Faculty members of the University of Hawaii say they are frustrated with Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, a long-standing critic of the university who leads the Senate Higher Education Committee.

In a rare move, seven of the 10 campus faculty leadership groups issued a public rebuke of Kim condemning her “inappropriate legislative actions,” which they say includes introducing several measures taking aim at the university’s decision-making authority as well as faculty tenure. The votes have been going on all month.

UH Kauai Community College and UH Maui College did not approve their resolutions, while UH Windward Community College abstained.

Clarification: The Manoa Faculty Senate passed a separate resolution “finding inappropriate legislative actions undermining university governance and free speech.”

Michael Oishi, who chairs the UH Leeward Community College Faculty Senate, said tensions have been building for years. Kim has previously proposed measures to revamp how the university runs its operations and to slash faculty positions.

Though all of Kim’s proposals this year have failed, one particular measure she introduced was the final straw.

Senate Bill 3269 would have excluded certain newly hired non-instructional faculty from receiving tenure. According to the bill, librarians, extension agents and specialists would not be eligible for tenure. The measure grew out of a report by a Board of Regents group that examined tenure last year.

WAM Chair Sen Donna Mercado Kim as she listens to UH VP of Budget and Finance Kalbert Young during presentation to the WAM committee.
Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, right, introduced several proposals this legislative session that took aim at the University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents and faculty tenure. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Faculty were angered by Kim’s effort to cut tenure, which eventually failed, as tenure is viewed as a safeguard for academic freedom. Tenure ensures that faculty cannot be terminated for teaching or researching controversial topics.

“A number of faculty are just very alarmed because this is a way to turn UH or particularly faculty into a political football,” Oishi said. “If one person, a legislator or group of legislators, decides for whatever reason that they want to get rid of somebody, they have the authority to do so.”

Some faculty leaders are considering sending a letter to Senate President Ron Kouchi urging him to remove Kim from the higher education committee entirely. Other faculty members may send their resolutions to individual senators and representatives asking for their support of the university.

Kouchi said Tuesday he does not plan to remove Kim from the higher education committee, voicing his support for her and the legislative process.

“Nobody works harder than her,” Kouchi said. “There are others that can work as hard as she does, but she’s very thorough in her research and she puts in a lot of hours in doing her work.”

In an interview last week, Kim, who had been in the Senate for more than two decades before becoming the higher education committee chair in 2019, said people have constantly disagreed with her proposals and questioning of government entities.

“The tenure bill didn’t affect all faculty except those that aren’t teaching like the researchers and the specialists,” Kim said. “It’s very narrow and it starts after anybody coming in new. So you’re not going to please everybody, and you have to have thick skin.”

Kim says she’s always asked government officials the tough questions. She has a long-standing history with the university for grilling officials, like on the costly Stevie Wonder concert that never happened and questioning the relationship between the university’s Board of Regents and the administration.

Kim also had a minor controversy with the university after she questioned then-UH President M.R.C. Greenwood on why her son didn’t get into the law school.

Other measures that angered faculty were Kim’s proposals that took aim at the university’s authority to govern itself.

The measures that failed would have authorized the university Board of Regents to hire coaches and approve their contracts, although the board normally approves the coaches’ salaries and the university president hires and fires coaches.

Another bill would have eliminated a Board of Regents advisory council that selects future board members for the governor to approve.

By law, the university has autonomy from the Legislature, with the regents having oversight across the 10 campuses. However, a constitutional amendment in the late 1990s allows the Legislature to “enact laws of statewide concern.”

Kim said lawmakers do have authority over the university when it comes to finances.

“Everything that the university does takes money, including the salaries of all the faculty,” Kim said. “It takes taxpayer money, and so when they say they have autonomy, they do not have complete autonomy.”

But not all faculty agree Kim’s bills are of statewide concern.

Ashley Maynard, who is a member of the UH Manoa Faculty Senate, said the overall goal of the campus-wide resolution is for faculty to stand in solidarity saying they’ve “had enough of this undermining university governance.”

“Whatever the intention is, the effect is negative and faculty feel like she hates the university,” Maynard said.

Still, some faculty are worried the resolution opposing Kim may backfire, said Richard Halverson, who chairs the UH Kapiolani Community College Faculty Senate.

“Donna Kim is Donna Kim,” Halverson said. “I think she is a little old fashioned. Maybe she just feels like she is doing the right thing and it’s what her constituents want. I’m a Democrat and even though she is not my kind of Democrat, I’d rather have her on our side than their side for all the other issues – just maybe not this one.”

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