UNC-CH should restrict plane use

Use of medical planes by UNC-CH officials must be severely restricted from now on.

September 19, 2012 

Tom Ross, president of the University of North Carolina system, has a clear “priority one” in the wake of the resignation of Holden Thorp, chancellor of the UNC-Chapel Hill campus. And no, it’s not thinking about a search committee for Thorp’s successor. It’s stopping the apparently casual and sometimes excessive use of aircraft by some university officials.

Yesterday, The News & Observer reported about the use of aircraft operated by Medical Air Inc., a company affiliated with the university that provides planes for medical doctors from UNC to travel to remote areas of the state to treat patients or train doctors. There are six aircraft in the fleet.

But the aircraft have been available, supposedly on a low-priority basis, for chancellors and other high-ranking university officials, including fundraisers such as former Vice Chancellor Matt Kupec.

It turns out that Kupec traveled some on the planes with Tami Hansbrough, who had fundraising jobs with the university’s dental foundation and later under another vice chancellor. The second job essentially was made possible by Kupec, with whom Hansbrough had a personal relationship. She is the mother of former UNC star Tyler Hansbrough, and she had another son who played basketball for Notre Dame.

All business?

Kupec and Hansbrough seem to have scheduled some travel, including on those Medical Air planes, to places where her other son, Ben, was playing for the Fighting Irish. The university’s development office paid for some trips. Both have resigned in the wake of these revelations. And now it emerges that Thorp was along on some other flights with them as well, though he says the trips were connected to university business.

Ross, who also has access to the planes, needs to order that Medical Air services are to be dedicated to the health care mission, and that other officials should request use of the planes only in exceptional circumstances. And those circumstances shouldn’t include bowl games or tournaments or even fundraising trips. Not now. Not after these disclosures.

Chancellors and their aides can travel commercial, with their expenses reviewed like everyone else’s. There shouldn’t be some sense of entitlement that condones this kind of perk as part of the job. If fans can get to bowl games in Arizona or wherever on commercial airliners out of RDU, so can chancellors.

Way beyond reason

On one trip, The N&O reported yesterday, Kupec and Hansbrough were in Montana and wanted to get back to Chapel Hill earlier than planned. So Kupec’s assistant called Medical Air and arranged for a plane to meet them in Chicago. The bill to Kupec’s office: $4,059. The idea that these planes could be requisitioned for officials’ personal convenience, leaving them unavailable for medical flights, is simply outrageous.

Of course, the university hasn’t provided many details and records about flights to The N&O, because an internal audit is under way. OK, but when it’s done, that audit must be released with all details included. This is public information and the people have a right to it.

There is troubling irony here. While this was happening, university officials were complaining about budget troubles and cutbacks in classes and stagnant faculty salaries. Yet some areas seemed to be quite comfortable.

And frankly, the contention that money spent on travel and schmoozing potential donors is an investment more than an expense is weak. Certainly one wants to nurture potential donors, but wining and dining and face-to-face meetings are hard to justify to the extent that Kupec was using them, especially when he had Hansbrough with him and just happened to be catching a Notre Dame basketball game.

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