chancellor Donald Straney said Wednesday that last fiscal year was an atypical one for UH-Hilo travel, with a number of events, conferences and legislative meetings that required him and other administrators to add trips to their usual travel schedules. Among them:

l UH-Hilo participated in the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference, or APEC, which was hosted in Honolulu, requiring Straney and others to make multiple trips to Oahu;

l Straney was selected as chairman of the PacWest Conference, requiring him to attend many meetings that he had not needed to attend in the past;

l Straney became principal investigator for the University of Hawaii system’s EPSCor grant, or Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, which increased the amount of times he was needed to travel to Oahu for meetings;

l and, the campus upped its number of visits to attend Legislative hearings and meet with legislators during the session.

“Many discussions and decisions that affect UH-Hilo occur on Oahu, and we often need to be present in person to be effective in representing the needs of our campus and community,” Straney said.

The chancellor was the most frequent traveler last year, making 54 trips costing a total of $44,897.92. His average cost per trip came out to $831.44.

Straney’s high number of trips during the year isn’t out of the ordinary, explained University Relations Director Gerald De Mello.

“The chancellor’s job, by its nature, demands a great deal of travel in the role of UH-Hilo’s chief executive officer and senior member of University of Hawaii’s leadership. This involves a wide range of activities that include developing and maintaining ties with other institutions along with public and private agencies both here and on the mainland as well as promoting UH-Hilo initiatives. These tasks cannot be conducted effectively by telephone, email or video conferencing. Thus, these activities made up the bulk of his travel,” he said.

Over the last five years, Straney has only been outdone by his predecessor when it comes to spending, with former Chancellor Rose Tseng spending $60,843.76 for 46 trips during her final year at the helm of UH-Hilo, in fiscal year 2010. She averaged $1,322.69 per trip that year.

Other heavy travelers within the group include De Mello, who spent $13,989.86 on 35 trips last year; Luoluo Hong, the vice chancellor for student affairs, who spent $22,006.40 on 24 trips; and Marcia Sakai, vice chancellor for administrative affairs, who spent $7,314.91 on 16 trips.

The travel expenses include any costs associated with roundtrip airfare and ground transportation from Hilo, lodging, parking, conference fees, and meals and incidental costs, where applicable, De Mello said. Not all trips were overnight stays, so lodging and other expenses were not necessary in many cases, he added.

The necessity of such travel expenses is clear, De Mello said, citing the importance of direct communication in furthering the campus’ interests.

“UH-Hilo’s face-to-face presence at meetings on Oahu is needed to be part of the planning and implementation on UH systemwide initiatives,” he wrote in an email responding to questions. “The same can be said about UH-Hilo’s presence at meetings/events on the mainland/international, which results in: resource development; promotion of the University; recruitment of students/faculty.”

The return on investment is particularly obvious, he said, in UH-Hilo’s efforts to obtain capital improvement funds from the state Legislature for new facilities for the growing campus. Over the last three biennium periods, 2007-09, 2009-11, and 2011-13, UH-Hilo received a total of $165.8 million, he said.

“Compare this to the travel expenditures for the chancellor and director of university relations over this same period to recognize the significant benefits due to UH-Hilo’s presence,” De Mello said.

The university does attempt to cut costs through the use of technologies such as video and telephone conferencing, he said, although no data was available to show how much money had been saved through such efforts. In general, however, such methods are only used in “situations where we are simply receiving information or providing an update to our colleagues where our face-to-face presence is not essential. However, a personal appearance is more effective. This is especially true since efforts usually extend beyond the formal meeting to include personal one-on-one time away from the gathering site, which would not be possible through high-tech conferencing.”

Email Colin M. Stewart at cstewart@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

 

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