Last year the UNAM University spent 68 thousand Mexican pesos on airline tickets and other 75 thousand Mexican pesos on travel allowance. Moreover, the university inventory shows that they bought hundreds of items – such as trash cans and coffee machines – for a unit cost of tens of thousands of pesos. The Administrative Secretariat ensures that they did not sustain any costly expense and that every purchase is adequately justified.
The inventory of goods of the Universidad Autónoma de México (UNAM) recorded the purchase of many items whose unit cost amounts to tens of thousands of pesos. Such a register includes – among others – sofas, trash cans, ashtrays, microphones, tripods and coffee machines. Not only does the purchase of these items appear unnecessary for a public university, which is also affected by budget problems, but also an expensive choice.
Moreover, the institution allocated 68 thousand Mexican pesos to the purchase of airline tickets as well as 75 thousand pesos to travel allowances.
‘The UNAM University boasts broad regulations, as well as committees and bodies which supervise procurement issues to minimize the possibility to sustain expenses of such a kind [luxurious and unjustified],’ claims the major Mexican University in its written reply to Contralínea.
The UNAM guarantees that there is nothing irregular in the purchase of furniture, equipment, travel allowances nor in airline tickets. ‘The budget exercise is subject to reviews by both internal and external authorities. In the event of presenting some anomalies, these reviews determine the investigations and sanctions needed.’
The department of the UNAM responsible for formulating the answers was the Administrative Secretariat, headed by Engineer Leopoldo Silva Gutiérrez. The institution refused to conduct a face-to-face interview and proposed – as the only option – to answer the questions in written form, without any chance to have an exchange to clarify the issue.
The Directorate General for Social Communication – headed by Néstor Martínez Cristo – handled a document to Contralínea. It claims that ‘the Comptroller of the UNAM, through the Internal Audit, carries out an annual auditory program to the various university bodies and departments; also the External Audit, recruited by the University Council, carries out its budget exercise review. Year by year, also the Chief Audit Office [Spanish acronym: ASF] is performing its review for the UNAM’.
Leopoldo Silva has been in charge of the Administrative Secretariat since January 7, 2013, when the at the time director José Narro Robles appointed him as a substitute to Enrique del Val Blanco. He will be holding this position until the end of the mandate of the actual rectorship, headed by a doctor – just as Narro is – named Enrique Graue Wiechers. What Mr. Silva did not mention in his answer is that the ASF only randomly reviews some aspects of the university expenses. Nor did he say that generally internal audits resolve with no sanction and even without informing communication media about the irregularities detected, just as happened with the Directorate General for Sports and Leisure Activities that Contralínea documented (https://www.contralinea.com.mx/archivo-revista/2015/12/13/complicidad-y-corrupcion-conade-unam/).
In 2018 the UNAM’s total estimate amounted to 38,510,094,055 Mexican pesos. In the section’ consumer goods and materials,’ it appears that the University issued 952,702,876 Mexican pesos, according to the Desglose del presupuesto por capítulo de gasto (Breakdown of the budget by expenditure types).
Moreover, the document published on the university website – dedicated to transparency issues – shows that the University issued 841,077,489 Mexican pesos for ‘furniture and equipment.’ Whereas in the section’ buildings and constructions’ it is evident that the UNAM paid out 624,839,582 Mexican pesos. This way, the major University of the country earmarked 2,418,619,948 Mexican pesos on materials, furniture, and buildings to carry out its activities.
Sofas, coffee machines, ashtrays, trash cans…
Between late 2018 and the beginning of 2019, when all public administrations were discussing the necessity for austerity, fomented by the new government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, students, professors, and workers were denouncing on social media all the unnecessary expenses and wasteful spending sustained by the UNAM to benefit its officials. They accused tents of expensive or luxurious purchases not compliant with the philosophy of a public university which has always worked with tight budgets.
The UNAM reported – in the 2018 inventory of property – that in the previous year they had registered 794,984 items. In the list, there are cars, microphones, automatic barriers, cameras, sofas, DVD players, projectors – among others – each one bought for a unit cost of tens of thousands of Mexican pesos.
They purchased a sofa costing 52,900 Mexican pesos for the Postgraduate Department of the Faculty of Law (inventory number 2285725); a Pullman sofa (inventory number 1847088) costing 16,990 Mexican pesos for the Department of Professional Studies of the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature; six ashtrays (inventory number of the first of them: 2508573), whose cost amounted to 9,496 Mexican pesos each. The UNAM bought these ashtrays for the Institute of Legal Research.
Moreover, the University acquired seven trash cans for the Faculty of Philosophy and Literature for a unit cost of 24,708 Mexican pesos. Hence, the UNAM issued 172,956 Mexican pesos to purchase these seven items. Moreover, they sustained two other excessive expenses: a floor polisher (inventory number 1728406), costing 11,960 Mexican pesos and an airconditioning system (inventory number 2499907), whose price amounted to 332,579 Mexican pesos for the Department of Professional Studies of the Faculty of Law.
“Every time a new official joins the University, they remodel their offices. New cars are bought, and each director has a chauffeur’, declares Salvador Hernández, professor of Mexican History and World History at the College of Sciences and Humanities and a member of the University Assembly.
In an interview with Contralínea, the scholar remarked: “Instead of addressing the main issues regarding the precarious conditions of the classrooms, they prefer having nice, brand-new offices.”
He added that, in some classes, students are even ‘fighting’ for a seat as there are not enough for everybody. Projectors are not working, nor do computers, both essential devices to promote the use of information and communications technology. ‘This is what we have to face every day as professors.’
On the other hand, the UNAM claimed that the denounces regarding the alleged unnecessary expenses made by students on social media ‘are biased and have omitted the context of such purchases .
The University firmly claims that its acquisitions are not unjustified or aimed at benefitting their officials. ‘Suffice it to say that they reported the purchase of pens for several thousands of pesos without specifying that they were automatic barriers to access parking lots using approach cards and not pens for writing. The same way, some other ‘acquisitions’ have been decontextualized.
In its written responses, the UNAM claimed that one of the trash cans (inventory number 2415740) “is made up of two units of waste sorting, each comprising four metal cans, which were accommodated in the arranged space. They were acquired on April 24, 2014. “
Nonetheless, the description made by the University in the document deals with a “trash can” and not with “two units of waste sorting,” as instead, the University authority ensures to be.
The list of purchases of goods with no apparent justification or with supposed overpricing extends with hundreds of examples. A camera (inventory number 2215671) acquired for almost 480,000 Mexican pesos to be employed by the Institute of Biomedical Research; two computers for the Faculty of Political and Social Sciences, each one costing 105,949 Mexican pesos (inventory number 2133073 and 2133075); a computer (inventory number 2178839) for the Institute of Neurobiology whose cost amounted to 214,240 Mexican pesos, just to cite some examples.
The list continues with the acquisition of a microphone (inventory number 2187043) that costed 14,720 Mexican pesos; a tape recorder (inventory number 2488963) for 17,266 Mexican pesos; a CD player (inventory number 2281902) for 29,909 Mexican pesos; a tripod (inventory number 2379693) for 10,858 Mexican pesos; a plasma screen (inventory number 2336923) for 96,613 Mexican pesos; an impact wrench (inventory number 2488943) for 32,536 Mexican pesos, and a floor polisher (inventory number 2406134) for 56,724 Mexican pesos. The purchase of these last six goods was the responsibility of the Professional Studies Division of the Faculty of Law.
In its reply, the UNAM argued that: ‘The coffee machine (inventory number 2286630) needs to be resistant to cater to the whole academic community of the Faculty of Law. It can produce 71.5 liters of coffee per hour (18.9 gallons, 480 cups of 5 oz). The purchase occurred on May 20, 2009, and it has several years of extensive usage’. (sic.)
Regarding the camera with inventory number 2376397, the UNAM alleged: ‘RADIO IUS employs this device, and it also supports the Open University and Distance Education System. It is a Canon model, acquired on October 31, 2012. It is equipped with various accessories and performs multiple functions’.
Travel allowances and airline tickets
According to the budget reports carried out by the UNAM in 2018, the University issued almost 68 million Mexican pesos to buy air tickets to officials and – as the university authority states – to scholars.
‘The University is capillary present throughout all the national territory and boasts 14 representations abroad’. Likewise, it signed plenty of collaboration agreements with related institutions, with which it shares an intensive work of academic exchange and dissemination and university extension. These agreements are fundamental to enhance both the training of high-level human resources and research work.
According to the Administrative Secretariat, air tickets are bought mainly for researchers. ‘It is important to consider that our University carries out most of the research work within the nation, and it also has the highest number of researchers belonging to the National System of Researchers.’
What is more, the Administrative Secretariat argues that such outlay is monitored: “The Procurement and Services Committee regulates the expense of airline tickets. The University realizes most of the expenditure through the ‘service of reservation, issuance, and delivery of airline tickets and other travel services,’ a service which the UNAM contracts with the airline company that offers the best deals”.
In the 2018 budget report, it is also clear that the UNAM issued over 75 million Mexican pesos for travel allowances. In this regard, the university authority replied: ‘The number of air tickets and travel allowance is very much interrelated, practically the expense in one entails a reciprocal expense in the other. The amounts for each case are determined according to the destination’ (sic).
In its answer, the UNAM specified that for each destination ‘there are specific amounts differentiated for four geographical areas according to the lifestyle in each of them’ (sic).
Austerity and transparency, the pending issues
Forced by the ‘threats’ of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the UNAM had to draw up an austerity plan. The formal objective was to join the policy of useful and sober spending of public resources.
In its written response, the university authority claimed that such an austerity plan would be implemented ‘without affecting the operation of substantive programs’ of the University.
The UNAM explains that savings will derive from some personal services, incentives, and performances. Hence, the University will not authorize the creation of administrative posts in those cases where no new facilities are involved. Nor will it allow the implementation of new measures involving unnecessary spending.
They added that the austerity plan also foresees, for the current year, a reduction of the budget for airline tickets, travel allowances, advertisements and – among others – courier, which can be substituted by electronic means.
‘Keynote speeches’ with some intellectuals are among the expenditures that were criticized by students and professors. For instance, political scientist Denise Dresser received a contract of 250 thousand Mexican pesos to deliver her speech.
According to Dr. Rogelio Avendaño, professor of Pharmacology at the School of Medicine, the main issue affecting the UNAM is not to be addressed to the lack of resources but instead to the lack of transparency used to manage the budget.
In an interview with Contralínea, he recognized that it is necessary to increase the budget for the UNAM and in general for education. However, ‘above all, it is necessary to make the budget transparent. Neither the reports handled by the University nor those by the faculties are enough’.
He considers that even though there was an increase in the number of resources, it would not help much ‘if the details of the expenditure remain unknown.’
The total budget of the UNAM – for 2019 – amounts to 44,942,499,166 Mexican pesos.
Ramón Castro, professor of Informatics at the Faculty of Accounting and Administration, asserts that the University relies on resources that may be sufficient. However, there is a lack of fair distribution of them. ‘The income is polarized. The university bureaucracy is the real beneficiary, with quite high wages and bonuses’.
 The misunderstanding arises from the Mexican word pluma – appearing in the inventory list – which means both automatic barrier and pen.
By Zósimo Camacho
Translated by: Federica Antoniani
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