Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and other reporters spoke with University of Hawaii President David Lassner Friday in a wide-ranging interview. Greg Chun, executive director of Maunakea stewardship, also spoke about the proposal to take away UH’s lease of the mauna. Here are some of the highlights from our interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Civil Beat: Mr. President, what’s top of mind for the University of Hawaii system today?

Lassner: We are very focused on the COVID recovery. So we, I believe, have done extraordinarily well. We did the pivot to online learning and telework really quickly. We kept nearly all of our students through the spring semester and the pivot. We had great retention into the fall semester. Our enrollment numbers are looking good. Our faculty and staff and students have been extraordinarily resilient and creative in adapting to new modes of education and working. And we’re pleased with where we are as an institution.

That said, our focus right now is what comes next. We’ve done pretty well with our federal funds. They’ve really helped us through the direct costs of dealing with COVID across our campuses.

So we haven’t had to ask for money from others for that or even spend down into our reserves for that. But we know the state budget is going to take a large hit.

UH President David Lassner speaks with Civil Beat editors and reporters via Zoom. Screenshot

Right now about 60% of our operating funds, our basic operating funds come from the state. Much less of our overall budget, but our basic operations.

When the state revenue picture is this grim, we know we have to be part of that solution. What we have done is identified a set of priorities that we’re focused on.

And we’re looking at some pretty significant institutional transformations to help us focus on those priorities with less resources.

What’s it like on campus?

There aren’t very many people here, and that’s by intention. I think we ran a piece of software to see how many wireless devices connected to campus, just as an indicator. And we had a number that particular day of around 500 people.

The only classes that are in person — this is across the system — are those that require in-person instruction. So that would be science labs. That would be art studios. That would be clinical goals in the health sciences. That would be shops in the community colleges. Everything else we moved online.

Similarly with workers, we basically ask that anybody who can work at home should work at home.

I have heard that there’s been a bit of an adjustment for some faculty who are not comfortable or used to teaching online. How much of a challenge has that been?

Well, it was a challenge for sure. The initial pivot was done in a matter of a couple of weeks. We announced in March before spring break that we would be coming back online after spring break. So we had a few weeks. I will say our faculty were extraordinarily kind, gracious and helpful to one another.

Almost every department has some faculty who are really pretty comfortable with the tools, students were helping faculty as well. And we have a technology support staff, you know, that’s quite skilled at helping bring people online, but had to adjust to the scale of help that was needed.

Is there any sort of silver lining in this whole thing?

Absolutely.

One thing is, I’ll say most directly, all of those faculty that you asked about who were not comfortable with technology tools are now. And it’s not just Zoom. We have an online platform we call Laulima. It’s got rosters, it’s got testing, it’s got online discussion boards, syllabus, things like that. So everybody’s using that stuff.

Now, I think to the extent we had departments who would say things like, “We don’t think we could offer our courses online because we’re special,” now they know they can. So as we move back, we can move back to a different future than what we came back from.

“Those faculty that were not comfortable with technology tools pre-COVID are now.” — David Lassner

We’ve been talking a lot about the faculty experience. What has the student experience been like?

Yeah, I’ve been pretty worried about that. Our student organizations have worked really hard to do their programming, clubs and things like that, and to provide those services online.

I saw the study of DOE student performance. We’re not seeing that kind of drop off in student achievement. Our retention is good, our graduation rates are good, we’re not lowering standards.

That said, it is incredibly stressful. So we have beefed up our mental health services. We’ve added capacity there. Our counseling center is doing tele-consulting for students who are willing to participate in that, but we also have in-person mental health services. But the stress on students is as much because of the pandemic as it is about schooling.

They have lost their part-time jobs or their hours have been cut back. I talked to one student with two parents in hospitality, both of whom lost jobs — it’s a pretty hard time for everybody in this community. And it’s a time when the state needs its public university to step up the most.

Do you see keeping classes online even after the pandemic ends, like moving to a more hybrid model or offering more online degree programs?

Absolutely. We’re committed to offer more online degree programs.

We’re very interested in online, especially for programs for more mature students. Many of them are going to be finding online programs and they want to get straight into the workforce, so they can’t go to school at 10 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. They need to get on with their lives. They may already be parents. And we need to offer a much stronger range of online programs. And I think we’re going to be better able to do it after this pandemic.

On Mauna Kea

Greg Chun, it’s only been 10 days since House Speaker Scott Saiki announced that he wanted to change the lease arrangement regarding Mauna Kea. Can you give us an update?

Chun: We have not seen an official draft of a resolution, so we’re not clear yet on exactly what might be proposed.

However, what he’s proposing is not a new idea to us. I mean, we’ve been involved in this conversation for at least a couple of years. And as you may recall, Sen. Kai Kahele a couple of years ago also attempted to propose such a shift. So the concept, the conversation is not new. And our position is we remain open to working with the state on any proposal that supports astronomy and advances the broader interests of the state.

Greg Chun, executive director of Maunakea stewardship at the University of Hawaii, talks with Civil Beat via Zoom. Screenshot

Having said that, I do believe — we do believe — that the underlying question still needs to be addressed. What is the objective of such a change in governance structure? I was asked that this morning by members of the Board of Land and Natural Resources. They asked me, what do I see as a future of the governance for Mauna Kea? And my reply was, it depends on what our objectives are. Because, you know, the structure should reflect and support what the state’s broader objectives are.

“We remain open to working with the state on any proposal that supports astronomy and advances the broader interests of the state.” — Greg Chun

And if it’s to support astronomy and UH’s role in astronomy and the role of astronomy in a larger knowledge-based economy for the state, then I would make the argument that UH is the proper entity to continue managing the mauna.

But if the objective is something else, if it’s to address the unresolved Native Hawaiian land claim or something like that, then of course the structure would look different. It’s really the underlying issues that we think need to be addressed, and that’s a conversation that is not UH’s kuleana itself. It’s a broader conversation that has to involve the whole state, quite frankly.

UH said in a statement that astronomy on Mauna Kea will be put at significant risk if work on the new land authorization is stopped at this time with no clear alternative. Is it conceivable that astronomy in Hawaii could discontinue at some future date? 

Chun: It’s certainly a sentiment I personally hear more in the community. I think for some people, not everybody, for some people, it’s just about TMT. For other people it’s much larger. It’s about development on the mauna. So I certainly hear more of that in the circles that I walk in and work in the community.

That would be devastating to the state, not just the university. I think astronomy represents the kind of industry that we need to be moving towards. And I do believe that there’s a way that we can find a balance for it to exist on Mauna Kea. But because I hear it more often, it is a more of a concern for me.

Lassner: You ask if it’s conceivable. So the short story is the master lease runs through 2033 and all of the observatories have subleases from us as the master leaseholder that run through 2033.

So if there is no master lease to UH or a master lease is given to an entity that is not committed to astronomy, then that entity could easily say no observatories have any subleases. And that’s the risk that we really wanted to allude to in that statement.

Most of the observatories are owned by countries or major institutions, the Smithsonian, NASA, those kinds of entities. They look for the long term at how they will conduct astronomy and where they will conduct astronomy. And if they believe there is no future for astronomy on Mauna Kea, they start investing somewhere else that is more welcoming.

The state flag at a camp on the summit of Mauna Kea in 2019. The Hawaii House speaker has proposed taking the management lease of the mountain away from the university. Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2019

I’m wondering, are you still optimistic that some sort of compromise can be reached, one that satisfies these very hardened positions and not just to TMT, but about astronomy in general?

Chun: I think part of the key here is meeting our commitments to decommission (telescopes). I think that is a big part of striking a more even balance of our interest, if you will, and so we’re pushing forward hard on that process. I remain optimistic because I think, like I said earlier, astronomy represents the kind of industry I think we as a state need to be moving towards, quite frankly.

Lassner: Yeah, I’ll just add — I mean, there’s a lot of my job that I couldn’t do if I wasn’t an optimistic person. And this is a challenge, but I like to believe there’s always a way forward. That doesn’t mean we will win over everyone. But I do think if we continue to make progress on some of the work we’re doing under Greg’s leadership, including decommissioning, I think people will see that we’re serious about meeting our commitments.

We’re also working on lessening traffic on the mountain. That’s something that people have complained about there. Too many people up there. So there are a few things that are really quite critical.

If you’re against astronomy, then it’s easy to be against UH as the entity that was given responsibility back then with really a primary purpose. And that I think only now have we really embraced, starting about 20 years ago, our more holistic responsibility to all that Mauna Kea represents to all the people of Hawaii across culture, education, environment, recreation and astronomy, sustenance for hunters.

It means a lot of things to people in addition to being sacred to many. It’s probably the most difficult and complicated piece of aina in the state for anybody, whether it’s UH or anyone else, to try and reconcile the many different views of others.

On Aloha Stadium

There’s a bill pending at the Legislature that gives a great deal of power to Aloha Stadium in terms of development in this entertainment arena. You have a big stake in Aloha Stadium and I wonder if you could comment on that bill and in general the frustrations with a 46-year-old structure that constantly needs repair and does need to be replaced.

Yes, so let me put this into maybe short term and then long term. Both Athletic Director (David) Matlin and I were there physically and we met with the Stadium Authority folks and they basically told us, you can’t have fans here next fall. So they said we could play on the field, but with no fans, which is essentially what we were doing all this season, and that’s really not a viable path for us for all kinds of reasons.

And that’s when we quickly identified alternatives and identified the field opportunity. It’s been really interesting because David Matlin and his team went from, “Oh my God, how are we going to deal with this? What can we do?” to really being pretty upbeat about the opportunity to play on campus, what it means to be closer to students, other ways that the investments that we have to make in that field to be able to play.

We’re currently planning on a minimum of three years of how we can use that capability in other ways, like movie nights and things like that. So we’re comfortable with that. The sort of discussions over the past week over whether or not it would be possible to play with fans at Aloha Stadium? We think that’s probably not the case.

“Our first choice is to not build a stadium or run a stadium.” — David Lassner

And so the people who disagree are going to have to be convinced by the engineering studies and others. But we’re pretty comfortable that they made a correct safety decision. We’re not questioning that the issue of Aloha Stadium has been a challenge for I think, as everyone knows, for at least a decade, the stadium has been degrading.

We have patiently, I would say, waited. It’s not our stadium. We don’t even have a vote on the Stadium Authority. Our first choice is to not build a stadium or run a stadium, to be honest. We have told that to the Stadium Authority, to Department of Accounting and General Services and others. On the other hand, we need a place to play football. So we are monitoring it closely.

UH does not own or run Aloha Stadium, but it has a significant financial investment in its viability and so wants to be part of any discussions on its future. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

We are really interested in having a high quality, modern and safe place to play football. And to be very direct, we’re interested in a different financial arrangement with the place where we play our home football games. It is a real challenge to us — and this is no fault of the stadium authority, they’re in a very difficult situation, expected to generate enough revenue to maintain operations. But we need more revenue associated with our home football games around things like concessions, parking, advertising. And they have done a lot for us, but we need more than they were able to do under the financial arrangement with a decaying stadium.

We want to be at the table when deals are cut with P3 public private partnership operators so that somebody doesn’t go in believing that they’re going to make a bucket of money off of football. I mean, we’re only six or seven games a year and we need to generate revenue to support the rest of our athletic programs.

What are the university’s priorities at the Legislature this session?

On the budget side of things, the Board of Regents — for the first time in my knowledge and probably in history — did not ask for a penny of new money. I mean, we know things are tough. The governor has recommended at this time a $78 million dollar reduction. We are advocating for the best support the Legislature can give to public higher education in this really difficult time. We think we’re part of the solution and it will be harder for us to help the state if the cuts are unreasonable.

I can’t tell you what unreasonable is because the financial picture changes all the time. The governor announced the fluidity actually this week at one of his press conferences. So far in his budget he has reduced the size of the cuts to the DOE in his version of the budget. But at this point, the budget is really in the Legislature’s hands. I’m not so naive as to believe we won’t receive cuts. I think what we would like to make sure is that the cuts are fair and show some appreciation of the importance of the work that we’re going to do for Hawaii’s future. And we do not want to reduce opportunity for students. We do not want to reduce our ability to positively impact the economy.

In addition, as every year, there are bills that frankly would hurt us and we want to try and protect against. We have to play defense much of the session, unfortunately. And so we need to keep bad things from happening to us. One of the things we’re concerned about is all the talk about cutting special funds, sweeping special funds. So as an example, since you’ve asked about Mauna Kea, the revenue that we generate from the commercial tour operators that goes into the Mauna Kea special fund, and without that special fund, we have no way of making the investments in stewardship that we’re committed to. The tuition and fees that students pay go to the university.

Now, this was a shift made about 25 years ago. Interestingly, those of you who remember Walter Dods’ “thumbs up” and the Economic Revitalization Task Force, one of the recommendations out of that task force was to give UH greater autonomy so that we could be a greater force in economic development and revitalization for the state. So when these things go backwards, basically we lose the flexibility that we need to be more entrepreneurial to generate revenue so that we can adapt to potential decreases in our state funding.

Knowing things might change with the budget, has the university identified any specific areas that you might cut?

Internally we are preparing for cuts and we hope they are not as deep as $78 million. We have open and transparent processes in each of our four major units: Manoa, Hilo, West Oahu, the Community Colleges. Those go literally down to combining this program with that program, stop out this program, perform this reorganization.

We do not have the dollar numbers publicly disclosed on those websites, in part because we don’t want to be threatening individual people’s jobs at this point, because we don’t know what we’ll have to do. But the ideas are all out there in public. At one of our Board of Regents meetings, we had probably 100 pieces of testimony with people sticking up for their favorite program.

Greg Chun, David Lassner, we are very grateful for your time. We’re going to sign off here.

Chun: OK. Thank you, everyone.

Lassner: Thank you, everybody. Have a good weekend.

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