Some state senators have concerns that the University of Hawaii Board of Regents have become a rubber stamp for university officials whom the board is supposed to be holding accountable.

The issue came out during an hours-long meeting between a panel of senators and UH administrators Friday at the Capitol.

Sens. Donovan Dela Cruz and long-time university watchdog Donna Kim dug into how the board evaluates requests brought to it by the university. The board, in Dela Cruz’s eyes, is too close to the university officials they should be watching.

“This is the fox watching the hen house,” Dela Cruz said. “This relationship is too cozy.”

Finance Chair Senator Donovan Dela Cruz asks OHA Ka Pouhana Kamanaopono Crabbe some questions during hearing.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, seen here in January, wants the University of Hawaii Board of Regents to be tougher on officials they’re required to hold accountable. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

At issue was a recent decision by UH President David Lassner to give big pay bumps to some university executives and managers for outstanding performance in the past year. The board gave him that power in October, but is now reevaluating its policy after facing faculty backlash.

“You do realize you don’t work for them, right?” Dela Cruz asked Michelle Tagorda, who chairs the board’s personnel committee.

The panel of senators from the Ways and Means Committee as well as the Higher Education Committee focused on how those raises were assessed as well as university enrollment at Friday’s hearing.

Dela Cruz and Kim, the committee chairs, peppered Tagorda with questions on how the board reviewed the pay raises. Both Tagorda and Ben Kudo, the chair of the board, pointed back to the policy that allows Lassner to set the pay raises.

Responding to Kim, Tagorda said her committee did not ask for more data on salary increases when the issue came up in November.

“You are not restricted by policy,” Kim said. “Why wouldn’t the board want this?”

Both Kudo and Tagorda said later in the meeting that they raised concerns with the pay raises, but UH officials went ahead with it anyway.

“We’re reviewing our policies to ensure it’s not cozy, as you’ve mentioned, and for us to be more comfortable with how to better move forward,” Tagorda told the senators.

Some legislators have already taken the apparent substandard oversight as a green light to dig into UH’s issues.

“You don’t want us micromanaging, but then you have to do the work,” Dela Cruz said during a discussion about enrollment.

Lawmakers took issue with a $2.75 million contract UH has with EAB, a company that manages enrollment outreach. Dela Cruz was chagrined that UH hasn’t seen a bump in enrollment though it spends money on outreach.

UH officials agreed to provide a report on EAB’s work and its return-on-investment. There are other issues the Senate panel will look into including tuition reserves, special funds and fringe benefits, the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy on the Big Island, and other construction projects UH is undertaking.

Though they sometimes try to dictate how UH should be managed, lawmakers are limited with how far they can stretch before breaching UH’s autonomy. The regents, according to state law, are supposed to provide the oversight that grants the university its autonomy from the Legislature.

Kim said after the meeting that she has no plans to introduce legislation to go after the board.

“Once they get in, they tend to not act individually and tend to act as a group,” she said.

She said the board should review all of its policies to make sure they provide enough oversight of UH.

How much the Legislature is allowed to micromanage the university is being tested right now in the courts. 

Jeff Portnoy, a former regent, sued the Legislature over a measure that cut the board down from 15 members to 11 members. It alleges that the Legislature overstepped its bounds with the measure and also violated the state constitution by using a gut and replace tactic to pass the bill in the final days of last session.

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