ALBANY, N.Y. - University at Albany officials failed to consistently follow guidelines for sabbatical leaves and granted questionable paid leave to other employees, unnecessarily costing taxpayers more than $1 million, according to an audit released Wednesday by New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.
According to the audit, from Sept. 1, 2007 to Aug. 31, 2011, UAlbany granted 196 sabbatical leaves at a cost of more than $9.2 million and granted 43 other paid leaves at a cost of more than $1.6 million.
DiNapoli's auditors reviewed a sample of 55 sabbatical leaves for 53 employees during that time. Auditors found that 15 employees took sabbatical leaves costing $396,581 that did not comply with SUNY or UAlbany policies.
"The State University of New York, together with its campuses, needs to strengthen its leave policies and make sure taxpayer and tuition dollars are not being wasted," DiNapoli said. "The Comptroller's Office made recommendations to SUNY on sabbaticals and other paid leave 22 years ago that have still not been implemented."
Sabbatical leaves are granted to academic employees and administrative officers to promote professional development. According to SUNY's policies, employees are required to return to service for one year after completing their sabbaticals, and must complete a report showing the results of their time away.
If an employee does not return to the campus to work for the required year after taking a sabbatical, UAlbany can take steps to recover the employee's sabbatical compensation. Also, employees on sabbatical are supposed to receive no more than 50 percent of their annual salary.
Auditors found one employee took sabbatical leave and went to a foreign country where he eventually found a full-time job. The employee supposedly never returned to UAlbany for the required minimum period, even though he received $38,082 in pay. UAlbany did not recover the money paid to this employee.
Also, two employees did not submit the required report of professional activities and accomplishments after returning from sabbatical leave.
Without this report, UAlbany administrators lacked adequate support to show what their employees accomplished while on sabbatical, meanwhile paying the two employees a total of $173,491, including payments to the previously cited employee who did not return to work.
UAlbany only obtained the required activities and accomplishment reports from the employees in question after the audit began.
Auditors also found that UAlbany officials granted leaves that were inconsistent with the intent of the sabbatical program. For example, two employees were granted sabbatical leave for a full year and were paid their full salaries. This occurred because UAlbany granted the two employees both sabbatical and other paid leave at the same time. However, there was no documentation that officials approved the other paid leave for these employees during sabbatical. UAlbany granted another employee sabbatical leave for six months followed by other paid leave for six months. Thus, UAlbany paid the employee his full annual salary although he was on leave for an entire year.
The school paid the three employees a total of $330,468 for their leaves. However, because SUNY policy limits an employee's compensation to 50 percent of salary while on sabbatical, they should have been paid $165,864.
The university also granted an employee a sabbatical costing $57,225 with the understanding the employee would not return after the sabbatical ended. The sabbatical program, however, is not intended for this purpose. As it turned out, the employee did return to his job after completing the leave.
UAlbany denies any wrong-doing and responded to the audit by saying:
"UAlbany remains in compliance with trustee and SUNY policies on sabbatical and paid leave, and at no time was there an inappropriate use of funds. The issues raised in the OSC audit are primarily focused on OSC's view of the policies themselves and not UAlbany's compliance with the policies.
As OSC's report cites, UAlbany complied with applicable formal guidance for most of the sabbatical and other paid leave reviewed. However, the University has taken steps to address certain minor compliance issues cited in the report, such as implementing a system to track the timely submission of the required reports on completion of a sabbatical leave.
Sabbatical and other leaves for professional development are, and have been, commonplace throughout higher education. The University at Albany utilizes sabbatical and other leaves to advance the institution's research mission and to ensure academic quality and competitiveness with other colleges and universities.
Again, at no time were funds used inappropriately, and UAlbany remains in full compliance with trustee policies through SUNY."