UPDATED 7/9/11 12:22 p.m.

In the Fall of 2010 I “discovered” a University of Hawaii system-wide organization run by students, dedicated to spending $30,000 per year fighting, ostensibly, for the interests of students. The organization is called the University of Hawaii Student Caucus.

But if you have never heard of the UH Student Caucus, don’t feel too bad. No one I know at William S Richardson School of Law, where I am currently a student, had ever heard of the organization either. The only reason I found it is because I was trying to figure out how the UH Regents are selected. My search brought me to the Regents Candidate Advisory Council which nominates all Regents candidates for selection by the Governor and confirmation by the Senate. The RCAC is composed of seven members, each selected by seven different people in the State of Hawaii. One of those people is the Executive Chairman of the UH Student Caucus.

The current Executive Chairman is recently-graduated UH Hilo student Ho’omano Pakele, who has been a Caucus member for four years and Chairman for the past two-years. He agrees that it is time for the UHSC to come out of anonymity.

“The focus that I began with for the 2009-2010 year was making sure our members were aware of our purpose as a system level student organization and that we have the power to influence decisions made at this level with system administration, not to mention the State Legislature,” writes Pakele in an email. “I had been a member for only two years prior to my appointment as Executive Chair, but in these two years I felt much of our meeting time was wasted and not lived up to its fullest potential.”

The caucus includes two student representatives from every chartered student government in the UH System, including the Associated Students of the University of Hawaii (ASUH – the Manoa undergraduate government), the Graduate Student Organization (GSO – the Manoa graduate government), and the undergraduate student governments from Kapi’olani Community College (KCC), Honolulu Community College, UH West O’ahu, Leeward Community College, Windward Community College, UH Hilo, Hawai’i Community College, Kaua’i Community College and Maui Community College.

For full disclosure, I am currently a member of the UH Student Caucus and was appointed the Chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee on Information and Communication. I became a member of the Caucus in Fall 2010 when I showed up to the first meeting after finding out that the Law School was supposed to have a representative but had forgotten that the Caucus existed and so had not appointed one.

Eventually I was appointed by the Law School’s student government, the Student Bar Association. After some constitutional revisions and Caucus votes, the one ad hoc Law School representative is now a permanent fixture on the Caucus. Schidler Business School and Burns Medical School are not directly represented on the Caucus, but they are part of both ASUH and GSO, so they have representation through those organizations.

The first meeting was the beginning of a weekend retreat which kicks off the whole year. I did not get the chance to go to the whole thing, but it was well-attended by UH officials, including the longest serving Regent, Mike Dahilig (a previous Law School representative to the Caucus and two-time student Regent), the Associate Vice President for Budget and Finance / Chief Financial Officer, Howard Todo, and UH Information Security Officer, Jodi Ito.

The regular Caucus meetings are all day affairs, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Caucus meets once a month on every campus of the UH System. That involves flying the student representatives and the Vice President for Student Affairs, who attends every meeting, to the campuses. Usually the students end up staying overnight on the outer-islands (on their own dime) which involves more discussion of Caucus issues, although in a much more “ad hoc” environment.

All this has been going on since 1991, when the Caucus was created as a student advisory counsel to the President of UH. Shockingly, we discovered this year that the Caucus did not even know what its budget was. When we finally got it, we discovered that in 2010-11 we spent $30,000, just over half of that — or $16,315 — on airfare. The Caucus is currently looking into teleconferences.

Now, for someone like me who is a big advocate of transparency and spending tax-dollars wisely, spending $30,000 so a bunch of kids can fly around the state and eat lunch seems a little outrageous. However, it is a drop in the bucket of UH’s $1.1 Billion budget. If that $30,000 goes towards leadership opportunities for students and toward actively fighting for students’ interests, I can be persuaded that it is money well spent by a university.

The problem today, as identified by Chairman Pakele and as a result of my time at the Caucus, is that the organization is not living up to its full potential.

To date, the UH Student Caucus has been used mostly as a lobbying arm of the UH System so as to provide legislators with a “student voice” at legislative hearings.  This happened most recently when the Caucus helped organize testimony, and many caucus members themselves submitted testimony (including myself), against SB 120.  SB 120, and its sister bill in the House HB 79, both intended to sweep all the “Special Funds” in the state into the General Fund at the end of every year in order to help balance the budget.  A number of those “Special Funds” included UH Student Government bank accounts.

There are a lot of reasons to be against such a bill, but one would not think UH students would be so concerned.  How much money could UH Student governments possible handle?  Well, let me break it down:

The Associated Students of the University of Hawaii has a $5 million stock portfolio which was donated out of the proceeds from the sale of the old Stadium. ASUH also collects $5 from every full-time undergrad at UH Manoa every semester.

The GSO had a budget of about $250,000 last year; Kauai CC’s student government had a budget of $89,000; Maui CC $90,000; Hawaii CC $120,000.  These are just a few of the budget numbers I was able to collect on the fly from various student government representatives at the UH Student Caucus meeting on Maui this past February.

In other words, the students had some real money to protect.

In addition, there are numerous special funds operated by the rest of the UH System.  In the end the Legislature decided that the student special funds would be exempt.  While this was a great victory for the Caucus, we never got so much official attention on any other major student issues, such as the imposition of the $50 Athletic Fee on all UH Manoa students or the upcoming increase in tuition. Only when the Administration’s massive Special Funds were under threat did “Student Voices” suddenly seem so vital to the process.

So the challenge for the University of Hawaii Student Caucus moving forward is to understand the true power it has and then wield that power for students’ interests. Even though everyone knew the Caucus was being utilized to protect the Special Funds, the Legislators still listened when the Students spoke because the legislators knew that the people would listen.

One of the Caucus’ first major initiatives in charting our new future, then, is this very article. Raising awareness of the Caucus should be a goal for the next school year, and will be one that I push for. Other initiatives the Caucus is focusing on are Campus Security, financial assistance for needy students and transparency in the UH System. Ironically, those are much the same goals that the UH System claimed the Caucus was focusing on in its 2007 accreditation report to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. Hopefully in the next year, with $30,000 more dollars, the student representatives of the University of Hawaii Student Caucus can put that claim to the test.

About the Author: Samuel Wilder King II is an East-West Center Graduate Fellow currently pursuing a J.D. at the William S. Richardson School of Law and a Masters in Urban and Regional Planning at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. His extracurricular activities at UHM have included student government and investigative journalism.