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UH at 100

What’s next for Hawaii’s university?


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Photo: R.M. Towill Corp.

The University of Hawaii is finishing up its centennial year. It’s got a lot to celebrate—in 100 years the university has grown from the tiny College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts (with just 10 students) to a full-service institution of higher learning.

The UH campus has grown dramatically since its early days.  (It's seen here in 1932.)

Photo: Courtesy of University of Hawaii

UH’s growth has mirrored that of the state. The Hawaii Territorial Legislature founded it as an agricultural trade school, reflecting a time when the Islands’ economy was driven by sugar. As Hawaii grew, and its economy diversified, so did UH, adding UH Hilo as a new branch in 1947, creating the community college system in 1964, establishing UH West Oahu in 1976, and transforming UH Manoa into a prestigious research university that the Carnegie Foundation classifies as one of only 96 RU/VH research universities (very high research activity) in the United States.

Today, the UH system is the state’s sixth largest company, according to Hawaii Business magazine, with more than $1.2 million in annual revenues, trailing only heavy hitters such as Kamehameha Schools and Hawaiian Electric.

But at the same time, plywood construction barriers surround the back half of Hamilton Library—the damage the library’s basement incurred in the 2004 flood has still not been completely repaired, more than four years later. Is UH Manoa ready for its second century, if it can’t even keep the intellectual heart of the university from leaking when it rains?

There’s certainly more to take care of these days. The Manoa campus today comprises roughly 7 million square feet of building space, about 4 million above Dole and 3 million below, housing more than 20,000 students in any given semester. It’s a lot to juggle.

In a way, a university is an intellectual factory, pumping out the full range of highly educated citizens that a state needs to build and run itself. Kapiolani Community College pops out lab technicians and chefs, UH Hilo graduates English and computer science majors, and UH Manoa produces many of the state’s doctors, nurses, lawyers and oceanographers.

So, if in its first 100 years, the University of Hawaii has grown to meet these three basic levels of education, what does the next century hold for it?

Here’s what you can expect to see over the next few years:

The Manoa campus isn’t going to catch up on repairs any time soon.

With all those millions of square feet of building space, UH Manoa just hasn’t been able to keep up with repairs and maintenance, leading to a much-publicized $350 million backlog. Leaking roofs, cracked sidewalks, broken elevators—Manoa’s campus looks less like a leading research university than a neglected stepchild of the state.

Some headway has been made since the beginning of the year: UH received $60 million from the Legislature for repairs and maintenance of all 10 campuses, double its normal annual amount, and, in August, cut the ribbon on Frear Hall, a new undergraduate dormitory. But UH president David McClain says the university needs closer to $100 million per year from the Legislature to catch up, and the tightening economy is making that goal unlikely.

The state is already lowering its expectations on tax revenues, and Gov. Linda Lingle has warned that state departments budgets may be cut as much as 20 percent. The trend worries McClain. “The last three or four years, we’ve been pretty successful in petitioning the Legislature for funding. I honestly don’t think we’ll be as successful in the next three years.”

As for Hamilton Library, the basement renovation is currently underway, but McClain estimates it will be 2009, perhaps even 2010, before all repairs on the building are completed.

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Honolulu Magazine February 2018
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