UH Judgment In Determining Priorities Is Flawed - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Donna Mercado Kim

Donna Mercado Kim represents District 14 — Kapalama, Alewa, Kalihi, Kalihi Valley, Ft. Shafter, Moanalua Gardens and Valley, and Red Hill — in the Hawaii State Senate.

The Legislature is not a rubber stamp, and there are other constituencies with needed projects.

While I tend to be reluctant to speak to reporters because my comments are often misinterpreted or taken out of context, the Civil Beat report (“Final Budget Leaves UH Treading Water”), merits a response.

In fact, your focus on the University of Hawaii was just such an example of something being taken out of context. The UH was just one of many state agencies seeking money from the 2023 Legislature.

Your attention to the UH’s capital improvement requests failed to consider that many of these agencies were seeking funding from a limited CIP budget pie. Agencies operating our public schools, transportation, prisons, health and human services, and scores of facilities and services were vying for a limited amount of money.

The Legislature makes the tough decision among competing demands and no agency gets everything it wants. (Fortunately, this year we benefited from a one-time surplus, but that won’t be the case in the future.)

The Legislature generally follows the aggregated CIP ceiling set by the governor in his submittal on behalf of the executive branch. The overall budget ceiling is then negotiated between the House and Senate budget chairs, while the CIP ceiling is negotiated by the CIP chairs — not the subject-matter committee chairs like me.

Each agency determines its own CIP priorities and budget, which face gubernatorial scrutiny before they are submitted to the Legislature. In the UH’s case, its judgment in determining its priorities has been flawed.

For example, you reported that the UH’s Renew, Improve, Modernize request for two years was for $140 million, of which $60 million in cash was granted. You failed to note that the UH raided $9 million of its RIM money last year for a temporary stadium at Ching Field to accommodate football.

UH has now prioritized an additional 5,000 seats at the stadium, costing more than $30 million this year, of which Gov. Josh Green is subsidizing $20 million from a $200 million discretionary account allocated by the Legislature. So, instead of spending money on the “Al Fresco” study areas or solar rooftop panels it covets, the UH has chosen to spend close to $40 million for a temporary football stadium rather than seeking a waiver from the NCAA.

Besides Ching Field, there are quite a few other examples of the UH’s questionable priorities. The UH chose to prioritize an additional $5 million in supplemental funding from the governor for its Health and Wellness initiatives, despite the program being undeveloped and unsupported by the chancellors. That sum could have been used for the projects identified in your article.

With funding from the Legislature, the UH is converting Sinclair Library into a student center, but that project is now over-budget and overdue and its necessity is being questioned by students. The UH established a pharmacy school at Hilo, but enrollment hovers below 50% despite recent investments like a new $31 million building.

New buildings, including a health science building, at West Oahu are rarely used because more than 65% of its students are taking online classes and enrollment has dropped below 3,000.

The Cancer Center continues to face budget shortfalls, but the UH has resisted cost-saving measures like combining the center and medical school, as recommended in the UH’s own study. The center has no students, yet it uses tuition funds. Its new early clinical trials initiative is exceeding its construction project cost by 50%. A review of its business plan shows that the trials program will not be self-sustaining, meaning a continued infusion of public money.

UH Manoa Football field.
Spending on Ching Field is just one of many questionable UH priorities. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021)

Student dorms at Manoa are badly in need of repairs, and residents have had to deal with power outages and a rat infestation, but the UH chose athletic field improvements over student housing. The UH Foundation built the new Atherton Innovation Center and premium (high end) student housing, while Manoa already has several innovation centers and existing dorm repairs go wanting.

The UH prioritized a dorm at the Hilo campus, but occupancy continues to be disappointing. Manoa’s 800-bed Hale Noelani has been vacant for over four years with no plans for its renovation.

The former NOAA site near the East-West Center has sat vacant for eight years, and a 5-year-old public-private partnership plan to develop graduate student housing there faces higher-than-expected costs and has no start date.

About Hawaii Promise

With regard to the Hawaii Promise scholarships, we added $3.7 million for Community College students because Manoa has an ample yearly reserve of $350 million in tuition fees that it can readily apply to this program. Manoa already awards $24 million in scholarships and can generate money through tuition and fees, while the Community Colleges are hard-pressed to come up with that kind of money.

Manoa’s expenses climb while enrollment declines, yet the administration shows no signs of trimming expenses or reducing tuition. Adding to Manoa’s Hawaii Promise would only enable the four-year campuses to hand out scholarships without any regard to rising student debt.

UH Vice President Kalbert Young was critical of the community colleges receiving a disproportionate share of CIP money for no clear reasons. He disregards that, for too long, UH has neglected our seven community colleges. Neighbor Islanders believe that UH is too “Manoa-centric.”

Our community college facilities are aging, the campuses are more affordable, and they offer classes suitable to a larger population that cannot afford or is not prepared to attend a four-year campus. Additionally, the community colleges are more “grassroots” and have far more advocates who aggressively lobby their district legislators to provide money for their projects and programs.

As another example of this grassroots advocacy, it was the athletic coaches and boosters that pushed the Legislature to appropriate money for (non-stadium) athletic facilities at Manoa and Hilo. The UH administration did not request CIP money for these improvements.

Another project, which we funded but was not on UH’s priority list, is the expansion of the engineering program to include Hilo. We took that action at the behest of the College of Engineering and because there is a huge demand on Hawaii island to hire workers with engineering degrees, but there are no such graduates being produced locally because of the lack of a degree program.

The University of Hawaii is just one of many state agencies asking for money.

Further, astronomy contributes more than $200 million a year to Hawaii’s economy, yet only 30% of the astronomy engineering and technical workforce was born and raised in Hawaii. There are only three Native Hawaiian astronomy Ph.D.s. in the world, and of these just one was granted a degree from UH.

Currently, UH Hilo astronomy students rarely get the opportunity to go to the UH-Institute for Astronomy headquarters and residents question why the IfA headquarters is at Manoa, not Hilo.

Finally, there is no graduate astronomy degree program at UHH despite the UH’s professed emphasis on astronomy’s future at Mauna Kea.

I leave you with three thoughts.

First, the University of Hawaii is just one of many state agencies asking for money. There simply isn’t enough to grant every request in full. Consider also that the public schools and UH already account for 31% of the state budget.

Second, the regents and UH president are responsible for their lump-sum appropriations and must do a better job working with faculty, deans, students, and the community colleges to get their priorities in order. The Legislature, which has oversight responsibilities for the entire state, is not a rubber stamp and there are constituencies other than the UH leadership that alert us to needed projects overlooked by the the administration.

Third, as public officials, the UH administration, beginning with the president, his administrators, and the Board of Regents, are obligated to exercise fiscal discipline, courage, prudence, and better communication with the Legislature — and must be held accountable for their decisions.

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About the Author

Donna Mercado Kim

Donna Mercado Kim represents District 14 — Kapalama, Alewa, Kalihi, Kalihi Valley, Ft. Shafter, Moanalua Gardens and Valley, and Red Hill — in the Hawaii State Senate.

Latest Comments (0)

"…astronomy contributes more than $200 million a year to Hawaii's economy, yet only 30% of the astronomy engineering and technical workforce was born and raised in Hawaii. There are only three Native Hawaiian astronomy Ph.D.s. in the world, and of these just one was granted a degree from UH."That’s because our keiki are so far behind in STEM education. Ask any prof teaching intro math, physics or astronomy at UHM or our community colleges and they'll tell you that their Hawaii students need remedial math. The UH Institute for Astronomy (IfA) is bending over backwards trying to recruit QUALIFIED local employees and grad students."Currently, UH Hilo astronomy students rarely get the opportunity to go to the UH-Institute for Astronomy headquarters and residents question why the If headquarters is at Manoa, not Hilo." UH Hilo students can visit IfA and time . Why move IfA to Hilo when telescopes are operated remotely? Isn't it better to keep IfA at the flagship campus where professors can teach many more students who take Intro to Astronomy? "Finally, there is no graduate astronomy degree program at UHH ..."It’s offered at UH Manoa - no need for duplicate degree programs.

kbaybaby · 2 months ago

Kim is perhaps the best example of the incredible need for term limits in Hawaii. She's blaming UH for spending money on Ching Field? Where was Kim when the state was allowing Aloha Stadium to fall in disrepair without a plan to replace it with a new stadium? With proper planning a new stadium could of been constructed before Aloha was condemned. Did Kim investigate this? No she held a hearing on how mean Graham was as a coach. UH was forced because of the state incompetence to rush and fix up Ching. And now Kim blames UH for that? That is rich my brothers. Rich.

BigDaddy · 2 months ago

I have to wonder whether Sen. Kim understands the word "autonomy"? The voters of Hawaii approved autonomy for the University. That means that University, not the legislature, decides what their priorities are, how they spend their money and what programs they will offer. The process of setting priorities was well spelled out by Rep. Perruso. They are not set by the preferences of one legislator who happens to have her own agenda. Legislators and readers may agree or disagree with the University's priorities or the alternatives Sen. Kim suggests in this article, but it is not their role to second guess the University. I am especially disgusted by Sen. Kim's willingness to ignore the University process when employees of the University, who were part of that process, decide to do an end run around it and lobby her separately. A Senator who understood the concept of University autonomy would have told such people to engage more actively with the University's decision process and not come running to her.I don't object to Sen. Kim stating her priorities. But I strongly object to her use of her legislative position to try to enforce them.

JusticePlease · 2 months ago

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