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Hawaii lawmakers investigate university tuition

    Students crowd walkways around the Art Building on the first day of classes at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

Hawaii lawmakers are investigating the rising cost of tuition at the University of Hawaii and are pushing to reform the system’s board of regents.

Senators in the Committee on Higher Education approved a proposed constitutional amendment Tuesday giving the governor the power to nominate members of the board of regents without the need for the current advisory council.

The bill was one of several that senators moved forward Tuesday that would give state officials more control over the university board of regents.

Lawmakers have been critically examining university finances after the university lost $200,000 last year to someone promoting a fake Stevie Wonder concert.

Both chambers of the Legislature held hearings Tuesday afternoon to consider measures that seek to increase accountability at the university.

Representatives in the House Committee on Higher Education approved measures to require members of the university’s board of regents to undergo mandatory training and submit public financial disclosures.

The committee also approved a bill limiting the board’s ability to hire attorneys other than the university general counsel or the attorney general. Lawmakers were critical of the board’s hiring of costly outside counsel during the Wonder concert fallout.

Rep. Isaac Choy, chair of the House Committee on Higher Education, said that he is fairly confident the measures will make it through the House.

Choy said a 2007 constitutional amendment delegating the management of the university to the board of regents may have been a mistake. The university should move toward a corporate governance structure, he said.

Senators were critical about where tuition money goes and the university’s efforts to cut costs during a briefing earlier Tuesday at the state Capitol.

“We don’t want to micromanage, but there’s a lot of money involved here and a lot of promises are made,” Sam Slom, the state Senate’s only Republican member, told university officials. “Many of us have been around here for a long time, and we’ve heard these things for a long time. What would you suggest we do to help you get things done?”

University Provost Linda Johnsrud said the school is doing what it can to cut costs. She said the university is teaching 35 percent more students with a smaller budget than five years ago.

Johnsrud said the university doubled tuition between 2005 and 2012 to cover costs. She cited the cost of utilities as a significant rising financial burden.

Tuition for undergraduate residents attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa is projected to increase by more than 30 percent in three years, she said. Johnsrud said the school will be forced to raise tuition even more if state funding is cut.

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