While tuition rises, some Michigan State University officials spend lavishly with school money

EAST LANSING, Mich. (WXYZ) - This story is about green and white.

Not the colors Michigan State students cheer for on Saturdays, but the scarce dollars school officials are spending at the same time tuition is rising.

Deep cuts have led MSU to raise tuition nearly 20% since 2010, forcing students like Mike Havern to work two-jobs. The third oldest of 11 children, his parents can't afford to help him pay for college.

"I have to make sacrifices for sure, I don't really have another option," he told 7 Action News. "If I'm not working, I won't be able to pay the bills".

But as students have tightened their belts over the last year, school officials have spent hundreds of thousands of school dollars on travel, entertainment and meals. 

When trustees want to take in a football or basketball game, they need only ask. Over the last year, they've been asking a lot: spending over $68,000 in public money to attend Spartan athletic events.

A school official says MSU encourages trustees to cash-in on the tickets, saying there are "typically donor and alumni sessions" to attend, and "the presence of Trustees…is important."

But for trustees not into sports, the Wharton Center for Performing Arts has tickets they'd probably be interested in. Over the course of about a year, they've taken in more than $24,000 worth, and no one grabbed more than multi-millionaire developer and trustee Joel Ferguson. He took in at least 19 shows, including Wicked, Carrie Underwood and Jerry Seinfeld.

Ferguson wouldn't talk to us at last week's board meeting about his ticket use, but a spokesman said trustees are encouraged to attend the shows because potential donors are often there.

The money to pay for tickets—and all the expenses we're talking about—doesn't come from tuition dollars, but from other public money in university investment accounts.

Perhaps no one had a better time spending the school's money than trustee Faylene Owen. When the MSU basketball team traveled to Germany last season, Owen made the trip, too.  Flying business class, her ticket cost $5,698.

But no one likes to fly alone, so Owen brought her husband Larry along. MSU paid for his trip. 

Once they landed in Frankfurt, the Owens found themselves in the lap of luxury, staying at the opulent Steigenburger hotel in a room that cost as much as $1,275 a night. 

During Owen's weeklong stay in Germany, a spokesman says she watched the basketball game, met with students studying abroad and held an alumni dinner. The bill shows there were only 10 guests. 

When we tried to talk to Owen at last week's trustees meeting, she snuck out the back and hid behind a locked door. 

"Do you know if Trustee Owen stays in $1,300 a night hotels when she's paying for them?" 7 Action News Investigator Ross Jones asked.

"All I can say at this point is I don't know the details on specific trips you're asking for," responded Kent Cassella, MSU Vice-President for Communications.

But the Owens didn't go home after Germany. No, it was time to board another plane and head to Paris, France, spending three nights at another hotel at a cost of $980 a night. A spokesman says she attended another alumni dinner and visited the U.S. Embassy, discussing ways "to further MSU's role in the region."

"We have faculty and staff around the world doing great work," Cassella said. "When trustees go to observe that work, we have certain allowances and there are constraints on those allowances."

Apparently there are no constraints on limousines. The Owens racked up nearly $3,000 in bills so they could be squired around Germany and France. They received another $3,000 in cash stipends, too.

The total bill to the university for the 10-day trip: $26,319. For Mike Havern, that's a year's tuition.

"Probably there is a disconnect, and being a trustee for so long, you're entitled to so many privileges, and some of those are taken advantage of," Havern said.

President Lou Anna Simon said Owens' trip—and bringing along her husband—was money well spent, adding that it's university policy to pay for spouses.

"If you look at the role that spouses play in hosting dinners, dealing with donors, a wide variety of activities that are very similar to what happens on campus," Simon said.

But others, like Trustee Diann Woodard, didn't try to defend the policy. 

"Have you heard any rationale for it?" Jones asked Woodard.

"No, I have not," she said.

Owen is just one of several trustees to take advantage of the travel partner perk. Trustees Joel Ferguson and Diane Byrum have done it, too. And so did Melanie Foster.

When she was a trustee last year, she traveled to South Africa and brought along her husband John. They stayed in the more costly "family suite" and the schedule for their 10-day trip shows 2 personal days, an alumni dinner and reception, recruiting potential students, and university tours. Their trip cost MSU $20,011. 

Foster at first agreed to an interview, abruptly canceled and then dodged 7 Action News' phone calls for a week. We visited her on the doorsteps of her East Lansing home.

After she found out we asked to see a copy of her bills, Foster cut MSU a check for $14,000 to cover her husband's portion of the trip from 9 months earlier.

She said paying back MSU slipped her mind.

"I thought that I…I had a very serious death in the family at the end of the year. I honestly thought I did it," she said.

Foster added that even though the school should have never paid for her spouse, it would have been perfectly allowable by MSU rules.

"How does that make sense?" Jones asked.

"I don't know that…maybe, you know? I think that's something that could be looked at as a cost-saving measure at the university," Foster said. "This is certainly something that I would encourage the board to review."

Foster left the MSU Board of Trustees at the end of December after losing her re-election bid, but she's currently running to get back on.

For months, 7 Action News has been trying to review the same travel, entertainment and meal expenses for the University of Michigan.  But officials have been slow to turn them over.

They insist that the "thousands of pages of records" will take "weeks and weeks more" to compile.

When we have them, you'll see them.

Contact Investigator Ross Jones at rjones@wxyz.com or at (248) 827-9466.

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