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Monday, October 18, 2021

UF violated state law, collected more than $5 million, audit finds

A new state audit called out UF’s practice overcharging students to apply to the university and attend freshman orientation. 

In response to the violation of state law, UF reduced its fees, but it’s still unclear if students will be refunded. 

In addition to student fees, the audit found three other instances where UF violated state guidelines by exceeding severance payments, failing to cancel former faculty’s purchase cards in a timely manner and lacking a disaster recovery plan for UF Information Technology in case of a hardware or system failure.

Auditors have no means of making the university comply with their recommendations, said Jaime Hoelscher, the audit manager, though they may notify the Legislative Auditing Committee if no corrective action is taken. 

UF’s Vice President and Chief Financial Officer, Michael V. McKee, declined to comment. UF spokesperson Steve Orlando referred The Alligator to the audit report and gave no additional comment. 

Auditors found that UF  charged freshmen anywhere from $150 to $200 to attend orientation for at least the past five years. Florida statutes limit orientation fees to $35. 

UF administrators challenged the auditors’ findings by saying the price covered meals and overnight housing, though they could not provide evidence that these fees were legitimate exceptions to the law, the report read. 

Summer 2019 sessions included a new $35 option with an advising session and an informational packet. Alternatively, students could also pay $150 to receive additional advising, stay overnight in a dorm and get meals and UF merchandise. 

UF is currently engaged in a class-action lawsuit for exceeding the state orientation limits. Lisa G. Browning, a mother who paid $200 for Preview in 2016, is requesting that all students who paid more than $35 from the past five years receive refunds. The case is ongoing. 

The auditor also found the university guilty of routinely overcharging freshman and transfer students for its nonrefundable application fee. Though the state limit for application fees is set at $30, freshman applicants were charged $35 between 2016 and 2019, and transfer students were charged $37 between 2018 and 2019.

The university collected more than $5 million more in orientation and application fees than it would have if it abided by state limitations, the auditor also found. 

In response, the university reduced the fees for transfer applicants in October and for freshman applicants in November to meet state guidelines, according to the report. 

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Additionally, the auditor found UF offered payment and health insurance premiums to resigning Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences employees that exceeded the state allowance by $2.7 million. 

Auditors recommended that UF limit its severance pay to no more than 20 weeks worth of compensation. UF responded by saying it would abide by the limit, though it does not agree that the payments were an infraction of state law. 

“While the University of Florida stands by its assessment that the divestment payments did not constitute severance, we will not pursue that as a strategy in the future,” the university responded. 

The auditor also found that UF is slow to cancel former employees’ purchasing cards, which are used to make purchases on the university’s behalf, after they’ve stopped working for the university.

No charges were made by employees once they ended their employment, according to the report. Auditors recommended the university cancel spending privileges in a timely manner, and UF agreed.  

Similar findings were reported in two previous UF audits, according to the report. 

Finally, auditors found that UF’s IT operation does not have a comprehensive disaster recovery plan for dealing with “major hardware or software failure,” such as the loss of financial or student records. 

UF responded to the audit finding by developing a disaster recovery plan based on the auditor’s recommendations. Final updates were added to the plan in February, the response reads, and it will be updated on a semi-annual basis.

Contact Hannah Phillips at Follow her on Twitter @haphillips96.

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