State senators grilled University of Hawaii President David Lassner on Friday for hiring an outside firm to help recruit new students and giving his vice presidents raises when student enrollment overall has dropped.
“What we’re seeing is a drop in enrollment and an increase in expenses,” Higher Education Chairwoman Donna Kim said at a joint budget briefing with the Ways and Means Committee. “It’s getting wider and wider. If we are not sizing for the right amount and we are always chasing a number that we can’t achieve, that’s crazy. … We can’t be everything and all things and all programs to everybody.”
Enrollment across the 10-campus UH system fell to 49,977 in fall 2019, a 2% drop from fall 2018. That followed a 1.2% decrease over the previous year. Much of the decline is among community colleges. UH Manoa’s enrollment was 17,490 this fall, and has been relatively stable for two years.
Lassner noted that the university has substantially boosted its four-year on-time graduation rate, which tends to reduce the overall “head count” enrollment. That’s because students get their degrees and exit the system faster, rather than lingering for years on the rolls.
“We’ve worked very hard on our graduation rate,” he said. “Our goal is not just to enroll students; it’s to educate students through to a credential. Part of that is the work we have been doing to retain students from year to year. … You’ve seen an improvement across the system.”
On-time graduation rates have doubled at UH Manoa in the last decade and now match the national average for public universities.
Lassner also came under fire for granting raises to five vice presidents who had been rated “exceptional,” bringing their annual salaries to $272,000. The executives had been hired at different times with different salaries, so increases ranged from $15,000 to $33,000.
State Sen. Kurt Favella, who was working as a custodian when he was elected, expressed astonishment at the size of the pay hikes.
“Some of these pay raises is more than some of these guys — taxpayers in Hawaii — even make in a year,” he said. “In one crack!”
“I understand they are great assets and great people and they can get probably more money somewhere else,” he added. “Rewarding them with this kind of pay increase, I’ve never seen this kind stuff before.”
Lassner, who has some discretion to make special salary adjustments, defended the decision, saying they had taken on additional responsibilities and earned their keep by improving operations.
“All had refused at least one raise, and all were paid below the national medians and function together as a team,” he said. “Some have taken pay cuts to join us. … I think the state of Hawaii is extremely fortunate to have them in their positions.”
The five are Kalbert Young, chief financial officer; Jan Gouveia, vice president for administration; Carrie Okinaga, vice president for legal affairs; Donald Straney, vice president for academic planning and policy; and Garret Yoshimi, vice president of information technology.
Money for executive and managerial pay raises is appropriated by the Legislature and cannot be used for another purpose. Those positions are not subject to collective bargaining, but money is set aside for them in conjunction with union contract appropriations.
State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, Ways and Means chairman, faulted the Board of Regents for not providing enough oversight over UH administration.
“The concern I think for most of us is this relationship is too cozy,” Dela Cruz told Regents Chairman Benjamin Kudo. “There needs to be a separation between the board and the administration and who is holding who accountable. I mean, really, the tail is wagging the dog on all of this.”
The senators also questioned a 2018 contract UH Manoa signed with national firm EAB, which specializes in boosting college enrollment.
“I think you guys can get more results by doing it yourself than hiring one outside entity,” Favella said.
After the hearing, Roxie Shabazz, assistant vice chancellor for enrollment management at Manoa, said the EAB contract was for $2.56 million over four years. It provides services including targeted marketing, social media and mail outreach to high school students.
She credited the firm for vastly expanding the university’s pool of prospects and bringing in many new applicants.
“They allowed us to broaden our reach,” she said. “EAB is providing us with a lot of different tools to help us increase enrollment.”
UH Manoa’s incoming class of freshmen this fall topped 2,000 for the second year in a row, the largest size in decades.
Kim said after the hearing that she thinks the university needs to settle on a realistic size rather than keep chasing more students.
“We have got to be reasonable about what can we sustain and what is it going to cost us,” she said. “Because now we have faculty that’s tenured, and it’s there to support 20,000 students at Manoa but we only have 17,000. So how do you downsize that to reflect what your goals are?”