The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly is the sole union handling collective bargaining and other matters, such as legislative advocacy, for nearly 3,000 faculty members throughout the 10-campus UH system.
UHPA’s president, Lynne Wilkens, sees her role as helping to “set priorities for the organization, ensuring that our actions take into consideration the diverse needs of the faculty and students.” She added, “I help all stakeholders connect the dots; a policy or practice that impacts faculty can have a corollary effect on students and programs that benefit our state.”
Last month, the assembly’s efforts at the state Capitol kicked into high gear after state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim proposed eliminating 121 faculty positions at UH-Manoa — a move that was largely scrapped days later. While UH leaders, including system president David Lassner, were credited with quietly persuading the lawmaker to reverse course, UHPA notes that it played a role, too.
“Many concerned emails and letters sent to the Legislature by the faculty helped avert this micromanagement,” Wilkens said. Further, UHPA maintains that Lassner and others should have made more noise to “rally the administration, faculty and students” in opposition to the proposal, which she sees as legislative over-reach.
The UH Board of Regents has exclusive control over university system management and operations, Wilkens said, pointing to an amendment to the state’s Constitution, enacted in 2000, that grants UH autonomy in order to relieve it of undue bureaucracy and legislative control.
“The goal was to allow UH to quickly adapt to changing academic and economic dynamics,” Wilkens said. “Each time a legislator crosses the line by attempting to manage and operate the UH, this autonomy is compromised. … The only way to retain the right to autonomy is to assert it.”
Born in Pennsylvania and raised in Winston-Salem, N.C., Wilkens describes herself as a product of public schools, including the University of North Carolina. At the UH Cancer Center, her workplace for three decades now, she serves as director of the Biostatistics Shared Resource and professor of the epidemiology program.
Wilkens is a principal investigator in the ongoing “Multiethnic Cohort Study,” which follows some 215,000 residents of Hawaii and Los Angeles for development of cancer and other chronic diseases.
Question: UHPA is holding its 45th annual membership meeting this month. What are the top issues for members?
Answer:Primary issues of our faculty mirror those of most employees in Hawaii: affordable housing, health care and child care. UHPA has been advocating for programs that would help state employees with these challenges.
A top issue for faculty relates to the need for strong academic leadership at UH and advocacy for faculty and students. UH faces many challenges, including recruitment and retention of employees, declining enrollments at many campuses, and deteriorating facilities.
Part of UHPA’s mission is to advance the interests of the UH, and we believe it will take a strong concerted partnership to effect change in these areas. UH needs to step up as an employer and create the best environment for research and discovery to flourish. Faculty make outstanding contributions to their fields of study and the community, but without a supportive environment, they are unable to realize their fullest potential.
Q: UHPA has supported a proposal to create a bargaining unit for graduate students. Why not fold them into the union?
A: UHPA would not be able to represent graduate students due to conflicts of interest caused by the role of faculty in overseeing their scholarly and instructional work. However … we believe they have rights, just as faculty do.
UH administrators and others have argued that graduate students should not be given the right to organize and collectively bargain because they are “transitory employees.” They claim they are given tuition waivers and other benefits, and that their primary focus should be on their academic pursuits as students.
However, it is for those very reasons that graduate students need protections. Graduate students are vulnerable to exploitation, such as unreasonable workloads and increasing class sizes. They are more likely to suffer inequitable treatment because they have little recourse.
Other public and private universities have unions for graduate students, so this is by no means a new concept. Collective bargaining has been a right in our state’s Constitution, and extending this right to graduate students is a reasonable action.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Regents’ recent move to combine the posts of UH system president and UH-Manoa chancellor?
A: The organizational structure can be effective, but will require close monitoring. … There are a few potential problems with the reorganization. Most of the operations of UH-Manoa, such as Human Resources and Facilities, are now managed at the system level. Whether this will result in lack of accountability and responsiveness to the needs of the campus could be a concern. Also, the reorganization may diminish the voices of other campuses within the UH system if the dual responsibility of the president/chancellor is conflicted. The balance may be lost when it comes to resources and attention to sustain the other campuses, such as UH-West Oahu, UH-Hilo and the community colleges.
Q: Last summer, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in the unions-focused Janus case, you said it prompted concern about possible “loss of employee rights and a weakened collective voice in the workplace.” What’s the upshot to date?
A: The high court decision on the Janus case meant that public unions could no longer require employees to pay union dues. All faculty members in Bargaining Unit 7 retain the employee rights covered in the UH-UHPA contract. UHPA membership dues are just 1% of the salaries of faculty members. Some faculty chose to stop paying their dues. However, through UHPA’s aggressive and proactive education efforts about Janus and the corrosive tactics right-to-work groups deploy, the majority of our members renewed their membership.
The recent crisis triggered by Sen. Mercado Kim created a volatile, unpredictable environment that resulted in a deep sense of uncertainty. The importance and value of UHPA membership immediately became crystal clear, and many “free riders” gladly converted to dues-paying members.
Q: When it comes to academics and campus life, what does UH offer its faculty, and students, that make it attractive as a place of higher learning?
A: Hawaii’s unique geography and blend of cultures offer an abundance of opportunities for research and professional growth for faculty and students. The University of Hawaii, as a state institution, offers its faculty a place to make a difference in the lives of the residents of the state. We can provide a quality education to local students who wish or need to stay in-state. We can participate in research and outreach programs to address problems of our state and the broader Pacific.
The UH system includes a “Research 1” university (UH-Manoa),” two additional four-year campuses, and seven community colleges in nine locations across the state that provide students with a wide variety of educational experiences.
UH faculty have a strong advocate in UHPA. The organization is committed to ensuring faculty are provided with the most favorable contract with the state and UH. The union advances the rights through implementation of the contract.
In a recent incident, UHPA won a landmark grievance case involving a professor who was never provided equipment promised to him in his letter of hire and that was needed for his research. UHPA’s intervention resulted in an improved contract; and letters of hire are now part of the collective bargaining contract. … This has helped to make UH more attractive as a place of higher education.
Recruitment and retention of quality faculty enhances the learning experience for undergraduate students and opportunities for graduate students to be mentored.
Q: What do you enjoy most about your UH employment at the Cancer Center?
A: Interacting with the exceptionally creative people I work with. As a biostatistician, I get to work on many types of studies and with teams of scientists with a variety of expertise.