A Senate proposal to slash the University of Hawaii’s budget and eliminate 220 faculty and staff positions is sparking outrage at the university and a flood of calls and emails to the Legislature.
The cuts to the existing budget would total $30 million over two years and permanently delete 121 faculty positions at the flagship UH-Manoa campus, plus another 100 vacant positions throughout the 10-campus system.
On the chopping block are tenured faculty members and researchers, including notable figures such as Carl Bonham, executive director of the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization, and top-notch scientists.
The move has set off an outcry not just for the depth of the cuts, which officials say could “devastate” the university, but how Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who is in her first year as chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee, targeted positions for elimination. Some professors say her approach violates the state Constitution, which gives the Board of Regents autonomy to manage the university, and runs afoul of the union contract.
“You have individuals who for no reason other than a whim on the part of a state legislator would have their jobs terminated,” said Kristeen Hanselman, executive director of the UH Professional Assembly, the faculty union. “Legislators may increase or decrease the UH budget but should have no role in determining the fate of individual faculty members.”
Kalbert Young, the university’s chief financial officer, described the Senate’s latest draft of the budget for the next two fiscal years as “alarming” and noted that it would eliminate about $13 million worth of research-funded positions — “at the state’s only research university.”
Along with the cuts to positions, the draft calls for an $8 million reduction in administrative support services, which represents roughly 20 percent of current spending in that arena, he said.
“This is coming at a time when UH Manoa and UH Hilo both received record numbers of applications,” added UH spokesman Brent Suyama.
In an interview Monday, Kim said she was aiming to ensure that students and taxpayers are getting their money’s worth at the university, and she knew that the proposal would cause “a lot of ruckus.”
“When you try to make some kind of accountability and change, people get riled,” she said. “Of course people are upset with me. In whatever position I’ve taken up, I’ve always tried to do my research and hold people accountable for the taxpayers’ dollars.”
Kim said she proposed the personnel cuts based on two criteria: whether the faculty member taught any undergraduate classes and brought in research grants in the past two years.
“Whoever taught zero classes and had zero grants for two years is what we put on this list,” she said. “We only have position numbers; we don’t know who these people are. It’s not as if we are picking. We went across the board.”
As it turned out, that approach overlooks the varied roles of faculty members at the university, officials said. Scooped up in the net were department chairmen, professors on sabbatical and researchers on teams, because only the principal investigator is credited with the grant. Also hit were scientists and researchers on institutional grants, and people in clinical positions and the university’s extension programs, for example.
“This is not scientific,” Kim acknowledged. “There’s a lot of questions that need to be answered.”
The budget bill will go to conference later in the week. The House version is more in line with the Board of Regents’ proposal.
Kim said she is asking UH administrators to come in and justify each position.
“We didn’t expect to cut all of these positions,” she said. “We know we’re going to restore most of it. But we need to get this conversation with the university, and we need to look at what the students are getting and are these tenured positions doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
In a letter to “the UH Ohana” posted online Monday, UH leaders said they are working inside the Capitol “to build support for an alternate and supportive approach to the budget.”
“While the largest proposed cut is at UH Manoa there is no doubt that, if enacted, this Senate budget would devastate Hawaii’s entire public statewide university system and its promise for our current and future students and communities across the islands,” said the letter, signed by “UH Leadership.” “It would result in unprecedented reductions- in-force of both current faculty and staff over the next two years, with impacts on students inside and outside the classroom.”
Kim said she was trying to hold the university to its own Board of Regents policy that teaching is the university’s first priority.
“The process is fluid,” she said. “When we go into conference we will probably restore a majority of them.”
“It wasn’t meant to damage the university,” she added. “‘I don’t want people to feel that they will be losing their jobs if they are doing a good job.”
But professors feel she overstepped her bounds by identifying individual positions for elimination even if they are restored.
“The university supposedly has autonomy, but that is a joke if Senator Kim and the Legislature can cherry- pick which faculty they want to get rid of,” said botany professor David Duffy.
“Legally the contract with the faculty is between the union and the Board of Regents and the governor,” he added. “She is violating collective bargaining.”