University seeks to reduce its eight-figure travel budget

The University of Alaska spent $15.9 million on travel in fiscal year 2017, according to UA Chief Finance Officer Myron Dosch. In fiscal year 2014 the university spent $21.9 million on travel, according to an audit done by the Alaska State Legislature’s Division of Legislative Audit from 2016.

Since August 2015, $142,711 was spent on travel for UA President Jim Johnsen, according to expense reports obtain from the university using Alaska open public records laws. This amount included airfare, lodging and per diem.

A total $322,911.69 was spent on travel for members of the Board of Regents over the past five years. The board consists of 11 regents that work to create policy for the university. The board does this through meetings throughout Alaska, primarily in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau. Members of the current board live all over Alaska, ranging from Soldotna and Kodiak to Anchorage and Fairbanks.

“Alaska is just geographically large, so it’s a little bit different than Idaho or the State of Washington. And certainly we’re going to go to a conference out of the State of Alaska… and do a lot of the business we need to travel within the state here frequently,” Dosch said.

The audit from the Division of Legislative Audit from 2016 found that the university, “did not leverage its buying power and did not take advantage of the State’s contracts to achieve the best possible price for travel.”

The audit stated that the university could have reduced FY15 travel costs by $257,000 in airfare and $132,000 in car rentals by using State of Alaska contracts with travel vendors.

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The audit listed recommendations for the university to lower travel expenditures including using government lodging rates, purchasing airfare 14 or more days in advance, use a booking tool and utilizing university housing in the summer.

UA decreases overall travel expenses

“We have cut travel costs 32 percent since 2014,” Johnsen said at the State of the University address on Feb. 20.

Overall, university spending on travel has decreased since 2014.

Johnsen’s travel expense report shows that his travel has increased each year he has been president from $20,707 in his first year to $64,167 in 2017.

“A lot of that travel was [for] Strategic Pathways and meetings at all of the universities,” Johnsen said. “I think it’s critically important that the president of the university system, especially when difficult decisions are being made, is present and is seen and is listening to people.”

Johnsen said that travel expenses are being reduced so that the university can lighten cuts to other departments.

“[Travel’s] not directly tied to our university mission, but when your budget is getting hammered, it’s a good idea to get a look at everything you’re doing to see if you can reduce those costs so you can plow more of those dollars… into our primary mission,” Johnsen said.

Some of the ways the university has reduced travel expenses include using video and telephone conferencing, instating a temporary requirement that the chancellor approves travel that used restricted funds and scheduling most of the Board of Regents meetings in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.

“If you step back even 15 years, there used to be a lot more board meetings and there were lot more people that attended them, meaning staff, supporting staff… The actual number of meetings has been reduced, like the number of annual meetings, and the number of people who attend in person has also been reduced,” Dosch said.

Regent Mary K. Hughes has been on the board since her initial appointment in 2002 and she said she has seen more meetings happen via telephone.

“Our committees now are all telephonic,” Hughes said. “We took the committees out of our regular meetings and they’re all telephonic and public hearing is telephonic. In essence we hope that will shorten our board meetings.”

UA works on implementing new travel system

“We’re putting in a new travel system, which I think will make it even more efficient,” Johnsen said. “We are working with the State, particularly, and Alaska Airlines to leverage additional discounts. We definitely scrutinize travel and are making sure we are doing it in the most cost-effective way possible.”

The new travel system is scheduled for rollout by September, according to a travel memo from Dosch.

In the memo to the UA community Dosh wrote, “The Travel Project is a comprehensive reexamination of our travel program with the goal of streamlining our processes, making them more user friendly, creating a process that will allow us to access airfare, lodging, and transportation discounts to save UA money, and improve our travel reporting capability.”

Dosch said there is no current partnerships with travel vendors — outside of some relationships with car rentals — which will change in the new travel system. The university is also going to start using a booking tool to reduce travel prices.

Earlier versions of this article incorrectly stated that Regent Dale Anderson had the highest travel expenses of any regent since 2013. His total trip expenses over the last five years were $35,181.74. The Board of Regents trip expenses have also been adjusted to reflect Anderson’s correct number at $322,911.69.