UPDATED 7/29/14 6:40 p.m.

As reports surface that University of Hawaii at Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple is getting the boot, professors and students are starting to speculate whether inside politics and disputes over the campus’s budget are at play.

Hawaii News Now broke the news late Saturday that Apple, whose $439,008 salary makes him one of the university’s highest paid employees, is likely being removed from his position as chancellor, a post he has held since 2012. His contract is set to expire in 2017, though it’s subject to satisfactory annual performance evaluations.

Hawaii News Now reports that Apple is in negotiations with the university and that he may assume a tenured faculty position at the medical school.

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

As of Monday afternoon the university wouldn’t confirm the news, saying in a statement that Apple remains UH Manoa’s chancellor and that UH President David Lassner “continues to work with him to address the challenges facing UH Manoa as Hawaii’s research university and the flagship campus of the UH System.”

Lassner has discussed Apple’s performance with all the individuals who report to Apple and briefed the Board of Regents on those findings, but the details of those conversations are confidential, according to UH.

UPDATE: Apple wasn’t available for an interview. But his attorney, Big Island employment lawyer Jerry Hiatt, said that to his knowledge no decision has been made to remove Apple as chancellor. Any decision to do so, he said, would violate Apple’s contract.

“UH has recently faced very challenging financial times,” Hiatt said in an emailed statement. Apple “has done an excellent job in very tough circumstances to help UH live within its means. He has accomplished this by raising new funds, reallocating existing assets, while markedly increasing graduation rates and attracting more students.”

“Mr. Apple wants to complete the job he started.”

Some faculty members say they’re convinced that Apple’s leadership has come to an end and that his removal in part stems from long-drawn-out controversies over the school’s Cancer Center, including Apple’s unsuccessful attempt to fire the center’s contentious director, Michele Carbone, last fall. They suspect Apple’s potential dismissal has been under discussion for some time and that officials opted to hold off on making a decision until after Lassner had formally assumed the university presidency.

“The main issue is that Tom Apple from the day he arrived on campus was never given the authority to act as chancellor of the Manoa campus,” said J.N. Musto, executive director of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, pointing to Apple’s failed attempt to dismiss Carbone. 

UH Cancer Center Director Dr. Michele Carbone.  1/14/14

UH Cancer Center Director Dr. Michele Carbone. 1/14/14

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Carbone has come under fire over the past year or so for his controversial leadership style, including allegations by a number of Cancer Center faculty members that he violated their academic freedom. Apple sought to remove Carbone last year but is said to have faced immense opposition from administrators, legislators and donors backing him.

Carbone remains director of the center, which currently faces a deficit projected at $10 million annually. Some say that debt has exacerbated the school’s budget dilemma and disputes over Apple’s tenure as chancellor.   

At a Board of Regents meeting earlier this month, Apple said the Cancer Center’s “burn rate” has “been something that’s been keeping me up at night.”

Critics note that programs such as the Cancer Center rely heavily on tuition revenue generated by students in other departments, a funding model that has caused a good deal of friction within UH Manoa. 

“The problem is, tuition money is sort of an unguarded free for all,” said Bob Cooney, a public health professor who serves on UH Manoa’s faculty Senate. “Over the years tuition money has been used by the upper administrators to plug whatever leaks there were out there … it’s just not right to be subsidizing the medical school on the backs of undergraduates.”

Apple Orders Hiring Freeze

Others wonder whether the Apple’s possible dismissal was prompted by his controversial plan to put a freeze on new hires in lieu of increasing tuition. The plan is designed to help resuscitate the UH budget, cutting spending by $10 million annually over the next two years, but could significantly undermine campus programming. Professors say that many classes are now on the chopping block — less than a month before the start of the semester. 

Apple’s proposal includes the hiring freeze — which for the most part applies to all positions and prohibits deans from hiring any new employees — and a ban on any salary adjustments unrelated to the raises approved through collective bargaining. Moreover, programs that ended the 2014 fiscal year in the red are subject to “special fiscal monitoring” and reduced budget flexibility. Departments will also be asked to examine their graduate offerings and cut down on programs that aren’t good returns on investment.

The plan “has been a huge blow to morale,” said Nick Chagnon, a graduate student who doesn’t support Apple’s termination but worries the freeze could significantly reduce employment opportunities for non-tenured lecturers like himself. “Some people are contemplating quitting because of this policy … it really affects their faith in the administration.”

Those familiar with campus affairs say Apple’s budget approach has made him unpopular among a number of university administrators.

Students walk on UH Manoa campus February 2, 2014.

Students walk on UH Manoa campus February 2, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Still, many professors and students are coming out in support of Apple, accusing UH administrators of punishing him at the expense of student learning and without seeking proper input from the university community. UH Manoa’s undergraduate student government — the Associated Students of the University of Hawaii, or ASUH — is poised to adopt a resolution in support of Apple at its next meeting in early August. The Graduate Student Organization is developing a plan of action, too.  

In a letter to Lassner, ASUH Vice President Kelly Zakimi said she was “shocked and disappointed” to hear about Apple’s possible removal. 

“We students — the core of our University — were not even given a chance to offer input regarding this sudden possibility of Chancellor Apple’s removal,” Zakimi wrote in the Monday letter. “There was no transparency. This only suggests that his potential removal is not done with the student interest in mind.”

Zakimi said she has concerns about his fiscal model but ultimately supports Apple’s efforts to balance the campus’s budget. Plus, if Apple is removed, students will have to foot the bill for both his settlement and the contract for a new chancellor, she said. The remainder of Apple’s contract amounts to more than $1.3 million. 

Apple’s leadership has been tumultuous from the beginning, starting with the Wonder Blunder in 2012 in which the university was scammed out of $200,000 for a fake Stevie Wonder benefit concert. That incident occurred just about a month after Apple arrived at the UH.

2012 Memo Concerning Tom Apple’s Appointment:

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