It’s going to take a lot of money and work to untangle the University of Hawaii’s current financial mess.

That’s the one point panelists appeared to agree on at Thursday’s Civil Cafe event in Kakaako, which centered on the problems ailing UH and how to fix them. The event featured UH Manoa Chancellor Robert Bley-Vroman, Regent Jeff Portnoy, Faculty Senate Chair Ron Bontekoe and undergraduate student government president Stephen Nishihara.

Earlier this week, graduate students protested proposed cuts in the university’s $1.5 billion budget that threatened to remove teacher assistant positions. Among other issues, the university has a nearly $400 million backlog in facilities repair and maintenance, a significant deficit in the athletics program, and frequent turnover in key leadership positions — including the recent firing of Chancellor Tom Apple.

Students from the University of Hawaii at Manoa stand near the intersection of  West Center Road and Dole Street. Students then walked thru the mall and then stopped at Hawaii Hall.  The students then proceeded to Bachman Hall.  17 nov 2014. photo Cory Lum.

University of Hawaii students protest budget cuts on Nov. 17.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Bley-Vroman explained during the Civil Beat event at Fresh Cafe that the university has lost $61 million in state funding since 2009.

“We’ve actually had to fulfill our mission with significantly less resources,” he said, adding that the short-term question is, “How do we avoid going broke?”

He said the university needs to evaluate what its purpose is in Hawaii, where it’s the only state university serving students who would have to travel thousands of miles for another alternative. “Budgeting for the university needs to be mission-driven,” he said.

Portnoy said the Board of Regents has asked the administration to figure out a budget that works.

“The present system is broken,” he said. In response to graduate students’ fears about losing their teaching assistant jobs, he was brutally honest about the need to make cuts somewhere.

“There’s only so much money. It has to be allocated,” he said. “Nobody who loses it says, ‘That’s fine.’ That’s the reality … The university cannot continue to fund the university the way it’s been for a very long time.”

Bontekoe was more sympathetic to graduate students’ concerns, but agreed that budgetary changes must be made.

“We are all very conscious of the fact that things cannot continue as they are,” he said.

While the panelists were generally optimistic, audience members were highly critical.

Vilsoni Herniko, a professor at the UH Academy for Creative Media, said the panelists had failed to mention the importance of attracting high-quality faculty and students; the high cost of administrative salaries; and expensive institutions such as the UH Cancer Center.

“If you have to balance the budget, do not balance it on the students’ backs,” Herniko urged. “Balance it on the backs of the people who caused this problem, the administration. Do not go for the least powerful and penalize them for something they’re not responsible for.”

When Herniko finished speaking, the audience erupted in the evening’s only round of applause.

Rebekah Carroll, vice president of the Graduate Student Organization who is pursuing her master’s degree in history, responded sharply to Portnoy’s insinuation that graduate students are like any other group in the university that wants to defend their budget allocation.

“We were marching this week for jobs that pay $17,000 … I don’t think that’s asking for much,” she said.

Carroll was also critical of Civil Beat organizers of the event, questioning why there was no graduate student representation on the panel.

“I know that probably Civil Beat wasn’t trying to cut us out of the conversation, but that’s the perception,” she said.

Mike Webb, Civil Beat’s sales and marketing director, said adding a fifth panelist would have left little time for each person to speak, but in response to concerns he arranged for a representative of the GSO to participate Wednesday in Hawaii Public Radio’s morning show, “The Conversation.”

Many students and faculty members who asked questions or gave comments Thursday expressed frustration with the status quo and uncertainty about the future.

In response to Monday’s protests, the UH administration promised that teacher assistant positions in the College of Natural Sciences won’t be cut in the spring. Leilei Shih, a Ph.D. candidate in oceanography, asked Bley-Vroman how secure graduate students should feel about next fall.

“I don’t know,” he responded.

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