About a month after Virginia Commonwealth University raised tuition by 24 percent, its president, Michael Rao, spent $5,327 in state funds to fly to Sicily to attend an event at the University of Messina with which the school has academic ties. His wife, Monica, spent the same airfare for the trip in early June, but used nonstate funds.
Former VCU President Eugene Trani, who accompanied the Raos in Italy, billed the university $1,537.25 for airfare, or $3,790.55 less than what the new president charged, for that trip and two others to the University of London and Ireland since July 2009. The Raos left Richmond for Italy on June 5 and returned June 11. Some of Trani's travel money came out of state funds, according to travel expense records obtained by Style Weekly through the state Freedom of Information Act.
A comparison of airfares by Style suggests that the Raos flew business or first class, while Trani flew economy. Pam Lepley, a spokeswoman for the university, says the expenses were properly vetted and that Rao violated no VCU or state policy. Flying business class is allowable for overseas travel, she says. School policy forbids it otherwise.
The trip to Italy was one of three excursions the Raos have made since he became president in July 2009. They also flew to Cordoba, Spain, in November 2009 to attend a symposium on Islamic art, and to Doha, Qatar, in May to attend a commencement at VCU's satellite campus there.
The eight-day sojourn to Cordoba cost $2,881.50 in airfare for each Rao. The Qatar trip cost $7,932.20 in plane tickets apiece. The Raos' total expenses for all three trips, including airfare, hotel accommodations and meals, cost $43,220.39.
University documents show that most of the two trips to Spain and Qatar were paid for by the Qatar Foundation, a special education finance organization set up by the oil-rich kingdom of Qatar in the Persian Gulf. VCU operates a fashion and graphic design school in Doha, Qatar, a satellite campus of the arts school. Other U.S. schools benefiting from the foundation are Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern universities.
The foundation was established by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, to offer more educational opportunities to the subjects of his tiny kingdom.
Rao has recently come under fire for being slow in appointing upper-level administrators at the university and for requiring staff members in the president's office to sign confidentiality agreements requiring them not to disclose information about the Rao family. Rao has since rescinded the contracts.
Gov. Robert F. McDonnell, incensed at a university tuition hike, is punishing the school by halting some state payments for it. VCU officials say the university is especially hard-pressed financially because it doesn't have the same number of out-of-state students, who pay higher rates, as is the case at the University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary.
Editor's note: This version differs from the print version because of incorrect information that VCU supplied to Style Weekly.