When the University of Hawaii signed a contract with the military five years ago allowing the U.S. Navy to develop a controversial research lab within UH, a key stipulation was that the results would be publicly available.

But the university and Navy have disclosed few details about the research conducted over the course of the contract. And UH officials appear poised to sign off on a new agreement that would seal the deal on another five years before the public gets a chance to chime in.

The current five-year contract, which was approved by the UH Board of Regents in 2007 and finalized with the Navy’s Sea Systems Command in 2008, expires July 14.

The original agreement promised that the first three years of the Navy-sponsored research wouldn’t be classified. Yet the public is still in the dark about exactly what kind of research has gone on at the so-called University-Affiliated Research Center, which uses UH facilities, how much it has cost and whether it has generated money for the state. Even the lab’s location is unknown.

UH and Navy officials won’t discuss what goes on at the lab. There’s talk on campus that the anticipated $50 million total in federal funding never came through, but it’s difficult to conclude how much revenue the research has actually produced because neither UH nor the Navy has released documents detailing its finances. An outstanding public records request from UH Professor Emerita Beverly Keever has gone unanswered despite assurances from a university spokeswoman that none of the research is classified. The Sea Systems Command’s public records specialist couldn’t be reached Tuesday.

Meantime, university officials didn’t answer inquiries from Civil Beat regarding the lab, including why Keever hasn’t gotten a response to her requests.

“Everyone’s in the dark, and that’s the way UH likes it,” said Keever, who on Monday wrote an op-ed for Civil Beat about the topic and her unsuccessful efforts to obtain details on the current contract. “As long as we don’t know the nature of it and where it is, we don’t even know what to be concerned about … it’s just a big black hole.”

Keever pointed to past contracts the university has held with the military, including one in the 1960s in which the U.S. Army was given permission to test Agent Orange at an agricultural station on Kauai. That track record, Keever said, makes information about the current research arrangement all the more relevant to Hawaii’s residents.

The Navy announced just three projects at the lab totaling roughly $1.8 million when the current contract was finalized in 2008; no other “task orders” have been publicized since. Documents relating to the three projects are available online.

A Navy spokesman could not confirm on Tuesday whether the command plans on continuing the lab.

Critics have urged the Board of Regents to request a report of the lab’s first five years before an administrator signs the next contract.

But the lab isn’t on the board’s agenda for its July 11 meeting, and officials won’t yet say whether it’ll be up for discussion at the board’s July 18 meeting.

Board policy says the university president is authorized to sign the contract unless the administration, after consulting with regents, decides the agreement will have a “significant impact on policies, programs, or operations.” The president can also choose to have another university official, such as the vice president for research, sign the contract, which UH Spokeswoman Lynne Waters said would be the case this time.

Other than the new timeframe, the upcoming contract won’t be different from the current one, according to Waters.

But critics say the contract’s subtle renewal — if the Navy even plans on co-signing it — would mean the university is falling short of its duty to stay accountable to the public.

“The current attempt by university officials to sneak the almost non-existent UARC back into life is so outrageous and so unethical that the community and university faculty and students should rise up in outrage,” said former UH Professor Joel Fischer, who participated in protests against the lab when plans were first announced.

Various military branches sponsor research labs at a number of universities across the country, including the University of Washington and the University of Texas at Austin. The strategic labs are meant to support Department of Defense research while generating revenue for the universities.

When former UH President David McClain asked the Board of Regents to authorize the lab in 2007, he emphasized that it was a “financially attractive construct.”

Proceeds from the lab, he wrote, would produce greater revenue than that from normal research contracts in part because the Navy would reimburse direct costs such as those for personnel.

When plans first emerged in 2003, the proposed laboratory was the target of unusually vehement protests. Students and faculty held a seven-day sit- and sleep-in and nighttime vigils, while national news media highlighted the historical significance of the proposal.

The last time the Navy built a laboratory on a university campus, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Kelly Field, was during World War II.

According to Keever, the funding agreement was in large part attributed to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, who helped convince the Navy that UH offered a strategic location for a military research lab.

The proposal was announced amid widespread concerns among stakeholders ranging from Native Hawaiian advocacy groups to UH Manoa officials who said the lab represents an egregious breach of the university’s core values, according to Keever. The UH Manoa faculty Senate, among other groups, said it would vote against any contract that permitted classified research on campus — a condition to which the president, and then the Board of Regents, agreed.

Kitty Lagareta, who chaired the Board of Regents between 2005 and 2007, said she and other regents approved the plan on strict conditions, including that none of the initial research be classified, and after long-drawn-out consultations with stakeholders.

She said regents also called for a review of the lab’s research after a few years.

“An agreement’s an agreement,” she said. “The university ohana as well as the public are probably deserving of some sort of a recap.”

Faculty Senate Chair David Ericson told Civil Beat the group supports the Navy-related research as long as its results are publicly available. He noted, however, that the faculty Senate will continue to ask questions about the arrangement if the president’s office renews the contract.

“The search for truth depends entirely on transparency,” he said in an email.

Still, Keever said her inability to obtain even basic information proves that both the Navy and university have been secretive about the lab since the get-go.

“The faculty Senate was very clear that the point of research is to spread your discoveries with the free flow of ideas and information,” Keever said. “But there’s censorship built right into that contract.”

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