To survive the present budget crisis and the lean years beyond, the University of Hawaii has to deal successfully with two questions:

(1) revenue — where is the money going to come from? and

(2) reorganization — how can UH reorganize fairly and sensibly to deal with these new realities?

For years UH has had trouble dealing with these issues. If these questions are not addressed properly, UH will offer less quality for more money. The answer to the revenue question will by default be “the students,” while the answer to the reorganization question will be “there really is no sensible and fair way to do this, so we will make an ad hoc decision here and there and hope for the best.”

Decisions involving the costs of education involve political questions, the consideration of which should involve the right kind of politics — one that recognizes that the way a public university like UH is funded raises a fundamental question that has disappeared from the public agenda: To what extent do all citizens of Hawaii have an obligation to pay for an individual’s college education, and to what extent is it the responsibility of the individual him or herself?

That question is about economics and social justice, and not one that the Board of Regents can or should answer. A proper discussion of it would bring out very different and of course often contradictory views about the role of the market, equality, individual responsibility, and privatization. Without such a discussion, the public takes a backseat — taxation without representation.

The Legislature needs to bring the question back by encouraging open, public, sustained discussions about it. Take the present tuition situation as an example. In 2006, Hawaii students paid a smaller share of the costs of their college education than students anywhere else in the U.S.

Because of the state’s financial trouble, that piece of data alone trumps anything else. In desperate times it is tempting to let that happen, but doing so without discussing the larger question is shortsighted and undemocratic. I am not saying what tuition rates should be, but rather that we need a better process that examines the role of tuition in a broader, more political context.

Political officials have an obligation to examine the question in this comprehensive way, but so do the rest of us. The issue is too basic and too complex to be answered indirectly by the Board of Regents, or by horse trading during the closing hours of a legislative session when basic policy questions are about the last thing on a beleaguered legislator’s mind.

When it comes to adjusting to budget cuts, UH has two fundamental problems, and both have been around long enough to be called historical. First, it does not have an established process for assessing its academic programs. Second, the organizational culture of the University is extraordinarily resistant to change. Consequently, UH Manoa has no tested method for determining how to make cuts, and no proven way to implement the cuts after they are made.

In the thirty-eight years I have worked at UH, the University has never implemented a fully operational plan that allows it to make such judgments about the quality of its programs.

The full story is too complex to tell here, but basically, it is this. The prevailing culture at the University is risk averse. This aversion is a response to the failures and dashed hopes people have encountered when they have tried to make changes. It is also based on a long-standing lack of trust that the University administration can effectively represent UH at the Legislature, and related to this distrust, an entrenched political process that rewards individuals at UH for circumventing UH and going directly to the Legislature when they want something. At this stage, there is no reason to believe that people working at Mānoa believe that the internal process will work fairly, or believe it will work at all.

I have two recommendations.

First, revenue issues need to become public, political issues that consider tuition in the broader context I described earlier. It is not the University’s responsibility to do this. It is the broader community’s, including, but not at all limited to, elected officials.

The second is definitely the University’s responsibility, and the more those political officials avoid interfering with this responsibility, the better the chances of success. UH is responsible for making the new prioritization work. UH people need simultaneously to confront and appreciate the existing organizational culture. Just labeling this culture as a problem will not change anything. Making these changes requires time and an appreciation of low-level everyday change strategies that aren’t sexy but are the key.

But there is also a large-scale and public strategy that UH needs to do better. In a recent essay on leadership in Hawaii, Peter Adler described this strategy as leadership that creates “the atmosphere, tone, and sense of urgency that are required to bring about institutional change.” Adler is very critical of public leadership in this state. In his opinion, the most effective political leaders in Hawaii right now are military commanders, which Adler sees as “a backhand indictment of other local leaders. . . . Hawaii politicians [today] simply cannot do bold things.” UH administrators need to do a far better job at this.

That is also precisely what many people say about the University of Hawaii. It is a fair criticism as long as we understand that the creativity and courage that boldness requires need to be accompanied by a set of strategies that makes the bold ideas work. Without this combination, UH is doomed to continue down a path toward fragility, marginality, and mediocrity.

About the Author