Complaint sparks review after UNM paid for employee’s tuition at USC

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – Critics say it’s a misuse of public money, and the University of New Mexico says it is now looking into it.

UNM paid for an employee to get an education somewhere else, letting one of its highest-paid employees get a degree from the University of Southern California on the taxpayer’s dime.

A new complaint over how the UNM Health Sciences Center used public money is raising eyebrows.

“That just seems way out of line and not fair,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart (D-Albuquerque.)

“Do you think it’s a misuse of public money?” News 13 asked Sen. Craig Brandt (R-Rio Rancho.)

“I do,” Sen. Brandt responded.

As state senators, Brandt and Stewart serve on the education committee and help determine UNM’s budget.

They were surprised when KRQE told them that Chancellor for Health Sciences, Dr. Paul Roth, signed off on a plan three years ago to have the university pay $58,650 so that one of his employees could get a master’s degree from another university.

The money paid for tuition at the University of Southern California.

“I just wonder why we are spending this money out of state when we have good universities here,” Sen. Stewart said.

It went toward Ava Lovell’s Executive Master of Health Administration degree.

She graduated from the two-year online program last year.

However, this year, someone sent an anonymous letter to UNM Compliance Office, calling it “deeply troubling.”

The letter points out that, as the Senior Executive Officer for Finance and Administration at UNM’s Health Sciences Center, Lovell is one of the highest paid employees at UNM with a salary of $275,000.

“Well, that’s great that you want to get a Master’s degree, but why should the university pay for it?” Sen. Brandt asked.

“The whole thing just doesn’t make sense, doesn’t make budgetary sense,” Sen. Stewart said.

News 13 took the concerns to Dr. Roth.

“Any time there’s any question by the public about our practices or what we do or the use of public funds, we take that pretty seriously,” he said.

He said USC offered a unique program that fit well with Lovell’s experience and educational needs.

“There was no comparable program in New Mexico,” Dr. Roth said. “It was clear to me that having her obtain that level of expertise would bring great value to the institution and to the patients that we serve.”

Lovell said the program addressed changing financial models in healthcare in the face of the Affordable Care Act.

“My background, I’m a CPA and have an accounting degree from 35 years ago, so I didn’t have formal training in healthcare administration although I’d been doing the job and my boss always said I was doing a good job, but I really felt like I needed to know how other places were going to deal with this,” she said.

Lovell said the education taught her how to make the Health Sciences Center run more efficiently while avoiding layoffs. Then, she said she spread that knowledge to the heads of other departments.

“We’ve now saved $400,000 on a recurring basis. So, yes, my program cost… it was an investment. It was an investment of the Health Science Center,” Lovell said.

Investment or not, UNM said its Internal Audit Director is now looking into the anonymous tipster’s claim that using public money this way is actually against UNM policy.

Rules show education benefits apply only to classes at UNM and sometimes New Mexico State.

Instead, Dr. Roth points to another policy on professional development and training courses.

“It was my understanding that what our practices were, in fact, consistent with our policies,” he said.

The training policy states that it “applies to employee professional development and training offered by the University Division of Human Resources Employee and Organizational Development department and other departments responsible for state, federal and regulatory compliance.”

It refers to things like leadership courses, safety courses and job-specific training.

It makes no mention of undergraduate or graduate degree programs, although that policy does include a paragraph about exceptions. It allows exceptions to the Professional Development and Training policy to be approved by UNM’s head of Human Resources.

After looking over the policies himself, Sen. Brandt said, “I’m not sure either policy allows what they’ve done.”

Either way, he’s troubled by what he’s seeing.

“I think they need to take a serious look at how we’re spending taxpayer dollars,” he said.

UNM said the money to pay the USC tuition came from clinical revenue in the Health Sciences budget.

Dr. Roth believes Lovell is being targeted unfairly, saying there are many examples of UNM paying for its employees to get Master’s degrees from universities outside of New Mexico.

“We have been doing these kinds of things for as long as I remember,” he said.

The Health Sciences Center gave News 13 five other examples of faculty or staff who obtained funding from UNM between 2014 and 2017 to get Master’s degrees at schools, such as Johns Hopkins University and Harvard.

“I think that either there was someone who had a grudge for Ava, or maybe just purely didn’t understand what the values are that our institution really hold very dear,” Dr. Roth said.