Editorial: KU jet creates perception issue

The University of Kansas should, at a minimum, revise policies for use of its jet in light of questions raised about operation of the jet since it was purchased at the end of 2014.

The university’s Cessna Citation CJ4 carries up to 10 passengers and was paid for by an $8.1 million grant provided by KU Endowment, the university’s nonprofit fundraising foundation. The jet is used for KU Medical Center’s medical outreach program, administrator travel and KU Athletics recruiting trips.

But the University Senate’s Planning and Resources Committee has issued a report that shows the jet is mostly used for flights of less than 300 miles, and most of the flights are below full occupancy.

The report analyzed the plane’s use from January 2015 through February 2017. The jet was used to make 492 trips that totaled 157,955 miles, an average of 321 miles per trip. The report found that 61 percent of the flights were for less than 300 miles.

KU Athletics accounted for nearly half of the trips. The KU Medical Center accounted for about 27 percent of the plane’s utilization, and the chancellor’s office accounted for about 10 to 15 percent.

The report concludes selling the jet would raise more than $6 million and save the university more than $1 million per year in operational costs.

Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, an aerospace engineering professor at KU and a member of the nine-member committee that approved the report, said the university could accomplish its mission with a propeller-driven plane that is significantly less expensive to purchase and operate.

Operation of KU’s jet is paid for out of the state treasury, and entities such as KU Athletics reimburse the treasury per trip. But the University Senate report raised questions about reimbursement rates compared to actual costs, raising concerns that taxpayers are unfairly subsidizing the jet.

University Chancellor Douglas Girod and Provost Neeli Bendapudi defended the jet, saying its costs are offset by “the benefits back to the university through funds received through philanthropic efforts and athletics as well as savings through opportunity and lost productivity cost avoidance.”

But three years into its use, the university should carefully weigh those benefits against the perception that the jet is an expensive luxury that simply isn’t necessary. Most universities don’t own such jets. An Associated Press report last year identified just 20 schools that did. In the Big 12, only Texas, Iowa State and Kansas had jets, and Iowa State has decided to sell its jet.

If the university decides to keep the jet, at a minimum, policies for its use should be reviewed. The current policy does not have a distance limit, though flights to locations less than 90 miles away require approval of either the chancellor or provost. The university should consider a more restrictive limit and higher reimbursement rates to ensure they are fully adequate to cover all costs.

At a time when tuition continues to increase and the university’s top legislative priority is getting the state to restore millions in lost funding, KU can ill afford the perception problems its private jet creates.