Setting The Record Straight On UH Budget Priorities - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Randy Moore

Randolph G. Moore is a retired business executive, public school teacher and Department of Education administrator. He recently completed 10 years on the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, four years of which were as chair.

The Legislature and the executive branch should be in partnership to accomplish shared goals for this important Hawaii institution.

The July 10 Community Voices in Civil Beat by state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim is both misleading and erroneous in a number of areas.

I will limit my observations to four of these matters, although there are more that warrant a response.

Ching Field

First, she criticized the university for spending $9 million in 2021 to expand the seating capacity of the Clarence C.T. Ching football field from 4,000 to 9,000 and another $30 million this year to further expand the seating capacity to 15,000. Why didn’t the university ask the NCAA for a waiver from its requirement that a Division I football program have a minimum attendance of 15,000 for its home games, averaged over two years, she asked.

The answer: The university had a waiver. When Aloha Stadium was closed to spectators in December 2020, an NCAA waiver was in place — as much because of Covid-19 as because there were only 4,000 seats at Ching Field. The current situation has not been questioned by the NCAA or the Mountain West Conference based on the universityʻs representation that it would expand Ching Fieldʻs seating capacity to 15,000 and that the state would build a new stadium at Halawa.

The opening date for this new stadium has continued to recede. Once expected to be ready for the fall 2024 football season, it is now expected in 2028.

Even if the state meets its current 2028 schedule, after several others have passed, had the university not expanded the Ching Field seating capacity, the university would have had seven years of playing before a maximum crowd of 4,000. The loss of revenue from football resulting from a small stadium would have affected other UH sports, and a 4,000-seat stadium would have made recruiting players and retaining long-time season ticket holders difficult.

Sen. Kim said the university paid for the Ching Field expansion by “raiding” funds appropriated by the Legislature for other facility repairs, improvements and modernization. This is not true.

As stated in the memorandum from the university administration to the board recommending the expansion of seating capacity, “Governor Ige has directly advised President Lassner that the State will need to allocate an estimated $50 million in one-time funding to UH this fiscal year to satisfy the state’s Maintenance of Effort requirements associated with the substantial federal funding provided to the state through the federal pandemic relief acts. While this unexpected one-time MOE funding cannot be used directly for capital projects, it will provide the university the flexibility required to utilize Tuition and Fees Special Funds for the Ching Complex project without any negative impact on UHM campus finances and outlook.”

(See the meeting materials for the Aug. 18, 2022, meeting of the Planning and Facilities Committee.)

To be clear, the university would have preferred to continue playing at Aloha Stadium with no expansion of Ching Field. That option was not available. The decision to preserve UH football was made after substantial discussion and deliberation by the Regents.

Sinclair Library

Second, Sen. Kim claimed the conversion of Sinclair Library at the Manoa campus to a student center is “over-budget and overdue and its necessity is being questioned by students.” The university awarded a design-build contract for $56 million for this project in the spring of 2022 after reviewing proposals from three qualified teams. Construction started last month.

Is it over-budget and overdue? The university estimated in 2018 that the project would cost $41 million. That’s the amount the 2019 Legislature appropriated for this project for fiscal year 2020. Capital cost estimates are just that: estimates. Estimates are based on an assumed scope of work, an estimate of the current cost to design and build it, and an estimate for the escalation in costs from the date of estimate to the date of construction.

UH Manoa Sinclair Library.
UH Manoa’s Sinclair Library is being converted into a student center. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

Generally, there are three reasons why estimates turn out to be higher (very occasionally lower!) than what is estimated:

  • The scope of work changed.
  • The escalation of costs was greater than what was estimated.
  • Surprises happen during construction, necessitating additional unplanned work. Such surprises can include asbestos and deficiencies in an existing structure that is being remodeled.

In the case of the Sinclair Library project, pandemic-induced supply constraints coupled with significantly higher costs than were initially estimated affected both the cost and the timing of the project. In addition, there were unanticipated issues with the existing building that necessitated higher expenditures.

Are students questioning the necessity of this project? There are approximately 19,000 students at Manoa. I would not be surprised if some of them, if presented with choices, would prefer that the university spent this money on something else.

However, during the more than three years that this project has been the subject of reports to the Board of Regents Committee on Planning and Facilities, no student has questioned its desirability, and no comments on this project have been submitted on the university’s confidential hotline.

Enrollment Numbers

Third, Sen. Kim complained that the Manoa campus enrollment is falling and the West Oahu campus has fallen below 3,000 and is underused because too many courses are offered online. In fact, the enrollment at Manoa has been increasing. In fall 2022, 9% more students enrolled than in the pre-Covid fall 2019. And this is despite the university’s concerted and successful efforts to help students graduate more quickly which, perversely, reduces enrollment.

If a class of 3,000 students takes five years to graduate, there will be 15,000 undergraduates on campus at any time. If the same 3,000 students take four years to graduate, there will 12,000 students on campus.

The university weathered the Covid-19 pandemic and never stopped educating and graduating students.

What’s better for the students and the taxpayers — 3,000 students graduating in four years or 3,000 graduating in five years? The university has been recognized nationally for its improvements to keeping students on track to graduate as quickly as they would like, saving students both time and tuition expense.

The West Oahu campus enrollment has indeed fallen below 3,000. It peaked at 3,168 in fall 2020 and had decreased to 2,913 in fall 2022. The pandemic has taken a toll on the West Oahu campus, along with most (but not all) UH campuses.

West Oahu had the highest percentage of online students within the UH system before the pandemic and continues with that distinction. The focus on online classes supports many working adult and neighbor island students. The university tries to schedule classes based on student need. If a campus offers the same course both online and in person and students consistently choose the online version, the online offering is appropriately prioritized.

The community colleges collectively have seen large enrollment decreases. This has been a national phenomenon. Fortunately for Hawaii, our community college credit enrollment decrease of just over 10% from pre-Covid levels is less than the 19% decrease noted by community colleges nationwide.

Hawaii Promise

The fourth matter is the Hawaii Promise program. First authorized by the Legislature in 2018, it appropriates funds to provide the “last dollar” of financial assistance for tuition and fees to UH community college students, if their Pell grant (a federal financial aid program) and other financial assistance are not sufficient to meet their financial needs.

Hawaii is notable as having one of the lowest levels of state financial aid for its public university students.

The university’s second-highest priority for new operating funds (after restoring the Covid-induced across-the-board budget cuts imposed by the 2020 Legislature) was to expand the Hawaii Promise program to students in our four-year campuses — Manoa, Hilo and West Oahu. The 2023 Legislature declined to fund an increase in the Hawaii Promise program to students at the four-year campuses, and Sen. Kim said UH should fund such an expansion out of its reserves.

There are two problems with this approach. One, the program is legislatively restricted to the community colleges, and the Legislature did not statutorily expand it to the four-year campuses. Second, even if the Legislature had statutorily expanded it but had not funded the expansion, using university reserves, which are not an ongoing source of revenues, to fund an ongoing expense is imprudent.

The university weathered the Covid-19 pandemic and never stopped educating and graduating students. Tuition has been relatively flat for more than six years, keeping higher education affordable for Hawaii residents. This is a significant accomplishment in this era of high inflation and rising costs.

Federal data show that at Manoa, the campus with the highest tuition, 69% of the students graduate with no debt, and the average debt of the other 31% is $18,500 — less than the price of a new car. It is a compelling investment given the most recent estimate by the UH Economic Research Organization that a university degree will lead to $1.5 million more in lifetime earnings than a high school degree.

The university has recently broken records in extramural funding (mostly federal research grants), more than a half billion dollars, and in philanthropy, more than $165 million. These are votes of confidence in the universityʻs mission and its ability to execute.

I am proud of the vision, mission, and six-year strategic plan adopted last year by the Board of Regents that lays out a framework to meet the needs of today and tomorrow.

Can the university improve? Absolutely. Is constructive criticism helpful? Absolutely. Should legislators simply support anything an agency wants? Absolutely not. As Sen. Kim correctly points out, the state’s resources are limited, and it is the Legislature’s duty to make the tough allocation decisions.

Most subject matter committee chairs in the Legislature are supportive of the agencies for which their committees have oversight. A chair’s “how can we help?” puts the Legislature and the executive branch in a partnership to accomplish shared goals.

For the university, arguably one of the most important institutions for the future of the state, such a partnership is essential for the greater good of Hawaii.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

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About the Author

Randy Moore

Randolph G. Moore is a retired business executive, public school teacher and Department of Education administrator. He recently completed 10 years on the University of Hawaii Board of Regents, four years of which were as chair.

Latest Comments (0)

Just the facts, ma'am

Bothrops · 4 months ago

Thanks for setting the record straight.

CBsupporter · 4 months ago

There are cultural and demographic issues that call for some bridge building, imo. But one can look at other locations where there are solid universities to train workers. San Francisco/Silicon Valley, Boston/Biotech & Finance, Raleigh-Durham/Research Triangle. Education can have an economic impact and where someone goes to college can influence where they decide to live and work.

Fallback25 · 4 months ago

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