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Posted at 1:28 PM ET, 03/ 9/2011

Do other college presidents fly first class?

By Daniel de Vise

Updated Thursday morning with still more responses.

Allen Sessoms, president of the University of the District of Columbia, landed in hot water this month with the disclosure of travel records that show him flying first-class to conferences and official visits around the country and overseas.

It turns out UDC policy generally forbids "luxury" travel -- although it's still somewhat hazy whether that rule applies to the president. sessoms.jpg

In a news conference Monday, Sessoms said he had to travel frequently for fund-raising and marketing, major components of every president's job, and to keep UDC competitive with the likes of Georgetown.

By chance, Georgetown President John DeGioia was in our office on Tuesday, meeting with The Washington Post's editorial board. So we asked how he travels.

His answer: business class. "We have rules about these things," he said.

(For those who have never flown business class, including myself, Wikipedia helpfully explains that it is a category between economy and first class. On some airlines, it is the highest tier of service.)

I queried several other universities about the travel habits of their presidents. I now have several responses. They may be skewed. My survey was voluntary, and any president who flies first-class might want to lie low just now. (Update: nearly everyone has now replied to my query, so the previous statement perhaps no longer applies.)

University of Maryland President Wallace Loh "travels coach in the continental U.S.," said Beth Cavanaugh, a university spokeswoman. "He has not done any international travel yet, but when that happens, policy allows him to travel business class."

When he is Earth-bound, Loh drives a hybrid Toyota Camry.

(After obtaining receipts through a Freedom of Information Act request, Fox 5 television reported that Sessoms used his $60,000 car allowance to buy a Lincoln Navigator with a $1,495 upgrade for "20" chrome-plated aluminum wheels and a $4,460 "Elite Package," which comes with charcoal interior and premium leather bucket seats.)

American University President Neil Kerwin flies coach unless the trip is five hours or more; in such cases, university policy dictates that business class is allowable, said spokeswoman Maralee Csellar.

University of Virginia President Teresa Sullivan flies coach, according to spokeswoman Marian Anderfuren.

"When she goes to DC, which is not a long trip from Charlottesville, she always has staff check the train schedules first to see if she can take the train -- and still make all of her meetings on time," she said in an e-mail. "And yes, she goes by coach on the train as well."

Montgomery College President DeRionne Pollard travels coach, said spokeswoman Beth Homan.

Howard University President Sidney Ribeau travels at "the best possible price" and his tickets are typically booked well in advance, said Kerry-Ann Hamilton, university spokeswoman. She did not rule out first-class. "We select more comfortable travel for longer flights," she said.

George Washington University President Steven Knapp travels coach except on trips of five hours or longer, when business class is allowed, said spokeswoman Candace Smith.

Trinity Washington University President Patricia McGuire sent a typically thoughtful essay on her own travel routine:

"Travel is an occupational hazard for all presidents. I have personal rules that I apply pretty vigorously on this. First, if I must fly, it's on the cheapest ticket possible. Second, I stay at the least costly hotel so long as it's safe and free of bugs," she wrote. A recent Florida trip "included such garden spots as the Red Roof Inn and LaQuinta."

She goes on: "Why do I do this? Well, I pay for most of my own travel --- unless another organization pays for it, such as boards I might sit on --- and paying from my own pocket makes me very cheap, indeed! Sure, Trinity would pay if I asked, but it's part of my charitable contribution since we have a very slim budget for things like travel, and I would feel just terrible if I traveled in luxury while my students have a hard time finding money to buy books. My colleagues on the faculty and staff often make their own contributions, this is a mission and a bit of a ministry, not just a job. Of course, the nuns set the gold standard years ago, they worked without taking salaries. We need to be paid, but we accept modest living as part of our vocation in education. I've always said that if we wanted to make money and live luxuriously, we'd be in private industry. Education is not the place to live like a magnate."

I sent the same questions to Catholic and George Mason universities. I'll append any additional replies as I receive them.

If anyone out there knows more than I do about the travel habits of today's college presidents, please post a comment.

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By Daniel de Vise  | March 9, 2011; 1:28 PM ET
Categories:  Administration  
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Look up Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. A very successful one, whose long-time president, Peter Burnham just resigned in disgrace after discovery of lavish perks, including travel. Salary a modest $216K, but President's Office budgeted to $639K.

Posted by: incredulous | March 10, 2011 3:56 PM | Report abuse

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