State lawmakers grilled University of Hawaii President David Lassner on Friday about the university's spending, focusing on a $2.7 million consultant contract to increase enrollment and recent salary increases for UH vice presidents.
The discussion reflected the ongoing, strained relationship between the university and state legislators, particularly those who control the purse strings of the 10-campus system.
Lawmakers at a budget briefing before the state Senate Ways and Means and Higher Education Committees asked whether the work of Washington, D.C. consultant EAB is worth the money given recent declines in UH enrollment statewide.
Higher Education Chairwoman Donna Kim suggested the funds could go instead to financially needy community college students to cover their tuition under the university's Hawaii Promise program.
But Lassner says the consultants are helping the university grow its enrollment.
“So we’ve seen numbers like doubling of applications. We haven’t yet turned that into doubling of students," he said. "But their work has been pretty effective for us so far.
"One of the things that they have taught us is that we need to be recruiting no later than sophomore year of high school rather than going after juniors and seniors.”
Lassner says the university is also expanding its certificate programs to attract more students.
The university president noted that graduation rates have improved. The university's graduation rate reached a record high in 2019, according to a UH news release. The six-year graduation rate used by the federal government to compare universities countrywide reached 60.5 percent, slightly above the national average.
Kim said she was less concerned about growing enrollment and more interested in learning what student population size is right for the university, which she said continues to ask for more funding even while enrollment declines.
Legislators also asked about "special compensation" pay increases for five vice presidents -- their annual salaries rose to $272,000 in November, representing a 12.8 percent increase. But Lassner said the raises are justified and based on performance.
Kim scolded members of the Board of Regents for failing to ask enough questions about the salary increases. The board's personnel chairwoman, Michelle Tagorda, acknowledged that her committee reviewed and approved the formula used to arrive at the salaries but had not delved deeper.
However, Tagorda's committee will be reviewing the salaries, although after the fact since Lassner had decided the increases should take effect.
Board of Regents Chairman Ben Kudo said he was personally not happy about that decision, while adding the personnel committee will be revisiting board policy on special compensation.
The Senate committees plan to resume discussion on the UH budget in early January.