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Layoffs, Budget Cuts and Aloha Tower: What’s Next for Hawaii Pacific University?

A change in leadership, job cuts, a sharp jump in tuition, and faculty and staff job cuts have shaken Hawaii Pacific University, even as it embarks on an ambitious plan to develop Aloha Tower Marketplace as its new core.


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When Bannister arrived in 2011, enrollment sat at about 8,000 students. In the next year, the university lost more than 600. For a private university, which relies almost solely on revenue from tuition to pay faculty and keep the lights on, the decline put into motion a series of painful cuts and money-saving measures.

“Universities were in dire straits across the country. We brought in a financial consultant who conducted a forensic analysis of our long-term financial health. The outcomes were very sobering,” Chun says. “We made it clear to Geoff he needed to address these issues and come up with a solution to these challenges.”

Faculty members we spoke with were unwilling to talk on the record for fear of retaliation by the administration. (Speaking as a writer who has covered education in Hawaii for several years, it seems highly unusual for normally freethinking and opinionated professors—whether at public or private universities—to decline to speak to the media.) The faculty we spoke with described a culture of low morale and uncertainty, with many professors scared for their jobs. The university has drastically cut adjunct and part-time faculty, leading to a reduction in the number of course sections offered, they say. The university has also slashed retirement benefits from 11 percent contributions to 6 percent, sources say.

Until this past semester, the university had not touched any of its approximately 250 full-time faculty members. But, at the end of the school year, when 60 professors reapplied for renewal of their five-year contracts, 18 were let go. Among them, sources say, were theater professor Joyce Maltby, who ran the university’s Paul and Vi Loo community theater on the Hawaii Loa campus, and Joseph Ruszkowski, an assistant professor and the director of HPU’s Sea Warrior Band. Both worked in the university’s Arts and Humanities Department, and were seen within the community as the catalyzing forces in their areas. (It appears Maltby will be directing plays next school year, however.)

The university would not comment on individual cases, but a spokeswoman provided this statement: “The affected faculty members were provided an opportunity to request reconsideration, and President Bannister met with a number of them individually. The university, of course, made efforts to provide accommodations or provide transitional assistance as appropriate. HPU continues to hire part- and full-time faculty throughout the year, dependent upon student demand. Already, one or more of those faculty members has been rehired by the university as part-time faculty where student demands were shown.”

The university was also unwilling to say how many staff members have lost their jobs over the past two years, but one source estimated at least 40 were let go at the end of this most recent school year. By some accounts, the university gave little notice to dismissed employees and, in some cases, people heard they had lost their jobs through the grapevine.

According to minutes from a June 19 town hall meeting with HPU’s provost, Matthew Liao-Troth, an unnamed faculty member said, “It is degrading when staff, such as librarians and CAIT (Center for the Advancement of Innovative Teaching) staff are terminated in such a way that they are given one-hour notice, escorted off campus by security, and have their IDs photocopied and given to security so that they will no longer be admitted.”

Liao-Troth told faculty that some layoffs had not been handled well, and acknowledged that some staff members had heard rumors they would be terminated before they were officially notified.

During the meeting, Liao-Troth said the university had been planning for a 5 percent budget shortfall, “however, it turned out that we were much worse off than a 5 percent budget shortfall, which is what necessitated the urgent process that was followed,” according to faculty assembly minutes.

In an interview with HONOLULU, Liao-Troth said it is unfortunate that faculty members fear for retaliation from the administration.

“We’re constantly in contact with faculty to figure out what their needs and desires are. It’s sad that people feel fearful because that’s not the type of culture I’m trying to cultivate. I’m trying to cultivate a rich intellectual environment, where we can engage students,” Liao-Troth says. “As stewards of our students’ tuition dollars, we’re always looking at staffing, and we’ve been fairly upfront that we’ve eliminated some positions over the last year on the staff side. Faculty are in a different situation with long-term contracts. I can understand why they could feel this way, but it doesn’t affect them in the same way.”

The university’s annual tuition has increased by nearly $4,500 since Bannister’s arrival. Liao-Troth issued a statement to students at the end of last semester that tuition would increase from about $20,000 to $21,000, consistent with the university’s history of increasing tuition by at least $1,000 a year. Only in the transition from the 2011 to 2012 school years did tuition increase by more than that, by about $2,000.

Liao-Troth says HPU remains a good deal for private education. According to U.S. News and World Report, HPU is the third least-expensive university among private universities in the West.

When we sat down with Bannister and asked about the university’s financial troubles, he described a university that, under Wright, had grown too big to be financially feasible. Between 2004 to 2008, the university’s enrollment peaked at more than 8,000 students. At the same time, the university’s cadre of staff, part-time faculty, lecturers and full-time faculty had to grow to accommodate the increase in students, he says. When the nation’s financial crisis hit and enrollment began to drop, the university needed to bring its costs back under control.

“If you see a university today that isn’t adjusting its cost structure, they’re going to have to adjust it later,” Bannister says. “What happened in 2008 to 2009 was a fundamental change in the U.S. economy, and it’s not going back very quickly to where it was before.”

Bannister says the university had grown too big and should be below 7,000 students. “We either had to increase the cost or bring down the expenses, and we chose to do the latter,” he says.

Bannister’s current position of “right-sizing” the university does seem to contradict statements he made to the media early in his term. In September 2011, Bannister told Pacific Business News that he planned to grow the student body—not decrease it—to 10,000 students. Simultaneously, he said, he planned to expand the staff from about 1,500 to 2,000, over a five-year period, including the addition of 150 faculty.

The university has also adjusted its scholarship program and, on first glance, it appears to affect local students more than Mainland or international students. Since HPU’s tuition is double that of UH Mānoa, local students have come to rely on HPU to provide generous tuition waivers.

In a statement from a university spokeswoman, “The university adjusted its scholarship policy, not to decrease the amount of funds given to local students, but rather the opposite. The university wanted to provide financial assistance to more deserving and meritorious students.”

In addition, the university says it’s provided nearly $50 million in scholarships to Hawaii residents in the past six years. In fact, more funding is provided today, and to more students in Hawaii, than in 2008 to 2009 before the policy shifted, they say.


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