You’d think there would be plenty of educational opportunities for highly-paid University of New Mexico workers that want to get another degree.
However, a News 13 Special Assignment reveals UNM used taxpayer money to send those employees to other universities, out of state.
The schools include the University of Southern California, Johns Hopkins University, Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard.
A UNM audit shows the Health Sciences Center spent hundreds of thousands of New Mexico taxpayer dollars on college degrees from out-of-state universities.
News 13 spoke to State Senators and Education Committee Members Craig Brandt (R-Rio Rancho) and Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque) after first uncovering this issue in November 2017.
“That just seems way out of line and not fair,” Sen. Stewart said.
“Do you think it’s a misuse of public money?” KRQE asked Sen. Brandt.
“I do,” he responded.
At the time, Health Sciences Chancellor Dr. Paul Roth told us otherwise and claimed university policy allows these tuition payments.
“It was my understanding that our practice in providing advanced training and offering these kinds of opportunities to our faculty and staff were consistent with university policy,” he said in 2017.
As News 13 pointed out then and as the new UNM audit confirms now, UNM policy does not allow for university money to pay for tuition for employees getting degrees at other universities.
That is stated and restated throughout the audit at least nine times.
In response to the audit findings, UNM sent the statement below:
We have received the Audit and Compliance Committee’s report and are working on the action items outlined. Our focus has always been on supporting our staff and faculty and assisting them in succeeding at the highest levels of their careers to provide the highest quality service to our community. We are always mindful to ensure that goal is in lock step with university policy and procedures.
The audit also reveals this isn’t something any departments on the main campus were doing. It shows the Health Sciences Center was the only place at UNM that seemed to have made a habit of this.
“Why do you believe that the decision was in line with UNM policy?” KRQE asked Dr. Roth in 2017. “We have been doing these kinds of things for as long as I remember, for decades,” he answered.
The audit found the Health Sciences Center paid tuition and travel for 12 employees to the tune of $625,810 over a four-year period ending last June. Upon hearing these new details, Sen. Brandt said he was shocked.
“This isn’t acceptable to use taxpayers’, or your students’ money, in this way,” he said.
There was the high-paid executive who got the Chancellor to sign off on paying for her to get a master’s degree in Healthcare Administration from USC, someone from the Emergency Medicine Department getting $97,524 for a degree from Harvard, another faculty member got tuition, travel and meals for his education at Carnegie Mellon University, and the Health Sciences Center paid for a paralegal at UNM’s University Counsel Office to get a master’s degree from the University of Illinois – Chicago School of Medicine.
In all of those cases, none of the advanced degrees were required as part of their jobs and the employees didn’t even have to sign a contract to get their education paid for, according to the audit.
“How do you hold the employee accountable if they go and get this degree and then a year later, because now they’ve got this higher degree, they move to a higher paying job with another university or another hospital or something else and then the taxpayer spent all this money and [is] getting no benefit for it,” Sen. Brandt said.
Aside from seven Neonatal Nurse Practitioners, who did have contracts requiring them to continue working after getting degrees in neonatal nursing because New Mexico has a shortage of those nurses, the audit said the rest “did not meet the requirements and thus were in violation of the anti-donation clause.”
The New Mexico Constitution states that government entities, like UNM, can’t just give donations to private citizens.
“I think that Chancellor Roth needs to answer more questions,” Sen. Brandt said. “I think he needs to come clean.”
When Dr. Roth was interviewed in 2017, he said he was “happy to be able to respond appropriately.”
However, he does not appear to be happy to respond on-camera since the audit’s release.
Dr. Roth refused an interview and so did University President Garnett Stokes. Instead, we were referred to a UNM spokesperson.
“Should the Health Sciences Chancellor be disciplined?” KRQE asked.
“Well, again, the audit report spells out some recommendations where policies should be changed,” UNM Spokesperson Dan Jiron replied.
That did not answer the question, but the President’s office said it will update policies to address these tuition payments. It will look at outlining requirements, like showing how UNM would benefit from an employee’s out-of-state education if UNM doesn’t offer the same classes.
“Is it a good use of taxpayer money though?” KRQE asked.
“Well, again, that’s not something for me to express at this time. This is still an ongoing issue,” Jiron responded.
“Do you think the university owes taxpayers an apology?”
“We’re going to move forward with the audit findings. We are going to move forward with the process,” Jiron said.
UNM wants to move forward while some lawmakers still have questions about the university’s past decisions.
“This is not the university’s money that was spent. It’s the taxpayer’s money,” Sen. Brandt said. “That money needs to be accounted for.”
The Attorney General can’t say when he will release a formal opinion on whether UNM’s tuition payments violate the New Mexico Constitution.
UNM could update its policies by the end of next month.