Several top-level executives at the University of Hawaii received double-digit percent pay increases this year based on a policy that allows UH president David Lassner to make “additional special adjustments” to make sure they don’t go elsewhere and to account for new job duties.

The changes, which bring four UH vice-presidents and the general counsel to a salary of $272,040, reflect pay increases ranging from 6.1% in the case of Donald Straney, VP for academic affairs, up to 14.1%, in the case of Garret Yoshimi, VP for information technology.

The other substantial pay increases affect the VP for administration Jan Gouveia (12%); VP for budget and finance Kalbert Young (10.8%); and general counsel Carrie Okinaga (11.2%).

University of Hawaii President David Lassner during undergrad commencement. 16 may 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

University of Hawaii President David Lassner in a May 2015 photo. A UH policy allows him to make “special adjustments” to executive pay beyond standard increases.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“If tuition (revenue from lower enrollment) is down, then where are we getting the money to pay for this?” asked Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

“When you’re looking at the overall performance of these top-level people, you have to judge performance on the overall success of the university,” she added.

Annual salary increases for executive and managerial personnel at University of Hawaii are standard, and based on performance. Senior officials are entitled to an increase in their base salary of $1,800, plus an additional increase of 1% to 1.5% depending on whether they achieve a rating of “exceeds expectations” or “exceptional,” according to UH spokesman Dan Meisenzahl.

But the policy exception, which was presented to the UH Board of Regents during an Oct. 3 committee meeting, allows those pay increases to soar even higher to retain top staffers and account for new duties.

“It was under this discretion that five vice presidents received their pay increases that bring each to the same pay level. They were all evaluated by the president as exceptional,” Meisenzahl said in an email.

The new salaries, which will take effect November 1 and are not subject to approval by the UH Board of Regents, were attached to an agenda ahead of Thursday’s next general meeting.

The Board of Regents, the governing body of the UH system, has authority to sign off on salary adjustments for only three executive positions: the university president, the board of regents’ executive director and internal auditor.

Lassner’s salary went from $375,000 last year to $395,004 this year, an increase of 5%. Kendra Oishi, the executive director, went from $110,040 to $114,096, an increase of 3.7%, and Glenn Shizumura, the auditor, from $157,404 to $162,168, a 3% change.

The VP salary increases, which far exceed the average, are drawing ire from some of Hawaii’s top lawmakers at a time of declining enrollment across the UH system.

UH this week announced a 2% annual decrease in enrollment — marking a drop for the ninth year in a row of falling numbers. The campus system, which includes three universities and seven community colleges across the state, has seen its enrollment drop from 60,000 a decade ago to 49,977 this year.

Kim said she plans to deliver a letter to the Board of Regents signed by herself and some of her colleagues asking for additional information on the methodology for calculating the salary increases by Oct. 28.

The funding for UH executive-level pay increases is drawn from a yearly legislative appropriation tied to the 2017-2021 collective bargaining agreement with Unit 7 of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly for all other UH employees. Effective July 1, all UH faculty received a 2% base pay adjustment.

This year, $1.1 million was set aside in the appropriation for executive level increases, according to Meisenzahl.

The president’s determination on who got a special boost in salary was based on the expansion of their scope of duties and a need to retain high-level individuals, the spokesman said.

Meisenzahl added that some of the individuals “turned down” pay increases in previous years and that their “responsibilities have grown substantially.”

For instance, VP Kal Young has added “public-private partnerships and government relations” to his budget and finance duties while Okinaga, the general counsel, has “saved millions in costs by eliminating the use of outside counsel,” he wrote.

“The vice presidents are acknowledged as highly effective and often sought after by others,” Meisenzahl said. “They are part of the team that has turned UH around.”

The $272,040 salary for these managers falls roughly in line or below similarly placed executives at other higher-ed research institutions, according to a 2018-19 survey by the College and University Professional Association.

Median pay for a chief academic affairs officer is $390,150, while for a chief legal affairs officer it is $270,000 and for a chief financial officer, $284,580.

Not all of the UH vice presidents received quite the same level of pay adjustment: Vassilis Syrmos, the UH VP for research and innovation, got a 2.7% pay increase, from $256,452 to $263,385.

Syrmos oversees UH’s research support division, including the management of planned construction of a telescope atop Mauna Kea, which is delayed by ongoing opposition.

— Reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this story.

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