UPDATED 5/19/11 4:46 p.m.

The University of Hawaii Board of Regents is split on whether to close a major biosciences research unit that has been an incubator for major medical centers on campus.

The board on Thursday voted 7-7 on the issue, which now heads to UH President M.R.C. Greenwood who will break the tie and decide how to proceed.

“We’ll now proceed on how we can resolve it,” Greenwood said following the vote at the board’s monthly meeting. Its unclear when a decision will be made.

The Pacific Biosciences Research Center (PBRC) spawned major UH institutions, including the John A. Burns School of Medicine and the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii.

The center brings in $6 million in competitive federal research grants, but that money doesn’t cover all of the center’s costs. Operating the center and supporting PRBC’s 30 permanent faculty and staff costs the university about $3 million a year. UH Manoa officials say they want to close the center because it is no longer the unique research center it once was — it does a lot of the same research as other departments.

Dave Au, PBRC’s administrative officer who opposed the closure, told Civil Beat he wasn’t sure how to react to the tied vote.

“It definitely buys us some time, but it could be viewed as a face-saving measure for the board,” he said. He noted that Greenwood has previously declined requests to meet with PBRC staff on the issue.

Split Vote

Here’s how the 14 regents voted (one regent seat is vacant):

Voted in support of abolishing the center

  • Carl Carlson
  • Michael Dahilig
  • Ramon de la Pena
  • Mark Fukunaga
  • Howard Karr
  • Eric Martinson
  • Teena Rasmussen

Voted against abolishing the center

  • Artemio Baxa
  • Chuck Gee
  • Dennis Hirota
  • John Holzman
  • James Lee
  • Saedene Ota
  • Matthew Williams

Some regents echoed the concerns of UH Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw and Vice Chancellor for Research Gary Ostrander, who both asked the regents to approve a proposal to abolish PBRC.

Center Accused of Losing Focus

Regent Mark Fukunaga, who chaired a subcommittee that recommended the center’s closure in March, said PBRC has lost its focus and its validity as a so-called “organized research unit” at the university. He also noted cost savings, saying, “Doing something well means you should have a permanent director; good permanent directors aren’t cheap.”

The regents were clearly split during the meeting, as some questioned Ostrander, who is also is PBRC’s interim director, for specific dollar savings and assurance that all faculty and staff would be placed in other departments on campus.

Ostrander said initial savings would be about $250,000 — money that wouldn’t have to go toward a director and secretary’s salaries. Beyond that, he was hesitant to estimate further savings. He did say that seven existing faculty vacancies and the associated retirement costs could be distributed to other departments.

He told the board that he would personally handle the reassigning of faculty and staff.

“My intention is to work with all of the faculty and subsequently all the staff to figure out where to best position folks to meet their personal and professional needs and the needs of the university,” Ostrander said.

‘Tossing Out the Baby with the Bathwater’

Regent Chuck Gee likened the closure of the center to “tossing the baby out with the bathwater” because of the negative impact it could have on ongoing research and programs.

Regent Artemio Baxa also voted against the closure.

“Moving PBRC faculty and staff into other departments — the identity they’ve created will vanish,” Baxa said. “If we say it’s inefficient, what have we done to strengthen it, to build it? Is the best interest of the university being protected by this action?”

Three Dozen Testifiers Defend PBRC

The board had received 16 letters in support of keeping PBRC open. Nearly three dozen people signed up to testify in person. Testimony carried on for about two hours with overwhelming support to keep the PBRC open.

Dozens of supporters pleaded that the regents spare the center from closure. Testifiers ranged from graduate students to faculty, staff, researchers and concerned community members. They were strictly kept to three minutes apiece by regent chairman Howard Karr.

Many described the center as a think tank, as a leader in its field, an attractor of federal research dollars and grants, and a value to the greater Pacific region. Some said they were puzzled at the proposal to abolish the center considering the benefits they believe PBRC beings to the university and the state.

“I can’t help but find it significant that of the dozens of testimony we’ve received, there has only been two that support its abolishment — the chancellor (Virginia Hinshaw) and vice chancellor (Gary Ostrander),” said regent James Lee.

Seven PBRC faculty members offered combined testimony using a PowerPoint presentation.

These faculty members pointed to the leadership of Ostrander, calling him an “antagonist” who they say has wanted to close PBRC since 2008, when Ostrander appointed himself interim director.

Ostrander told Civil Beat in March that he had taken the post as a cost-saving measure while the university administration decided the center’s longterm fate.

Given the crowd that had showed up to support the center, Karr had said at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting that the board would only hear testimony at the start of the meeting’s “public commenting” period — and not throughout the meeting.

Karr said “this issue has been thoroughly vetted at academic affairs committee meetings on Dec. 13 and March 1 … That committee spent a total of almost seven hours on this particular item.”

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