On a 9-to-2 vote, the University of Hawaii Board of Regents on Thursday passed a resolution it believes will ensure that UH has a viable future in spite of COVID-19.

Resolution 20-03, as it is known, does not amount to a “power grab” on the part of UH administration, as some critics have warned.

In fact, the administration already has the authority to make tough calls regarding the budget, said Board Chair Benjamin Kudo. Nor will the regents give up their oversight powers.

Rather, Kudo explained, the resolution is a board initiative that acknowledges the severe threat to the finances of the university and the state because of the pandemic.

A screen shot from the UH Board of Regents Aug. 20 meeting, where it approved a resolution supporting administrative budgetary actions due to the revenue loss attributed to COVID-19. Screenshot/2020

Still, acknowledging the reams of testimony in opposition to the resolution, Kudo added, “Whatever we do during this period of time to make difficult decisions is not going to win any popularity contests.”

He said that it was the board’s responsibility to do whatever is necessary to keep the university “alive and viable for the future.”

While specific details on what UH President David Lassner and his chief financial affairs officer Kalbert Young may propose will be made clear in the coming weeks, the broad consensus is that the UH system is forecast to take an enormous financial hit because of the virus.

In the current fiscal year alone, Young told the regents that UH Manoa and the other system campuses are looking at a drop in general fund monies of $66 million and a $26 million decline in tuition and fees.

UH President David Lassner updated the regents on the UH systems’ dire fiscal picture. Screenshot/2020

Also agreed upon by the regents and administrators is that the fiscal pain is certain to continue in the two or three fiscal years to follow.

Just how stark the budget cuts could be are reflected in the language of the resolution, which says the administration may need to consider freezing operating funds, new hiring, discretionary pay raises, out-of-state travel, major equipment purchases and new contracts.

Indeed, under the resolution the administration is authorized to provide budgetary restrictions and targets to all units “to utilize whatever available means it has to reduce the operating costs and expenses of the University, including but not limited to, operating expenses, purchases, and personnel costs.”

The UH system is facing a nearly $100 million budget hole in the near term, according to a slide presentation from the administration. 

The fear among many of the faculty, students and staff that testified in opposition to Resolution 20-03 is that the budget cuts may be so severe as to permanently damage the university.

As Subramanian Shankar, a professor in the English department at University of Hawaii Manoa, told the board Thursday, “To be blunt, if UH follows through it could turn us into a second-rate vocational school incapable of educating the people of Hawaii.”

Seeking Consensus

Kudo proposed Resolution 20-03 in mid-July, which resulted in a major pushback from students, teachers, workers and the faculty union. They submitted 293 pages of written testimony to the board ahead of a meeting that month.

The board voted at the time to postpone a vote until August. During the interim, it worked with stakeholders to reach the best consensus it could on a revised draft.

It was that draft that was approved Thursday, with several additional changes at the request of Trustee Simeon Acoba.

In an illustration of how there have been misperceptions about exactly what the resolution says and would do — as Kudo put it — Acoba, a former Hawaii associate Supreme Court justice, realized during Thursday’s meeting that he had not seen an updated draft.

UH Regent Jan Sullivan believes that the university and the state face the worst budget crisis in state history. Screenshot/2020

Still, despite the general consensus on the resolution, Regent Michelle Tagorda voted against it.

“It’s a tough one for me,” she said, explaining that she is a UH employee.

Student Regent Kelli K.K. Acopan also voted “nay.” While she did not disagree with the intent or the “good faith” of her colleagues, “Intentions and interpretations are two very difficult things, and it is not clear that the intent is going to be carried through to interpretation.”

Like others, Acopan expressed concern about the divisiveness in the university community that the proposed resolution engendered. She described that as counter to what’s needed for the board and the administration to restore faith and said it could prove detrimental at a later time.

The UH administration is scheduled to present its comprehensive plan to the BOR in December, with the implementation of the plan to begin in January.

A screen shot of a graphic from President David Lassner presented at the BOR meeting that outlines university priorities ahead. 

Lassner stressed that consultation with all stakeholders would be essential as would transparency and even “humanity” when considering the possible impacts on people’s lives.

“But we need to do it with agility,” he said, meaning the situation is urgent and delays in action could worsen matters.

Regent Jan Sullivan warned that the university and the state probably face the worst budget crisis in state history.

“I think this is the beginning of what’s going to be an extremely difficult time for the university,” she said, adding that she hoped all parties would “move forward together because I don’t see how we get out of this without that in mind.”

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