Dozens of University of Hawaii at Manoa students planned to stage a sit-in Thursday morning at the UH president’s office to protest what they figured was the imminent dismissal of Chancellor Tom Apple.
They swore they wouldn’t leave until UH President David Lassner formally pledged that he would retain Apple as head of the university’s flagship campus.
But then something happened late Wednesday afternoon that changed their course a bit: Lassner handed Apple his termination letter, effectively barring the students from having a say in the decision.
The timing, students later said, couldn’t have been more strategic. University executives had long ago made up their mind about Apple and had no intention of giving students an opportunity to chime in, they argued; by giving him the sack before the rally was set to take place, Lassner had an easy way out.
“Everybody feels that we had a quality head of this campus, and frankly I feel like he’s being pushed out by some administrators with a lot of power who have an interest in maintaining their share of resources,” said graduate student Nick Chagnon, referring to widespread speculation that Apple was let go because he challenged the power of certain administrators. “I don’t know why (Lassner) is doing this now, but he’s clearly violating a pledge he made to serve students rather than administrators.”
A few dozen students — along with 15 or so faculty and staff members — still showed up at Bachman Hall on Thursday wearing UH colors to show their support for Apple, many of them equipped with Granny Smith apples and signs bearing messages such as “Our $$ Our Choice and “Tom is NOT a Bad Apple.”
So did Lassner himself, who apparently delayed a scheduled trip to Kona in order to address the protesters. Wearing a forest green Aloha shirt, Lassner sat cross-legged on the ground as he read from a written speech explaining Apple’s dismissal and responded to questions and accusations from an occasionally hostile crowd.
Apple, Lassner said, failed to keep the campus’s budget in the black and create cohesive leadership team as chancellor of UH Manoa, a post Apple had held since 2012. Apple’s employment agreement was set to expire in 2017.
Rumors first surfaced last week that Apple was getting the boot, but until Wednesday the university wouldn’t confirm the news. According to Lassner, the university had been negotiating the dismissal with Apple for several weeks, both formally and informally, to little avail. UH rejected Apple’s first three settlement offers because they weren’t “financially acceptable” and finally agreed to a deal on Wednesday, Lassner said.
Under the final settlement Apple is assuming a tenured chemistry faculty position in the College of Natural Sciences for a $299,000 annual salary, a significant pay cut from the $439,000 he made as chancellor. As part of the settlement agreement, the university is also dishing out a lump sum payment of $100,000, including attorney’s fees. (See below for the settlement offer and termination letter.)
In a statement released by Apple’s lawyer, Jerry Hiatt, Wednesday night, Apple said that he made every effort to retain his position as chancellor and was told “this was out of the question.” Apple said he was initially offered a position at the medical school, but the job would’ve “created untenable conditions under which I would have had to leave the University entirely.”
“Though I have been forced out of my post as Chancellor, I do remain willing to serve this fine University if given the opportunity to do so,” he said.
Lassner said a key issue was Apple’s handling of the campus’s budget, which has taken a hit in recent years, forcing the school to draw down on its reserves at a rate of $20 million a year.
To save money, Apple implemented a controversial hiring freeze on July 15 as part of an effort to trim spending by $10 million annually over the next two years, though Lassner said he started discussing Apple’s termination before the freeze. Apple in part opted to enact the freeze to avoid foisting the financial burden on the campus’s 20,000 or so students and further increasing tuition.
Lassner criticized Apple for announcing the hiring freeze so late in the summer, just weeks before the start of the school year. Whether or not the freeze is the best solution to the budget crisis, Lassner said, remains to be seen.
But what’s clear is that it further divided the UH Manoa community, he continued, pointing to tensions including between the undergraduate liberal arts departments and the Cancer Center. It is widely understood that revenue from undergraduate tuition can be spent on programs unrelated to undergraduate education such as the Cancer Center — a budget formula Apple has bemoaned in the past.
“You cannot pit undergraduates against research, Manoa against Kakaako,” Lassner said, later saying that one of his concerns was that Apple increased “zero-sum game attitudes about who’s getting whose money.”
Many faculty members and their advocates, including UH Manoa Faculty Senate Vice Chairman Bob Cooney and faculty union Executive Director J.N. Musto, have speculated that Apple’s dismissal stems from internal politics and his conflicts with the Cancer Center and its director Michele Carbone. Apple twice attempted unsuccessfully to remove Carbone, a controversial leader who’s garnered an unprecedented number of faculty grievances.
Lassner regularly tensed up when asked on Thursday about the role of the Cancer Center in Apple’s dismissal, vehemently denying that its leaders — and any outside stakeholders who have clout at the center — puppeteered his decision. Those outside stakeholders include Sen. Roz Baker, a legislator who’s been rumored to have pressured Lassner to remove Apple and retain Carbone.
“(Apple’s) belief that Director Carbone should be removed did not influence my decision,” Lassner said, acknowledging that he’s “concerned” about the Cancer Center, whose deficit is projected at $10 million annually and whose reputation has taken a toll on university morale. “There was no outside influence asking me or directing me or pressuring me to remove Tom Apple.”
“This is an example of him approaching his job in a very reactionary manner, and he isn’t supposed to micromanage the Manoa campus.” —Bonnyjean Manini, faculty member
The decision to let Apple go as chancellor was prompted by a series of confidential “unsatisfactory performance reviews,” according to Lassner, who refused to say who was behind the evaluations. The Board of Regents didn’t have a say in the decision, though it was briefed, Lassner said.
He apologized for excluding students and faculty from the decision-making process, blaming the closed evaluation process on UH Manoa protocol. He promised to work on changing those policies to make personnel decisions more transparent in the future.
Among the groups represented at Thursday’s rally to support Apple were the Associated Students of the University of Hawaii, the Graduate Student Organization and the Kualii Council — the panel that advises the UH Manoa chancellor on Native Hawaiian issues.
Many students and faculty members described Apple as a hands-on leader who made the effort to engage with them regularly, often stopping on campus to talk and listen to their concerns.
Laiana Wong, a Hawaiian language professor, praised Apple for engaging with the Native Hawaiian community.
Apple drew support “just by listening to people,” Wong said. “He was a nice guy, he was genuine. He galvanized not just the university but also talked to Hawaiians in the community and got them on his side.”
Lassner acknowledged that Apple is well-liked among students and professors.
“I realize Chancellor Apple has made friends,” he said, emphasizing that his decision was based on Apple’s administrative shortcomings rather than his personality. “I understand Chancellor Apple has communicated effectively and relentlessly … I have nothing negative to say about that aspect.”
Lassner said he plans on meeting with different stakeholder groups, including student coalitions, in the coming days to respond to their concerns and start the process to appoint an interim chancellor. He hopes to hire the interim in August. Classes start Aug. 25.
The Apple controversy marks the first cause celebre of Lassner’s presidency, a post he was appointed to last month after serving in an interim capacity for nine months on largely favorable terms.
But on Thursday Lassner’s popularity faltered big time as he quickly became the target of accusations ranging from impotence to corruption.
“This is an example of him approaching his job in a very reactionary manner, and he isn’t supposed to micromanage the Manoa campus,” said Bonnyjean Manini, a faculty member who advises the undergraduate student government. “This will bring tremendous impact to our campus.”
As of Thursday afternoon, a handful of students and faculty members were still camped out at Bachman Hall.