University to cut employee travel expenses

The savings are part of President Eric Kaler’s plan to cut $90 million over the next six years.

University to cut employee travel expenses

Meghan Holden

For the first time in recent years, the University of Minnesota extensively reviewed its travel expenses system-wide — and it’s planning to make cuts.

The University spent more than $16.6 million on travel expenses during a six-month period last year, according to a report from the University’s Office of Internal Audit.

Excessive administrative spending has been a concern at the University, and reports have found it could be more efficient in its travel expense processes.

A recent report from Huron Consulting Group found that the institution could save nearly $250,000 by fixing the way travel expenses are reimbursed, and the University plans to implement the report’s suggestions as part of President Eric Kaler’s plan to cut $90 million over the next six years.

The University will begin making changes to travel processes this semester, and the institution will see the savings in full in the next few years, said Mike Volna, associate vice president of the University Controller’s Office.

As part of Huron’s review of administrative spending, a report found that only 35 percent of University travel is booked through recommended travel agencies that offer discounts to the University.

Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said it could take two or three years for the University to fully implement all the changes to the travel processes because it’ll have to invest in new technologies and staff members will need to comply with the new system.

Along with Huron’s findings, the University’s audit department found that the University could also improve the way employees are reimbursed to save money.

The department’s findings, which were published in May, found the University spent nearly $1.2 million on travel within Minnesota, more than $5.8 million on travel in the U.S., and more than $3.2 million on foreign travel within a six-month period.

“It’s a lot of money, but [the University does] a lot of stuff that requires us to travel, and it’s appropriate,” Volna said.

University officials say the institution’s travel spending isn’t excessive.

Volna said the amount wasn’t surprising — the University typically spends around $30 million annually on travel and related employee expenses, he said.

A better process

The internal audit report found that the University’s adherence to travel and employee reimbursement processes is good, with the exception of employee cash advances.

Cash advances are intended to be a way for employees to pay for travel expenses when they don’t have enough money on hand to cover them, Volna said.

But the audit report found the University was giving cash advances for things that weren’t technically meeting those standards, he said.

The University issued almost $1 million in cash advances during the audit period.

“I’m not saying that any of those needs were actually fraudulent or bad,” Volna said. “It’s just there are better ways to do it than through [the] cash advance process.”

Cash advances have higher risks of theft, fraud and lack of repayment than other payment methods, according to the audit report.

Volna said the University will move toward using debit cards or stored value cards — one of the recommendations from the Huron report — which have fewer risks and are more efficient.

Because this was the University’s first comprehensive review of system-wide travel and employee expense reimbursements, comparable data is unavailable, said Al Willie, Audit Manager in the University’s audit department.

The detailed breakdown for individual employee reimbursements and departments at the University was not immediately available.