Two officials explain foreign travel

By Jerry Lawrence

Over the last 16 months, NIU President John La Tourette has spent 30 days traveling out of the country with another university official while the university paid their bills.

On four of the five trips La Tourette has made out of the country since June 30, 1992, Ines De Romana, program coordinator for NIU’s Office of International Training and Consultation, was in the same locations, but as both she and La Tourette said, doing different duties.

In a time of budget constraints, program eliminations and double-digit tuition increases, La Tourette has spent over 30 days out of the country establishing and maintaining international exchange programs since June 30, 1992. La Tourette was reimbursed $4,562.17 and was paid about $8,200 in salary for the time he spent on those trips.

“He was doing his things at the presidential level, and I was doing mine at the program coordinator level,” De Romana said.

De Romana’s travel cost the university $3,364.67 in expenses and approximately $2,128 for the salary she earned while out of the country traveling with La Tourette.

De Romana said her position as program coordinator required her to stay abreast of how the foreign programs operate, since she is sending students there.

She said she has to be prepared to answer questions from parents concerned with their children living in foreign countries. She said the best way to do that is to visit the programs firsthand.

Both De Romana and La Tourette said their travel costs were remarkably low for the amount of travel they performed and the importance of the travel to NIU’s programs.

La Tourette explained part of the rationale for his travel was a concern for the educational diversity of NIU’s students.

“The reason I’ve gotten so heavily involved in this is because I think we have a marvelous opportunity to increase the exposure of our students to study abroad and to get them much more in tune with the global economy that they are going to be living in,” he said.

He added the international programs are not just for sending NIU students overseas, but also for bringing the international perspective from other universities to NIU.

Documentation of all the travel by La Tourette and De Romana was requested by The Northern Star under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act.

The requests have encountered several delays, but documentation already received by the Star shows the following:

‘On Aug. 16, 1992, La Tourette flew to Mexico City, Mexico to sign an agreement with the Autonomous University of the Yucatan in Merida Mexico, to visit the NIU student study program at that university and to visit officials in Mexico to further joint research projects with NIU in hydrogeology and related topics. The next day, De Romana flew to Mexico City to “accompany a group of students who will be participating in NIU’s study program through the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City.” Gene Perry, NIU geology professor, was also there at that time. They all returned on Aug. 22.

‘On Nov. 4, 1992, both La Tourette and De Romana flew to Frankfurt, Germany, rented a car and drove to Heidelburg to visit Schiller University. The next day, Nov. 6, they drove to Munich to visit Wayne State University’s foreign study program. On Nov. 7, they drove on to Salzburg, Austria to attend a conference at Salzburg College. The travel vouchers show neither La Tourette nor De Romana requested reimbursements for any expenses incurred over the following three days because their accommodations were provided by Salzburg College. Both La Tourette and De Romana returned to DeKalb on Nov. 12.

‘On June 7, 1993, La Tourette and De Romana flew to Copenhagen, Denmark. They attended a 25th anniversary conference of Denmark’s international study program. An agreement between the Technical University of Denmark and NIU was forged here that resulted in a $70,000 grant. They returned on June 15.

‘On July 5, 1993, La Tourette flew to Madrid, Spain. De Romana did not. He was there to “visit” the Horizons for New Learning Center in Segovia, Spain and the Center for International Studies in Madrid, Spain. He returned on July 14.

‘On Sept. 8, 1993, De Romana flew to Madrid to accompany a group of NIU students participating in a Segovia based program and to visit several sites where NIU places students for a semester or academic year. On Sept. 8, La Tourette left an Illinois Board of Higher Education meeting in Chicago to catch a flight to Madrid. His purposes were to meet with officials from the University of Granada about a grant application, to follow-up on his July visit and to visit Seville University. He returned on Sept. 15. She returned Sept. 23.

On Monday, La Tourette elaborated the purpose of his Mexico City trip. “I really didn’t go primarily to see her (De Romana’s) programs in Mexico City. That is, the primary purpose was to go with (NIU geology professor) Gene Perry, to go to the Yucatan to sign an agreement there,” he said.

He said the Mexico program is important because it could provide NIU with excellent geology students. Mexico does not have many leading geologists, he said. He also said the program in Mexico provides Mexican-American students with an opportunity to get back to their roots.

While it was not the primary focus of his trip, La Tourette said being in Mexico did provide a good opportunity to examine NIU’s exchange program.

“What you really have to do is sometimes see what’s going on in order to really understand the nature of these programs,” he said, adding that he thought the Mexico program was a good one.

De Romana said Mexico is one of the hardest countries for NIU students to adapt to. Accounting records show De Romana took a total of three trips to Mexico city to accompany students during the period examined.

La Tourette said he traveled to the German and Austrian programs because his presence as a university chief executive was necessary to accomplish part of what needed to be accomplished in Salzburg. He said that in addition to attending the conference he sat on a number of panels with high ranking Austrian university and political officials to discuss international programs.

One benefit La Tourette cited as a result of the Copenhagen teamwork was a $70,000 grant NIU is receiving from the U.S. Department of Education to help fund a joint program in environmental studies.

He said the monetary value of the grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) was not a major issue.

Of more importance to La Tourette is that FIPSE grants are seen as very prestigious in the higher education community and are only awarded to programs on the cutting edge of a new area.

Charles Storey, a program director for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington D.C. agreed. He said for a program to be considered for the grant, it must be innovative.

La Tourette said NIU’s FIPSE grant will reduce the cost of study for seven NIU students who participate in the program and will help fund personnel requirements for the program.

Storey said the category NIU received the grant from this year has been eliminated, and next year NIU will have to apply in a different category. The new category will not allow money to be spent on student travel, he said.

La Tourette said the award of the grant showed the federal government had become interested in promoting international exchanges.

La Tourette said during his July 5 trip to Spain, that he tried to get to the University of Granada, but was unable to. He returned to Spain to meet De Romana on Sept. 8.

De Romana said that because La Tourette spoke no Spanish, he needed assistance in communicating in Granada. She said Granada is not like Madrid where English is more commonly spoken.

La Tourette said that due to personnel changes in NIU’s division of international programs, he will no longer have to travel in connection with international study programs.

Manfred Thullen became executive director of international programs on Oct. 1. International Programs used to be under the dean of international and special programs before that division was reorganized more than a year ago. La Tourette said Thullen will now do most of the executive-oriented traveling.

De Romana also said she will probably not have to do as much traveling with Thullen in the newly created position, saying he will probably do most of it.

However, neither La Tourette or De Romana could answer one question which arose from the receipts they both turned in.

While both turned in receipts that showed them taking the same flights to Europe, other receipts seemed to indicate they took separate limousines to and from DeKalb to O’Hare airport.

The DeKalb-O’Hare Limousine Service charges $36 for a trip for one person to or from the airport and $46 for a two-person trip in one limousine.

For each of the four times that La Tourette and De Romana left and returned on the same flights, they each turned in receipts that seem to indicate that they took separate limousines. Accounting records show that both received $30 to $36 in reimbursements for each trip.

Neither said they could remember whether or not they had taken separate cars, or why they did.

La Tourette said he thought he remembered sharing a limo ride from the airport after returning from Copenhagen, but the records show that he turned in a $31 receipt and De Romana turned in a $40 receipt for a return limo trip.

Both La Tourette and De Romana said the costs of all their travel, which including salary exceeded $24,000, was modest for a university like NIU with such good international programs.