UH at 100

What’s next for Hawaii’s university?

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.


Photo: Courtesy of University of Hawaii

Expect a move toward West Oahu and a growing emphasis on the community colleges.

If the university can’t count on more money from the state, it can always tighten its belt. Cutting academic programs is always a dicey subject—former Gov. Ben Cayetano once caught flak for even suggesting that UH nix the study of Sanskrit—but moving them to a smaller campus may prove to be more palatable. UH West Oahu’s new four-year campus is scheduled to open in fall 2010, and it’s likely that it will take on a number of programs currently being offered at UH Manoa, such as education and nursing.

McClain says he doesn’t expect to transplant programs wholesale overnight, but that an organic shift in emphasis is the eventual goal. “On those campuses where the physical structure is too large for the revenue that can support it, there’ll be some consolidation,” he says. “In the past, [UH Manoa] has been asked to be all things to all people. We’re going to have to focus a little more sharply in our second century.”

Accordingly, the university’s current 2002-2015 strategic plan is characterized by back-to-basics goals, to be accomplished by strengthening UH Manoa’s satellite campuses, especially its four-year campuses:

  • Increase the total number of UH degrees earned by 3 to 6 percent per year.
  • Increase the percentage of high school graduates entering UH by 3 percent per year.
  • Increase by 5 percent per year the number of graduates in fields experiencing a shortage in Hawaii (including teachers, nurses and hospitality workers).
  • Increase the degree attainment of Native Hawaiians by 6 to 9 percent per year.

“We’ve never had a strong middle in this state,” says UH vice president for academic planning and policy Linda Johnsrud, who was involved in drafting UH’s strategic plan. “We’ve got a strong research university and strong community colleges, and then we’ve got itty bitty little West Oahu and UH Hilo on the Big Island. The idea is to bring education to these geographic areas that will allow people to get into the workforce immediately.”

How would you improve UH Manoa?

We asked people around town how they’d make the University of Hawaii a better school. Here are a few of their suggestions:

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano:
Raise freshman-level entrance requirements. “The university is really a solid institution. But it’s never going to be a Berkeley or UCLA of the Pacific as long as the admission requirements are too low. If you get a high-quality freshman class, it holds the faculty to a higher standard, and everything is uplifted.”


State Sen. Clayton Hee:
Move undergrad programs to West Oahu. “I believe 80 percent of Manoa’s undergraduate programs should go out to West Oahu. Rather than retrofitting old buildings, we can build new buildings at what will be the fastest growing campus in the state. Manoa would become more of a Cal Berkeley situation, primarily a research institution, but it would also have the upper 15 or 20 percent of the undergraduates.”


J.N. Musto, executive director of the UH Professional Assembly:
Keep tuition cheap. “All of the children of Hawaii should know that if they don’t have a choice in terms of going to school on the Mainland, financially, that finances are not going to get in your way at UH. This should be a meritocracy. If you are qualified, come on down, we want you.”


UH Manoa chancellor Virginia Hinshaw:
Loosen procurement guidelines for new UH projects. “We’ve followed the federal guidelines in the past, which often slows processes and doesn’t add great value. It’s important to be accountable, but you also need the nimbleness and flexibility to move more quickly in certain arenas.”


Klaus Keil, chair of the 2007-2008 UH Manoa Faculty Senate Executive Committee:
Market the university better. “UH Manoa is a first-rate state university, but we haven’t advertised ourselves enough. Our marketing isn’t up to snuff; it’s much less than other higher education institutions here in Hawaii that can’t even compete with us.”

UH also intends to beef up its community colleges, in hopes of quickly energizing the local economy. The Rapid Response Fund, established last year by the Legislature, for example, sets aside approximately $70,000 for special education and training, speeding up the university’s response time. “When an industry comes into town, or a new business that needs specialized training, we can be more responsive,” says Johnsrud. “We no longer have to put it into a biennium budget proposal and wait for another year to get legislative funding in order to provide that training.”

Among the first beneficiaries of the fund are the laid-off workers of Aloha Airlines, who are eligible for a 50-percent discount on the cost of tuition.

Expect continued growth of Manoa’s already strong research programs.

All the focus on the other campuses doesn’t mean UH Manoa will be standing still. Expect to see a continued expansion of the school’s already excellent research enterprise.

UH Manoa pulled in $339 million in extramural funding in 2007, which includes research grants, training, art performances and other sources of outside income. The university is now consistently earning more than double what it was in the late ’90s, and the strategic plan calls for it to bump that to $417 million a year by 2015.

The bulk of this money is from research and grants in science-related heavy hitters such as the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, which alone brought in $80 million this year.

Going forward, the name of the game will be cooperation, both among professors in each of the colleges, and among different colleges across the UH Manoa campus, to more effectively chase research money from institutions such as NASA.

“Thirty years ago, you would have had 60 different professors working on 60 different research projects,” says Peter Crouch, dean of the College of Engineering. “That’s not going to cut it today.” He’s laid out five specific areas of concentration for his engineering professors, including biomedical engineering and exploration engineering, to focus their energies toward the development of stronger specialties within the college.

One example of this new kind of cooperation is the Hawaii Space Flight Laboratory, established in May 2007 as a joint venture between the College of Engineering and SOEST. By uniting the engineering know how of the former with the science chops of the latter, the two colleges are hoping to launch satellites into space within the next few years—a feat that would make UH the first university to have done so. “If it works, it’s going to be huge,” enthuses Crouch.



Expect a continued move toward private sources of funding, including tuition hikes.

It’s not just research money that UH is chasing. McClain’s administration has been focusing on more private funding in general, a trend that’s been taking place since the mid-1990s. Many HONOLULU readers may remember UH as an almost absurdly cheap school to attend, but that won’t be true for much longer.

McClain explains the transition: “The model of this university, as recently as 20 years ago, was that we had lots of funding from general funds, we did not get to keep our tuition and our tuition was extremely low. In 1995, the state struck a deal with us that said, we’ll hold your funding at a fixed level and you can keep your tuition. It sounded like a good deal, but then, three years later, the state cut our funding by 20 percent, because the economy was really poor. Ever since then, we’ve been trying to focus more on the source of revenue that we control.”

In fact, UH’s non-state revenues—which include federal funds, tuition, sales and private giving—have grown from $310 million in 1997 to $681 million in 2007, and the strategic plan calls for that number to hit almost $1 billion by 2015.

Increasingly, UH will expect students to foot the bills. UH is now halfway through an aggressive six-year tuition hike schedule that will top out at $4,200 a semester, more than double the rate students were paying in 2005.

McClain characterizes the hikes as simply bringing rates in line with the national average for comparable public universities. But J.N. Musto, executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, says the administration has lost sight of the university’s original mandate. “It was not a mistake that in the 1950s we created a university that had basically free tuition,” he says. “Anyone could go; tuition wasn’t an obstacle. It was to shift the social and economic order, to end the stratification of the population.”

“We’ve seen in recent years—since Dobelle and forward—this move towards a business model for higher education. They talk about customers, and use other very typical business terms, and that is not what a university is about. It’s not just about selling a product.”

Johnsrud counters that one of the goals of the strategic plan is to increase the disbursement of need-based Pell Grants by 5 percent per year. “In this six-year tuition schedule, we doubled tuition in the first three years, but we quadrupled financial aid,” she points out. “We made very deliberate choices to make sure that low-income students would not be shut out.”


"[UH Manoa] has been asked to be all things to all people.  We’re going to have to focus a little more sharply in our second century."—UH president David McClain

Photo: Courtesy of University of Hawaii

Expect continued sparring between the governor and the Legislature over UH’s governance.

UH has enjoyed more autonomy over its affairs since 2000, thanks to a constitutional amendment passed by the state Legislature, and since former president Evan Dobelle’s ouster in 2004, one hardly hears a peep about how UH is run. Behind the scenes, though, the university is as much of a political football as ever. This time, there’s a fight brewing between the governor and the Legislature over who gets to decide the makeup of the Board of Regents, the governing body of the UH system.

Since 2006, Board of Regent nominees have been chosen by an advisory council designed to be nonpartisan, and a list of nominees forwarded to Gov. Linda Lingle for her selection.

Lingle appointed six new regents from the list earlier this year, but balked at filling the remaining six open seats, opting instead to hold over the existing regents indefinitely, including her former campaign advisor, Kitty Lagareta, who the state Senate had rejected in May for a new term.

Lingle’s office refused to clarify for us how long the holdovers might remain in office, but the matter is likely to end up in court sooner rather than later, says Sen. Norman Sakamoto, chair of the Senate Education Committee. “We’re probably going to take some legal action—we meaning individually myself and some others—because the governor is not abiding by the constitutional amendment. She went down part of the list, and then she stopped. It’s clearly flying in the face of the constitution.”

Former Gov. Ben Cayetano says he’s not surprised to see the advisory council become the focus of yet another power struggle, despite its intended purpose as a vehicle of reform. “It’s almost like the judicial selection commission,” he says. “You have the best of intentions, but just as the commission became politicized by people who are not elected and cannot be held accountable, so, too, will this new process.”


But don’t expect much over the next two years.

The past four years have, to a certain extent, felt like a reaction to Dobelle’s tumultuous tenure. McClain, in contrast, manages UH quietly, relying on delegation, incremental change and a focus on the fundamentals. No revolutionary sermons on the mount here, pushing visions of college towns and other brash new initiatives.

It’s almost as if the university is holding its breath, waiting to see how the next two years are going to play out. There’s a lot coming down the pike: The Board of Regents lineup is being disputed, McClain’s term comes to an end next summer, as does the faculty union’s six-year contract. Lingle will hand over the governor’s seat in 2010, just after UH West Oahu’s new campus is scheduled to open. Factor in the shaky economy, and it’s enough to make anyone think twice about making big steps. Musto, for example, says UHPA is proposing a two-year contract for the faculty, instead of the usual six.
“We need to find a way to get through the next two years, and then come back and take another look at things,” he says.

History will belong to the next crew in charge.