Gov. David Ige has decided that it is up to the University of Hawaii to solve its athletics program’s chronic budget deficit. 

“We granted the university the flexibility to decide what their priorities are within the funds that we give to them,” Ige recently told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.   

His approach is wrong in so many ways.  It has bad consequences for UH that go far beyond athletics.

Here are three reasons why.

Aloha Stadium. UH Football vs. UNLV. . 22 nov 2014 ALOHA STADIUM, HONOLULU, HAWAII. photo CORY LUM/ CIVIL BEAT
Aloha Stadium was pretty empty for a UH football game against UNLV in 2014, and the team faltered again in the just-concluded season, exacerbating the budget problems of the Athletics Department. Cory Lum / Civil Beat/2014

First, by dumping the athletics problems into UH’s lap, he sets up the school to fail in a very public and controversial way.

In fact there is no way for UH to deal with the athletic deficit without getting into trouble because the two likely alternatives are so awful.   

One — and here is breaking news — is that the university, which has its own chronic budget problems, will constantly have to dig into its own pockets to make up for athletics’ losses, which this year will be close to $5 million

That’s because almost every university athletics program in the country loses money.  The debt is chronic, structural.

The other alternative is for UH to disband all or parts of its intercollegiate sports, including of course, football. That is a university’s nuclear option. Whatever they think of football, no university administrators anywhere want to be the ones who drop this bomb.   

As Ige defines it to the Star-Advertiser, the university’s “flexibility” gives it the golden opportunity to make that controversial decision and to take all the heat for the decision’s consequences.

‘It Needs To Come Up With The Money’

Second, the governor holds UH responsible for getting rid of the deficit when in fact it should be his and the Legislature’s problem.

“It is a matter of setting priorities,” he told the newspaper, as if we are talking about Political Science Department office supplies.  “If UH wants athletics to be a priority, then it needs to come up with the money.”

Very tough-lovish and totally misguided. Ige sees the problem as a budgetary issue — a cut here, a paste there, get off your okole and do your job.

Because athletics is completely different from anything else at UH, different rules should apply.   

Solving the deficit should not be on UH’s priority list at all because the deficit is the community’s and by extension the Legislature’s problem, not UH’s.

The politicians are more than happy to grant UH the flexibility to do the bad stuff but impose on the school if it makes a decision they don’t like. It is selective autonomy, and guess who does the selecting?

So the fate of athletics is a political problem, not a UH budgetary one.

The question should not be “how will UH make up the athletic department’s debt?”  It should be “to what extent do Hawaii’s citizens and politicians have an obligation to keep athletics afloat?”

As defenders of the football program constantly remind us, UH sports are especially important to Hawaii because UH athletics is the only game in town. All the more reason to consider athletics as a community resource.  Then the representatives of the community should solve the problem.

If the Legislature, which after all represents this broader community, thinks athletics is worth saving, the lawmakers should come up with the money.

They might think of this money as a regular government subsidy for producers of a valuable resource that could not survive without it. Governments do that all the time for everything from Amtrak to the arts.

Is UH football one of these valuable endeavors worth subsidizing? If the politicians think so, then they should step up, allocate the money, and defend their choice.

Be accountable for your decisions and don’t make the university do the dirty work for you.

If the Legislature or the governor does not want to take the heat for bailing out athletics in this way, fine. But don’t pass the buck and blame UH for your lack of will.

Flexibility To Do The Bad Stuff

Third and lastly, the governor’s approach actually threatens the university’s autonomy.

State law (Act 321) creates a bare bones framework for granting UH autonomy in running its affairs. In reality, the amount of flexibility the UH has depends very much on how much the politicians and public trust it.

On the surface, Ige’s comments support the university’s flexibility. But what he is actually doing is stressing its flexibility to do things it really does not want to do.

It’s like the joke about the little boy who gets a 50-pound bag of manure for Christmas. The boy is overjoyed.  “There must be a pony here some place,” he says.

Regarding the athletics deficit, flexibility is the manure, but there is no pony. More like a Trojan horse.

Ige uses flexibility as a cudgel to get UH to do the dirty work. And he uses UH’s hard-won but still vulnerable autonomy as a threat if UH does not want to do his bidding.

“I think the university should take responsibility and make a decision about what is important,” Ige said to the Star-Advertiser. “If they are unable to do that, I’ll take back all the authority to line item the budget. I’d do it in a second … I’d love to do that.”

Love to? Really? How’s that for a vote of confidence?

Overall, the governor’s views have a patronizing, dismissive dad-to-teen quality. 

He makes it appear that UH may not have the courage to make hard choices. In fact it is not about courage. It is about capability. And fairness.

It’s an all-too-common pattern in this state: The politicians are more than happy to grant UH the flexibility to do the bad stuff but impose on the school if it makes a decision they don’t like. It is selective autonomy, and guess who does the selecting?

People worry about putting a nail in the coffin of the athletic program. Given Ige’s approach, they should worry more about putting a nail in the coffin of the university. 

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