Column: University of Hawaii budget bill has serious implications
Faculty need and want stability and autonomy to conduct their research without interference from legislators. They also need a strong leader at the helm of UH to defend the professional reputation of the faculty and their contributions to the community and the world.
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There is a battle over who controls the University of Hawaii. Recent events have shown autonomy is becoming more elusive.
Last week, state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim said she intentionally stirred up a ruckus and got everyone riled to keep UH accountable. She did this at the expense of creating angst among faculty members and their families.
She changed her tune by the end of the week. The chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education committee said in a press release that she “has determined that widespread cuts will not be necessary.”
UH leadership, which had been noticeably absent from the public arena, sent an email to faculty that same afternoon that they were “gratified” with Kim’s announcement.
But there is a larger issue looming. Pandora’s box has been opened and we can expect more legislative intrusion and further erosion of UH autonomy.
In her press release, Kim is quoted as saying, “It is clear that we have many challenges ahead of us as we work with the Regents and the UH administration to explore single classifications, more global criteria of substituting other activities for classroom teaching, and system-wide standards to determine teaching equivalencies, nine-month faculty, eleven-month faculty, and researchers.”
She clearly wants to be more involved in the management and operations of UH. The big question is whether she will be allowed to by UH administration and the UH Board of Regents.
Deciding the fate of faculty — who goes and who stays — is not the responsibility of legislators. When legislators myopically make budget cuts without an understanding of how all the parts affect the whole, the entire enterprise is put at risk.
Universities generate new knowledge, and this process provides students with remarkable opportunities for education. Our Legislature is to be applauded for its commitment to our youth and higher education, including the bills to expand the Hawai‘i Promise program for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees. The program began at the community colleges to offer financial aid to economically disadvantaged students, and hopefully, the expanded program would give these students the opportunity to continue their education at four-year campuses.
However, while scholarships are important, it’s an empty promise if the quality of that education is put in jeopardy.
When legislators ignore policies and contracts, and overstep their role and start to delve into university operations, workloads and performance of individual faculty members in the name of fiscal responsibility, this sends a signal to new and prospective faculty members that UH-Manoa is not an ideal place to teach and do research. It also sends a message to longtime faculty that their contributions are not welcome.
When there is a strain on recruiting and retaining faculty, the quality of instruction and research will correspondingly diminish.
Faculty need and want stability and autonomy to conduct their research without interference from legislators. They also need a strong leader at the helm of UH to defend the professional reputation of the faculty and their contributions to the community and the world. We owe this to the next generation of students.
Lynne Wilkens is director of biostatistics shared resource at the UH Cancer Center and president of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the union that represents faculty on all 10 UH campuses.