UH-Hilo chancellor responds to criticism from Faculty Congress

  • Photo by Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald Students returned to classes at the University of Hawaii at Hilo on Monday, Jan. 11, 2021.

The University of Hawaii at Hilo Faculty Congress has criticized Chancellor Bonnie Irwin’s tentative budget cut plans as the university faces a potential $5.7 million reduction.

The Faculty Congress on Jan. 4 adopted a statement about the budget cuts.

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Steven Herman, associate professor of psychology and chair of the Faculty Congress Budget Crisis Committee, said 12 faculty voted in favor of the statement, three opposed it, and two abstained.

“Chancellor Bonnie Irwin has adopted a non-strategic, fiscally irresponsible budget-cutting plan for UHH that is precisely the type of approach that (University of Hawaii) President (David) Lassner has rejected in his Budget Policy Paper,” the statement reads.

The statement claims that under Irwin’s plan, the budgets of the university’s four major administrative units will be cut across the board by 19% to achieve a $10 million reduction.

“This is not a strategic approach because it fails to allocate cuts according to the centrality of the programs and services offered by each unit to ‘the core needs of Hawaii,’ to quote President Lassner,” the statement reads.

Furthermore, the Faculty Congress says the cuts are being made based on the proportional share of expenses incurred by each of those units, ignoring the revenue they generate.

While some short-term cost-saving measures already have been implemented, Irwin told the Tribune-Herald last week that no decisions have been made about how the campus will address a $5.7 million budget cut proposed by Gov. David Ige.

Systemwide, Ige has proposed a $78 million budget reduction to the UH system as part of his proposed biennium budget, which was unveiled Dec. 21.

“First of all, scenarios have been discussed, but cuts have not been made; there are no final decisions,” Irwin reiterated when asked about the Faculty Congress statement. “Our Long Range Budget Planning Committee looked at both expenses and revenues. They analyzed data such as student-faculty ratios, enrollment trends and graduation rates for academic programs, among other things. All of these are relevant in evaluating the fiscal and academic health of a program.”

Feedback from this committee, which includes faculty, staff and students, was used to guide planning, she said.

The Faculty Congress also contends in its statement that Irwin’s plan includes the “likely termination” of 15 degree programs: natural science, physics, astronomy, philosophy, gender and women’s studies, mathematics, chemistry, performing arts, geology, Japanese studies and art bachelor degree programs; the Hawaiian language and literature, and heritage management master’s degree programs; and doctorate programs inHawaiian and indigenous language and cultural revitalizationand pharmaceutical sciences.

Irwin said all the programs listed in the statement are small programs with low enrollment that are reviewed annually.

According to Irwin, she and Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs Kris Roney have met with faculty in most of those programs to discuss options moving forward.

“Many really valuable ideas were generated, and discussions will continue into the spring and probably the fall,” she said. “While suspending programs is one option, there are many others, such as partnering with other programs, updating curriculum, changing the focus of the degree, etc.”

Irwin said the programs identified by the Faculty Congress are not the only programs being discussed, nor does it make sense to eliminate them all.

“For example, the faculty in Hawaiian language and literature had reviewed their curriculum prior to these discussions and have submitted proposals for change through the normal faculty process,” she said. “As for the rest, no final decisions have been made.”

The Faculty Congress also claims that Irwin’s plan “has avoided long-overdue but much needed decisions to right-size our top-heavy administration.”

According to the statement, the group recommends cutting expenses that won’t impact revenue generation; adjusting or suspending administrative positions, programs and non-personnel expenses that don’t generate revenue and aren’t critical to the university;not filling vacancies from employee attrition and reducing the number of executive/managerial positions.

“We recommend no more than a total of three (executive/managerial) positions at UH-Hilo, including eliminating at least one vice chancellor position and filling all dean positions with faculty who can adapt more easily to changes in student volume and needs with continuation of some teaching and other revenue-generating activity,” the statement reads. “To save even more on expenses, all of our (executive/managerial positions), including the chancellor and the three vice chancellors, could be replaced with interim faculty appointees, at least for the duration of the budget crisis.”

The Faculty Congress also contends the university’s financial crisis was exacerbated by the hiring of four new administrators between July and September after a systemwide hiring freeze was implemented.

Irwin told the Tribune-Herald last week that the university is still under a hiring freeze and is only asking permission to fill positions considered necessary.

Any position request has to be approved by Lassner, “and he is not approving everything,” she said, adding that there have been more requests made than she or the president have supported.

“We are certainly looking at the administrative structure of the university as well,” Irwin said in her follow-up email. “Many, many things are on the table to be considered for change. I imagine if the Legislature passes the governor’s budget as proposed, UH-Hilo will have fewer administrators in the future than it has in the past. We already have fewer administrators than we did several years ago.”

According to Herman, speaking only for himself and not for the Faculty Congress, Irwin and her team informed the Faculty Congress at its September meeting that proposed cuts would be presented to the UH Board of Regents in December with decisions made in January.

Because of concerns from faculty about the proposed cuts and the administration’s decision making process, the Faculty Congress approved the creation of an ad hoc Budget Crisis Committee to begin working on an alternative approach, he explained.

“In December, we were told, confusingly, that no decisions had been made, that there was no ‘plan,’ but that there was now only a ‘scenario’ under which the 15 programs mentioned in our statement might be ‘suspended,’ depending on how much we will eventually need to cut, which is now less clear,” Herman said. “Given the lack of transparency and the inconsistency in the communications from administration, the Budget Crisis Committee continued moving forward in drafting the statement that was recently adopted by the Faculty Congress.”

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The statement was drafted in time to submit it as written testimony at last week’s Board of Regents meeting.

Email Stephanie Salmons at ssalmons@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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