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Editorial: UH streamlines as budget shrinks

Universities are defined as institutions of higher learning that, because of their size, can offer a wide curriculum and broad array of degree programs. Even so, many of them are finding now, with the coronavirus pandemic cutting deeply into their revenues, that they can’t be all things to all people, that in fact, they have to be much more tailored to local needs.

That is the rational coping strategy the University of Hawaii is applying to the current fiscal crisis: re-evaluating what’s on the UH menu and getting the most bang for the buck. Preserving the most promising degree programs for its students will take some rethinking of how they’re delivered — and finding ways to do that more efficiently.

David Lassner, UH president, has been having conversations with departments at the system’s campuses to get ideas about how the university can be leaner in the currently meaner economic environment. He also met with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser editorial board to explain the approach.

The state’s budgetary shortfall led UH officials to propose a spending plan that seeks no additional state funds, Lassner said, but Gov. David Ige has proposed cuts amounting to 15% across the university system. This amounts to an estimated $78.5 million reduction in the base budget for the system, which Ige has pegged for $526.5 total operating expenditures.

The particulars could shift over the course of the legislative session, as the picture of possible federal pandemic aid to state and local governments comes into sharper focus.

But it was already anticipated that money would be tight for the coming biennium, given annual deficit projections of $1.4-$1.8 billion as COVID-19 restrictions cut into tourism and commercial activities that generate much of the state’s general excise tax revenue. Lassner said that in advance of the governor’s cuts, the UH had requested no increases in general funds over the previous budget cycle.

Since summer, the UH has been discussing “repositioning” of campuses’ curricula beyond the next biennium, based on the most crucial needs of the community. The UH administration has noted in presentations on the plan that full economic recovery may be more than four years away.

“Even if there is federal assistance, it will be short-term,” according to one report. “Tactical actions like hiring freezes, travel bans, deferral of equipment purchases, across-the-board reductions can help in FY (fiscal year) 21, but the longer we delay strategic structural changes, the longer we stay in an FY21 world.”

This reality check is essential to success; lawmakers should consider how they can support this drive with funding to support a strategically rebalanced university system.

It is encouraging that the administration has grasped the need to combine some programs in ways that will save on administrative costs. For example, Lassner said, merging the School of Travel Industry Management into the Shidler College of Business and making other similar consolidations across the curriculum means there can be fewer dean-level positions deployed.

Lassner acknowledged that there are still programs that will need to be phased out, with constituencies that are unhappy with any downsizing plan. It would be wise for advocates to propose alternatives that accommodate their program goals, especially those that are smaller but still offer content that should find a home elsewhere in the system.

Above all, executing this repositioning will require continued engagement by the stakeholders — including everyone from the students to the legislators who hold the pursestrings and can help make it happen.

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