The budget meltdown and administrative shakeup at the University of Hawaii’s Manoa campus have been very much in the news, but I doubt  most people understand just how delicate — to use a polite euphemism — the immediate situation is in the wake of Chancellor Tom Apple’s imposition of an indefinite hiring freeze and the subsequent swirling rumors of his likely administrative demise.

The practical problems created by the abrupt hiring freeze are dramatic and carry heavy downside risk for the campus.

In just over two weeks, thousands of incoming students, including freshmen starting their college careers and students transferring from other universities, as well as continuing students attempting to make course changes, will be lining up to register for fall semester classes.

UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple asks a shouting protestor to please let Lt. General Francis Wiercinski  speak without interruption during his public presentation at the UH Architecture Auditorium on May 6, 2014.

UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple asks a shouting protestor to please let Lt. General Francis Wiercinski speak without interruption during his public presentation at the UH Architecture Auditorium on May 6, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

They begin registration on August 13, with classes set to begin on August 25. But as of today, programs across the campus simply don’t know whether classes scheduled to be taught by lecturers, graduate assistants, temporary faculty, and others will fall victim to the hiring freeze. And no one seems to know whether these decisions will all be made before registration starts.

Uncertainty prevails, and the potential outcomes appear to range from unpleasantness to chaos, both for teachers caught up in the freeze and for students cast adrift by probable class cancellations.

Department and college-level administrators have been told the hiring freeze applies to any faculty, as well as to lecturers, graduate assistants, and even student workers, if their hiring paperwork hadn’t been completed prior to July 15.

“Importantly, the hiring freeze is a HARD freeze, and only exceptional cases will be considered,” according to an email sent this week to some department chairs following a meeting between the academic deans and Reed Dasenbrock, vice chancellor for academic affairs.

No definition of “exceptional” was provided, but the word suggests a lot of classes will end up on the chopping block.

I don’t have a count of how many Manoa classes are taught by lecturers — that is, adjunct faculty hired by the class, rather than filling full-time teaching positions — but the number is substantial. I think it’s fair to say the loss of lecturers will cripple some departments, and significantly crimp class availability in others.

Programs seeking exceptions to the freeze must individually justify each position in writing, which will then be considered through an as-yet undefined, or at least undisclosed process according to unknown criteria.

Just in practical terms, it isn’t clear just who will be reviewing these written justifications in time to provide timely decisions on whether or not individual classes will actually be offered in the soon-to-start semester.

And all of that is for the upcoming semester. All indications are things will only get worse for the spring semester, when only “essential” lecturers are likely to get past the freeze.

This is an odd turn of events, since this and other universities have increasingly relied on lecturers in recent years because they are paid less than full-time faculty, and allow the universities to keep their faculty counts artificially low.

To further complicate an already overly complex political situation, departments have also been advised that requests to exempt lecturers from the hiring freeze will trigger administrative reviews of the teaching loads of current faculty. The implication is that faculty will be pressured to teach additional classes in order to “save” classes taught by lecturers.

While this might appear attractive as an administrative shortcut, workload is an area covered by the faculty’s union contract and subject to collective bargaining. Any attempt to change workload policies under the cover of this crisis can be expected to draw political and legal pushback from the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly.

And then there’s the problem of advisors, or the lack of them. It happens that the Colleges of Arts and Sciences, described as “the heart of the university,” which “provide the majority of the general education undergraduate courses offered on campus, and the majority of undergraduate and graduate degrees conferred,” is in the midst of an ambitious reorganization of its advising functions.

A previously centralized advising office has been carved up, with groups of advisors reassigned to the four colleges that make up Arts and Sciences. The move has prompted a number of advisors to seek other employment, leaving a serious shortage of academic advisors. And now attempts to restaff these positions will be delayed, at minimum, by the hiring freeze.

According to an open letter being circulated among faculty, the ratio of students to advisors is approaching 3,000 to 1, at least 10 times above the norm. And since students are required to see an advisor in order to make progress towards their degrees, this could have a serious impact on the academic careers of many students.

The hiring freeze has also thrown into limbo job searches that had been underway, or almost completed, but had not yet resulted in a final accepted job offer.

Take the case of Oceanography, one of Manoa’s top-rated graduate departments.

The department chair recently emailed other graduate chairs across the campus calling on them to unite against what he termed “an ill-conceived and hastily applied policy that is damaging to us and to our University.”

According to the email, the department started a search for a marine geochemist in April 2013 to fill a position created by a professor’s retirement.

The email described the process.

“During the ensuing fifteen months, our six-person Search Committee reviewed 132 applications, solicited three external letters for each of 20 applicants, interviewed 16 applicants remotely by ‘Skype’, and brought the final six candidates to Hawaii for a presentation and an intensive two-day interview with faculty and students in the Department.”

But after the faculty reviewed applications and, finally, were able to agree on an outstanding candidate, they were informed the sudden hiring freeze likely means they will not be able to go forward with the hire.

Over the 15 months searching out and selecting the top candidate, the program “invested approximately 733 hours of faculty time, 350 hours of staff time, and 18 hours of the Dean’s time,” at a total cost of nearly $80,000, including travel.

Multiply this across the campus and its many departments and programs, and you can begin to appreciate the turmoil the hastily announced hiring freeze has caused.

Several statements by campus administrators have tried to provide assurance that “core teaching and research needs” will be protected, but given the lack of a pre-existing agreement on what constitutes the “core” of the university, any crisis decisions are bound to appear arbitrary and, inevitably, will lack legitimacy.

The abrupt and unexpected imposition of such an extraordinary position freeze, in the absence of external factors clearly beyond the control of campus administrators, signals a serious management problem more than an underlying financial problem.

How could Manoa dig itself into this big a hole without red flags being raised in advance?  Spending by individual departments is subject to rigorous controls. How could these overruns accumulate over several years without being detected, or action taken? Who was supposed to be balancing the campus checkbook, but apparently wasn’t doing their job?

There’s also a concern that while these emergency fiscal measures take their greatest toll on academic programs, the major financial issues have been centered elsewhere, in the finances of the medical school, the cancer center, and the athletics department, which remains in the red by some $18 million.

There are reports that Tom Apple tried to block the continued outflow of Manoa funds to the cancer center and medical school, but hit political roadblocks and yielded to behind-the-scenes pressures that forced him to divert funds away from the Manoa campus and, in turn, triggered the current hiring freeze. If true, it means this is a case where the buck doesn’t stop with the chancellor.

Far more transparency is needed to evaluate the “why” and “who,” as well as the “what” of the current crisis.

I’m sure all these questions will eventually be answered, and the answers might not be pretty.


About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for more than 20 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.