Jonathan Okamura: UH Affirmative Action Policies Don't Mean Much Without Enforcement - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

The university needs to do more to expand the number of faculty from underrepresented groups.

About a year ago, I provided written and verbal testimony at a University of Hawaii Board of Regents meeting regarding an agenda item on inequities. I told the regents if they are serious about addressing racial and ethnic inequities at the university, they can begin by enforcing their own policy on nondiscrimination and affirmative action.

I recommended that any regents who were unfamiliar with the policy review it in the board’s bylaws and policies because implementing the policy can be a major step toward alleviating inequalities in the UH system and in the state. I emphasized that the university has had a policy on nondiscrimination and affirmative action since at least 1982. 

After I spoke, former Hawaii Supreme Court Justice Simeon Acoba was the only regent who responded to my presentation, which he did positively.

Later at its November meeting, the board unanimously approved the university’s new strategic plan for 2023-2029, with “diversity and equity” as one of its five foundational principles.

This principle asserts that the “UH System upholds its commitment to provide higher education opportunities for all, especially those historically underrepresented including Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Filipino, economically disadvantaged, first generation, LGBTQ+, rural and students with disabilities – as well as continue to diversify its faculty, staff and leadership.” 

The diversity and equity principle is highly significant in acknowledging the historical underrepresentation of particular Indigenous and ethnic minorities, especially Filipinos for the first time, and in declaring the university’s commitment to change that.

The University of Hawaii has had a policy on nondiscrimination and affirmative action since at least 1982. But Native Hawaiians and other ethnic groups are still woefully underrepresented there. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

Another foundational principle in the strategic plan is “Hawaiian place of learning,” in other words promising to champion “the principles of aloha, caring for people and place, as we integrate Hawaiian language, culture, history and values across the institution and its work.”

Need For Carry Through

This principle is laudable but needs to include making the university a Hawaiian place of teaching besides learning and to integrate more Native Hawaiian faculty and students toward its realization.

The strategic plan follows the plans for 2015-2021 and for 2002-2010 and strategic plans for UH Manoa covering the same period.

What has been the university’s record in attaining the goals advanced in those plans, particularly those concerning Indigenous and ethnic minorities?

The diversity and equity principle is consistent with the UH policy on nondiscrimination and affirmative action, which was adopted in 2012. It declares that:

The University of Hawaiʻi is an equal opportunity/affirmative action institution and is committed to a policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender identity and expression, age, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, citizenship, disability, genetic information, marital status, breastfeeding, income assignment for child support, arrest and court record (except as permissible under State law), sexual orientation, national guard absence, status as a covered veteran, pregnancy, and domestic or sexual violence victim status. This policy covers admission and access to and participation, treatment, and employment in the University’s programs and activities.

I have quoted the policy at length to indicate that it is extremely comprehensive in applying to numerous federal and state protected classes, such as those based on race and gender, and in prohibiting other forms of discrimination, which may not be subject to U.S. government sanction. The policy has been revised in every decade since 1982 to include additional protected classes and is currently being amended again.

However, the major flaw in the nondiscrimination and affirmative action policy is that it is not being implemented by the university and the board of regents. It would be extremely problematic to argue that the severe underrepresentation of Native Hawaiian and racial minority faculty over the past 40 years is the result of equal employment opportunity and affirmative action. 

The policy refers to “a positive, continuing affirmative action program,” but one would have great difficulty finding such a race-based affirmative action program for recruiting and hiring more Native Hawaiian and minority faculty at the university. Furthermore, nonenforcement of the policy is far more detrimental to those underrepresented groups than to whites, who persist in constituting the majority of faculty at UH Manoa as they always have.

Nonimplementation of its equal opportunity and affirmative action policy accounts for the huge underrepresentation of tenured and tenure-track Native Hawaiian and racial minority faculty in the UH system and at UH Manoa.

Troubling Statistics

According to the UH Institutional Research, Analysis and Planning Office, in 2022 in the UH system, Native Hawaiian (9.5%) and Filipino (4.4%) faculty are especially underrepresented compared to whites (48.2%). A worse situation prevails at UH Manoa: Native Hawaiian (6.8%), Filipino (2.7%) and white (54.7%) with Chinese (12.7%) a distant second to whites. 

Despite having a race-based affirmative action policy, very little progress has been made since 2007 in increasing the representation throughout the UH system of Native Hawaiian (5.6%) and Filipino (3%) tenured/tenurable faculty. Similarly at UH Manoa, minimal gains in such faculty are evident during the past 15 years: Native Hawaiian (3.1%) and Filipino (1.9%).

A viable and effective race-based affirmative action policy would have long ago identified and addressed the critical need to expand significantly the number of faculty from underrepresented groups. 

The UH Pamantasan Council seeks to enhance the representation and status of Filipino Americans in the university system. (Courtesy of Christine Quemuel)

Nonenforcement by the university and the Board of Regents of its equal opportunity and affirmative action policy is a long-term, racially discriminatory practice, as is evident from its adverse impact on Native Hawaiians and racial minorities, including African Americans, Latinos and Pacific Islanders.

While the nondiscrimination and affirmative action policy specifically prohibits sexual harassment, it does not explicitly ban racial harassment, racial discrimination or racism, which also are prevalent at the university. Having a “policy of nondiscrimination on the basis of race” hardly means that racism and racial discrimination do not occur, especially systemically through ongoing practices at the university.  

The most recent egregious incident that raised concerns about racism at UH Manoa happened in September 2019 at a symposium on why Native Hawaiians are not well represented in the fields of astronomy and physics during the ongoing Thirty Meter Telescope protest at Mauna Kea.

John Learned, a tenured professor of physics at UH Manoa, was recorded on audio making critical remarks about the quality of academics at Kamehameha Schools, which has educated generations of Native Hawaiians.

“We know that the Kam schools are academically not successful,” he said.

Learned then said he was told by a graduate student who teaches physics at Kamehameha Schools that he “had to graduate people in physics who couldn’t even read,” which is an absurd statement.

The demeaning comments sparked an outcry, including from the UH president who called them “hurtful.”

Learned initially responded to questions from the news media by declaring, “I strongly deny that anything I said was racist.” He later apologized for making “inappropriate remarks.”

Needless to say, remarks like those undermine the argument that UH is a “Hawaiian place of learning.”

Discriminatory harassment, including sexual harassment, is prohibited under university policy. “The University shall promote a full realization of equal opportunity through a positive, continuing program of nondiscrimination and affirmative action on each campus,” it says.

But policies and plans concerning nondiscrimination, equal opportunity, and affirmative action can accomplish little if they are not enforced by those with the power to do so.

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About the Author

Jonathan Y. Okamura

Jonathan Okamura is professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii Manoa, where he worked for most of his 35-year academic career, 20 years of which were with the Department of Ethnic Studies. He continues to research, write and lecture on problems and issues concerning race and racism. Opinions are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat’s views. You can reach him by email at

Latest Comments (0)

Policy on "non discrimination and affirmative action", a contradictory name if there ever was one... The whole concept of affirmative action is in itself discriminatory...

kaipo74 · 5 months ago

Should we wonder about the poor performance of US scholastic scores compared to other countries as we debate racial equity and affirmative action policies here in Hawaii?

Joseppi · 5 months ago

The author, like many in this day in age, wants to circumvent the causation-correlation argument. The minority percent of professors is low, therefore bias. The general hiring practice that most expect is to hire the best professor in the field that applies, generally associated with an expectation of publishing and/or grant money they bring in to the school. Complaining about it is like complaining that money is a factor in just about everything. Maybe true, but a waste of time, since money will still be a factor in everything once you are done arguing.

tws808 · 5 months ago

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