Hugh McQuaid Photo

University of Connecticut officials on Thursday defended a decision to use UConn Foundation funds to raise President Susan Herbst’s salary, during a hearing on a proposal that would require more transparency from the nonprofit foundation.

The university and its support foundation have fended off bills to require more disclosure from the foundation during previous sessions. However, the proposal has more traction among lawmakers this year, in part due to a controversial move late last year to boost Herbst’s salary by $300,000 using UConn Foundation funds.

Lawrence McHugh, chair of the UConn Board of Trustees, defended that decision during a Thursday hearing of the Higher Education Committee, and asked lawmakers not to pass two transparency bills aimed at the foundation.

“We found out that Susan Herbst was vastly underpaid,” he said, pointing to comparative studies of academic executive salaries. McHugh said Herbst, previously paid $520,000 a year, did not rank in the top 50 highest-paid public university presidents. He said the $300,000 boost put her in the top 20.

“I’m not going to step back and say we were wrong in doing what we did, because we were right. She could leave here tomorrow and get a job at either a public or private institution making more money. We want her to stay, and we wanted that message to go out to her before her contract was up,” he said.

Subsidizing the university president’s salary was not the only UConn Foundation expenditure to make headlines recently. Last year, the nonprofit paid Hillary Clinton $251,250 to speak to 2,300 students. In 2013, it paid $660,000 in cash to buy a house in Hartford’s west end for Herbst to use to entertain big-money donors. Before that, the foundation paid for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy to attend world economic summits in Switzerland and China.

Some lawmakers and open-government advocates say the foundation is so closely linked to a state government institution that it should be subject to the freedom-of-information public disclosure law.

“The foundation really could be considered a functional equivalent of a government organization,” Rep. Roberta Willis, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, said during the hearing.

The nonprofit serves a governmental function by giving out scholarships to students, Willis said. It also receives funding from the state and was created by officials in state government.

Although some lawmakers stressed they were not looking to require disclosure of information on the foundation’s donors, McHugh and UConn Foundation President Joshua Newton said they were concerned the bills would deter donations.

McHugh cited cuts proposed last week by Malloy to underscore the school’s dependence on the foundation’s support. The budget, which was unveiled last Wednesday, would leave UConn with a $40 million shortfall next year, McHugh said.

“If there was any doubt that UConn will rely more and more on the foundation in order to be successful, the events of last Wednesday should have erased them,” he said.

However, James Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, told lawmakers they should require the disclosure of information on the foundation’s donors as well. He said the foundation acts as a “surrogate” for UConn through its fundraising, investing, and administration of grants.

“It manages hundreds of millions of dollars. The public deserves detailed information so it can judge whether the foundation has invested well, allocated resources wisely and fairly, and transacted business prudently, efficiently, and without impropriety,” Smith said. “Just as we’d prefer that political donations not be secret, we prefer that donations to the foundation not be secret.”