The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: University Of Hawaii Leaders
The Board of Regents chair explains the search for a new president, while the current president and CFO talk about academic freedom, budget priorities and Maui recovery.
January 7, 2024 · 30 min read
About the Author
The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Matthew Leonard. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.
The Board of Regents chair explains the search for a new president, while the current president and CFO talk about academic freedom, budget priorities and Maui recovery.
Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and reporters spoke on Wednesday with University of Hawaii President David Lassner, Vice President for Budget and Finance and Chief Financial Officer Kalbert Young and UH Board of Regents Interim Chair Alapaki Nahale-a, who stressed that he was speaking as an individual and not for the entire board.
Nahale-a began with an update on the search to replace Lassner, who is expected to retire later this year. The day after this interview — on Thursday — the Board of Regents held a special board meeting that determined how the stakeholder advisory group for the search for the next president will be developed. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alapaki Nahale-a: For me top of mind is definitely transition, and nothing bigger than finding our next leader. The president of the university is one of the most important and influential positions in Hawaii. And it’s important that we run a process that reflects the values of this place and the significance of that position and the university’s role for the future of Hawaii. So I try to be very methodical. Certainly (there are) a lot of feelings and opinions about what the president should look like, how the process should run. So I’m just trusting us to run a very open, transparent process.
In terms of the timeline, where are we and when might this conclude? President Lassner, you are here until the end of the end of this year, is that correct?
David Lassner: When I announced my retirement plans, I said I plan to serve through the end of 2024, and if the board found my permanent replacement sooner, I would work with them on a transition.
Can you update us on that search?
Nahale-a: We had a permitted interaction group to come up with a draft process for the whole board to consider. The timeline in that proposal was looking at the new school year as a potential time for a new president to come in — this upcoming August. And also so that the new president could have more say in the budget process for next year. It’s an ambitious timeline, even though it sounds like far away for a lot of folks. There’s a lot of steps into recruiting a position of this significance and magnitude.
So we have our work cut out for us to meet that timeline. A lot of folks have been working over the break to do things like get the RFP out for our recruiting firm to help us with the search. We’re meeting (Thursday) to talk about the role of advisory group that we’re creating — surveys about the process have already been sent out. So a lot of work is underway.
One of the concerns is who’s going to be on that advisory committee and what kind of input you are going to get. Are you going to get sufficiently diverse input given the diversity of Hawaii itself?
I think there are two steps to the concerns that I’ve heard and have been submitted. The first is that this Board of Regents is taking a different approach to who the selection committee is. And so they’ve decided that this is so important and ultimately the regents have the responsibility of making the selection. In the past, selection committees were created that ran the process and then sent the three names to the full board to choose from.
This Board of Regents has decided that they want to take that work on themselves and be involved on the front end. So that’s a change and folks have expressed concern about how in the past faculty reps and student reps and staff reps (were) on the selection committee itself. And I think there’s been an expressed fear, “Is our voice going to be lost?”
And since regents always made the choice, I think the issue of hearing from important stakeholders in the broader community can still be resolved, even if it’s not in the selection committee itself. And my hope is that we articulate a plan for the advisory group that makes people feel like the multitude of voices that need to be heard will be heard.
And the selection commission is specifically the regents themselves?
Yes. It’s going to be all 11 regents, which is unique. Again, it means regents are going to have to put in a lot more work in this process than has happened before. But they’ve expressed a desire to do that.
On the hiring process, the state Senate is always very intrigued by what goes on at UH. It was just a year ago that we had an editorial board with some of you folks and three key senators were complaining about lack of vision and so forth. Three of you are not confirmed yet, including yourself as the chair, Neil Abercrombie, the former governor, and Lauren Akitake from Maui County. How does that play into this? My understanding is you three would have to be confirmed by the Senate this session to continue serving.
Nahale-a: That’s correct. So in the same way, I’m going to trust the presidential search process and I’m going to trust the confirmation process and that the Senate makes that confirmation. Typically there’s hearings and you present yourself and you get asked questions and the full Senate will decide.
That’s the Senate Committee on Higher Education led by Donna Mercado Kim and Michelle Kidani, two pretty major critics of operations over the years, I think that’s fair to say.
Nahale-a: My position is that part of these roles is to take criticism, as President Lassner well knows. And it’s not just certain senators that have criticisms. They come from faculty or staff or community members. And I think that’s just the nature of leadership right now, that the tone and tenor has been typically more finding fault or making critiques. I think that’s fine as long as we continue to do the work of getting better. And certainly, regents who need to be confirmed have that on their mind.
And all three of you are Governor Green’s nominees as well?
Nahale-a: Correct, although I was originally nominated by Gov. David Ige and then I got “reupped,” as they say. This is my first year of being chair.
Anything else on the search process?
Nahale-a: You alluded to this earlier — how do we have a diverse pool of folks? And I think that the obvious challenge that we’ve had and for positions of this stature is someone who has the experience and skill sets to manage institutions of this size and complexity and balance with someone who really understands Hawaii and the local context. And that’s going to be a challenge in the search: How do we make sure we get both? And one thing that’s important to me, I don’t believe that we can compromise. We have to find a leadership plan, a leadership system, that allows us to have the capacity to manage something of this size, and understanding Hawaii.
You’re setting a high bar.
Nahale-a: Yes. For what the university needs to be, the bar needs to be high. And I think that’s where a lot of the energy behind that criticism comes from, no matter where it comes from, is that people know the University of Hawaii has a big impact on our well-being and could have a greater impact. And so there’s hopes for us.
So does understanding Hawaii mean they have to be in Hawaii already?
Nahale-a: I don’t think so. I think that can be determined through a multi-path approach. And people can demonstrate that in different ways.
It’s been a tough time for university presidents over the last few weeks. The president of Harvard just quit over plagiarism but also the House hearings regarding anti-Semitism and context and whatnot. I wonder if you might comment on that about the climate that colleges and universities are in these days.
Lassner: Some of this is reflective of, in many states, a loss of confidence in educational systems and higher educational systems. In a lot of places it’s politically driven, and I think we’re fortunate that the challenges that we face are not these fundamental differences in belief systems about what education is for and who it’s for. They’re in some sense smaller, but it doesn’t make it much easier. But I think in some of these situations, the political divisiveness is really, really difficult to manage. Opinions are incredibly strong about issues at different times. In this case, it’s Israel and Gaza, but it can be other things at other times. And, you know, for me, I could watch that hearing and just say, “Who gave them advice?”
My understanding is they hired a firm to give them professional advice
Lassner: I understand that. And I would just repeat my question, because there’s a difference between giving an answer in a court of law or an academic setting and giving an answer in a politically charged environment from somebody who was trying to catch them. I mean, that’s clearly what was going on there. And the questioner was more successful than the three (who answered).
What is your view as the president of the UH system when it comes to academic freedom and the ability to speak your mind and speak frankly about issues of the day?
Lassner: I would say this is the tension — that I think they didn’t articulate effectively for that audience. People have to be able to speak their mind. So the legal protections of free speech go pretty far into hate speech. And I was on a webinar with a small group of presidents with one of the foremost free speech experts in the country. And you can say some pretty hateful things that are legally protected. And so the challenge for universities is how do we create a culture in which people just don’t think that’s okay?
So I could say, “I think everyone who wears a brown shirt should be killed.” And so now you get into this, “Well, he’s wearing a brown shirt.” Did I just threaten you? Or if I said “red shirt” than I didn’t threaten anybody in this room. So, what is the legal test there? This is not how I would answer if I had been sitting there. But this is the technical challenge that we all face.
At the same time, we have a responsibility to not be indifferent that when someone comes after everyone who wears brown shirts, the people in brown shirts deserve to be protected, too. So even if the speech was legal, that doesn’t mean I can be indifferent to what I have done, what I have allowed to be done emotionally to you.
So the approach that we’re trying to take is really we’re an educational institution. How do we educate people to live in this complicated world, in which they will encounter people who will disagree with them and will do so hatefully, and still be able to thrive, to carry on civil discourse to the extent that’s possible and for us to create an environment in which those really hard conversations can take place within the university to help everyone understand?
It does no good to threaten other people. It just doesn’t accomplish anything. And somehow we all have to live together in this world. And we want the University of Hawaii to be a place where we’re helping teach our students how to live that way.
You have to go before the money committees at the Legislature beginning next week with budget requests. The university has taken some hits in recent years. I wonder if you might comment on the university’s priorities with the coming session.
Kalbert Young: The two big looming issues are, for the university, the presidential transition, and then for the state it’s the Maui fire recovery. Those two things I think will overshadow what should be a pretty monumental year for the university in that there are still large issues. Work will go on, even without these other issues. And our priorities legislatively are really more about “lights on” and focus around developing workforce needs for the state of Hawaii.
So the No. 1 big issue for budget priority for UH is restoration of university funds that were reduced or taken away from the university during the pandemic. They haven’t been fully restored yet. So this is about getting the university back to 2021 levels of funding — two or three years ago worth of funding — that’s the No. 1w3 priority.
But there are a number of other issues. Hawaii Promise was a big one. This would have been the fifth year that we’ve tried unsuccessfully so far of getting Hawaii Promise expanded from the community colleges as a financial assistance for students to the four years (institutions). The big difference this year is that it is not included in the governor’s proposed version of a budget. This would be the first time that it doesn’t have inclusion in the executive proposed budget. So that will change the stage or platform from which we will be able to advocate for that program because it is within the university’s proposed budget.
And then there are a number of workforce development areas, areas to support the growth of increased teachers. This is everything from preschool through 12, getting more teachers in the pipeline, what the University of Hawaii’s efforts could be to increase that pipeline, increase the attraction into that profession.
But it’s also big on the preschool efforts, which is a major state initiative and platform that the governor and lieutenant governor have taken on over the last year or so, increasing the opportunities to grow professionalism within the preschool teachers ranks.
And then we also have proposals for medical industries. So nursing, increasing the nursing pipeline, increasing other medical professions, including psychologists, counselors and professionalism and credentialing that the University of Hawaii can contribute to that.
I did want to ask about Hawaii Promise because, as I understand it, it’s to help community college students and their transition into university with some financial assistance.
Lassner: The current Hawaii Promise program is implemented only at the community colleges, and it’s set up only for students with financial need. And after their other financial aid it will fill in the rest of tuition fees and direct costs of education. We fill in the gap. So we want to expand that to the universities. And, so far, we have been unsuccessful. The program has been very successful at the community colleges in helping students sustain their educations and complete their educations. What happens is, if they want to continue on for a bachelor’s degree, not only do they face higher tuition, but they face the loss of Hawaii Promise. And again, these are the students who need the financial help the most.
Is there a dollar figure assigned to this?
Young: Yes. It’s on the order of magnitude of about $14 million to $18 million.
Why didn’t the governor include this in his package?
Young: We believe that the governor, the executive, the No. 1 priority is reserving budget space to address Maui recovery. The general sense is that it’s a big ticket number. I don’t know if a specific dollar amount was put out there, but it will consume a large part of the available funds in the budget. So the governor is probably looking very prudent around trying to reserve as much away from new initiatives.
Let’s go back to back to Covid and the money that did not come through because of the reduced revenue picture. What is the dollar figure there?
Young: It’s just under, I think, $12 million to $14 million, something like that, for restoration of funds back into the university. But the problem is, it is not in our base budget — the Covid funds that were lost. So we’re just trying to get it permanently back rather than year to year.
Circling back on the issue of the Maui wildfire recovery and in general. What’s the vision for UH, its role in that process of rebuilding the communities there? And what do you think would be the key things that you would be able to be working on?
Nahale-a: It’s interesting when you ask what the university’s role is, as the president alluded to earlier, the role of universities across the country is evolving. And I think there’s more of an understanding that it cannot just be education inside of our silos, and that when we send folks out there we have to really be intimately involved in research projects and response projects. And I think the Maui wildfires, for those who know how much the university was involved, it highlights how much we permeate the various systems in Hawaii from the specialists who were educated from UH.
Nahale-a: The role is not always in the front, in the limelight. It’s filling the gaps. And I’m really proud of the fact that the people throughout the university knew that they had permission to respond, that we weren’t going to bottleneck response to some bureaucratic chain. People were able to get out and contribute their expertise, their relationships and things like that. And I think for me, in terms of the (university’s) role, it’s moving where we need to move — especially because we’re the one public university. My perspective is this university belongs to the people of Hawaii. And so when people of Hawaii need us to step up, that’s what we do. And what’s going to be needed in Maui is going to continue to evolve.
Lassner: Anecdotally, the impact of Maui College on feeding people impacted by the disasters can’t be exaggerated. They were doing thousands of meals a day for people who had nothing to eat, out of the Maui College kitchens. And after the worst of it, they’ve woven that into their educational program. These are culinary students still prepping some number of meals, but it’s not at that massive peak level. Essentially every chef in Hawaii was spending time in the Maui College kitchen helping prepare meals.
The day I was over there, FEMA was on site looking for a place they could open a recovery system. This was a week or so after the fire, and they opened at Maui College. We found a room, let them in. There were containers all over the Maui College campus when some things were coming in that had to be put somewhere. The chancellor there, Lui Hokoana, who’s from Maui, graciously just said, “Yeah, we’ll put it there.”
There’s been a lot of attention to water quality. So our folks were doing testing both of drinking water (and) also looking at ocean quality. Our geeky researchers are doing these autonomous sail drones that are doing water testing in the ocean to see what happens over time so we can monitor especially the runoff from the toxic soil.
There was some controversy over spraying the sealant, how effective does that turn out to be. And people don’t say much about Kula, but Kula was impacted as well. And they still have water problems in Kula that are not resolved as well.
Our medical school was over there delivering direct health care to people in Lahaina, helping just because they’re docs, they are public health professionals.
The scholarship program that we announced for Lahainaluna (High School) seniors, this was actually an idea from a close colleague at the DOE who said, “You know, I was over there and those kids have no hope. They lost their freshman year to Covid. They thought they were going to have a real senior year. And then the week before school starts (the fires struck). We have to do something. Can you just offer them scholarships?”
And internally, within UH, we looked up some data. What would it cost? And we offered every Lahainaluna High School senior one year scholarship. And it was inspiring enough that we had a private donor step up and offer to fund the remaining two or four years of it.
And those kids are excited. That’s what I hear back. And I got to go over and announce it the first day. The first question from a kid was, “Is there a catch?” At the time it was only one year, but then we got to tell them it’s for two years.
Workforce development — there’s going to be a ton of jobs there to rebuild. And even though we don’t yet know what rebuilding looks like, we want to make sure primarily through Maui College, but we have the trades programs based at Honolulu Community College and others. How do we make sure that we are helping Maui residents, particularly those displaced by the economic disruption? How do we help prepare them to be qualified to fill those jobs, many of which will be pretty good paying jobs so that Maui doesn’t find itself having to bring in a deluge of workers who also won’t have housing in order to do the work that the Maui needs to recover?
We had a story recently on the challenges of universities and colleges paying for athletics, and it mentioned UH. Essentially, as you well know, college sports has become professionalized. Do you want to comment on that?
Lassner: I can’t say I’m happy about what has happened to college athletics, especially the past five, six, seven years. But it’s been something that’s been brewing for 10 or more years. I don’t think that — in the very justifiable attempt to say college athletes should share in some of the revenue being produced — I don’t think that we or they or anyone has gotten it right. In my opinion, where it went wrong in the first place was when you see those maps of who is the highest-paid public employee in each of the 50 states, and probably 40 of them are football coaches. I think in North Dakota in might be the hockey coach. It’s a couple of basketball coaches.
I’ll just say I think those salaries are obscene for a college football coach. And once universities started doing that, boards and presidents lost control and then you had a group of not completely but mostly white head football coaches making upwards of $10 million. And then you look at who’s performing and it’s mostly black and other students of color out on the field, many of whom get a scholarship so their college education is free, but their families are struggling. And they’re the only hope for the future of their family. And I think that inequity just slammed so many people in the face that we march down this path of name, image, likeness — very ill conceived, ill defined, the transfer portal, ill conceived, ill defined.
And nobody stepped back and said, what are we actually trying to do? How does intercollegiate athletics fit in to what we’re trying to do in universities? So I’m proud of where we are. I think we haven’t lost it, but it is a struggle to keep up. And I think the article captured that pretty well.
Nahale-a: I would say I have a similar disappointment as to where college athletics has gone because it’s really diminished what I thought was the point, which was getting a quality education. And I am proud that we’ve tried to hold the line there. I’ve been a regent for five years and Mauna Kea and football are the two things I get the most calls about.
Clearly it’s important to the people of Hawaii, and going back to my premise that this university belongs to people of Hawaii, if they want a program to be more competitive, that requires more resources. We’re going to have the football team that we as a community choose to have and choose to resource. And so we have to wrestle with these things as a large community, not as “What’s the president going to do about it?” or regents are going to do about it. Because the issue is it’s global now — everybody wants to win, but they don’t want to pay the price for it.
Where are we with rebuilding Aloha Stadium and still playing Ching Field? My understanding is that the RFP has gone out. It’s going to be at least a few more years that we need Ching Field, is that correct? Do we need an Aloha Stadium?
Lassner: Ching Field was not constructed as even a small permanent facility for modern collegiate football. We did something very quickly. We didn’t have much time. We had to make a decision as to what to do. We didn’t know how long we needed at that time. We were caught off guard, to be honest.
But it is not our future. And if it was to be our future, it would require massive investment there — porta potties, temporary bleachers, etc., are not the modern college experience.
Will you have a financial stake in a new Aloha Stadium, given that it’s your football team that will be playing there?
Lassner: So our goal, and I’ve said this publicly to the board and anyone else for almost since I’ve been in this job, when I began to understand the challenges that we had even then— funding athletics — we need a better financial relationship for home football games, which are a significant source of revenue to football programs around the country. And so I wouldn’t call it a financial stake because we’re not putting money into the program, but we want a better relationship than we were able to have with the old Aloha Stadium, which was always struggling just to keep operating. And we have very active conversations with the Stadium Authority about what that will look like moving forward so that when they’re issuing the RFP and selecting a developer who will have a stadium operator as part of their business relationship. We want that stadium operator to know the expectations of the university to be able to play there successfully with a greater experience for our fans and a better financial experience for the university to support. Football supports most of the rest of our non-revenue sports.
Can you update us where we are on the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority? I believe it’s four years from now it needs to be fully transferred over from UH. But for now it’s a co-management that’s going on.
Nahale-a: I think we’re following the intention of the statute. And you’re correct, the language in the statute and how we’re doing it is a co-management exercise. Presently, the authority is building their capacity. So we meet regularly with them and we created a shared working group that is tackling all that. Basically we are still holding responsibility for making sure Mauna Kea is stewarded appropriately. I feel really good about the progress we just made to that end. Our goal now is to transfer those things over in a way that is thoughtful and intentional and doesn’t create any reduction in stewardship through the process.
Where are we on the Thirty Meter Telescope? The Institute for Astronomy is such a major player at the university and also Hilo. You don’t have direct control over the awarding of TMT, I recognize that, but do you care to comment on that at all?
Lassner: The National Science Foundation is running a process now to do community engagement around what TMT would look like on Mauna Kea. So I would say they’re going to have to figure out whether they think they can support it programmatically and financially.
Do you have a sense when NSF might be making a decision?
Lassner: No, I do not. They’re in an active community gathering. They just opened a new community engagement process within the last week or two, so we’ll participate in that.
UH is not always very well respected, not just in the Senate but in the community. It doesn’t have the stature that a lot of public universities have, even though it is a major institution. What do you say to people who say they don’t want to attend UH?
Lassner: I know we’re up against it. But, honestly, we have this new strategic plan and I think it captures what my priorities are in getting that launch. And it’s only says four things. And I think that’s really where my focus is.
We need more, especially of our public school graduates, to go on to some kind of post-secondary education and training. The data is so clear about the impacts of post-secondary education and training. You live longer, it’s like eight to 10 years. You make more money, a million dollars. You’re less likely to be drawing on social services, less likely to be incarcerated, less likely to lose your job in a recession, you get your job back faster after a recession.
So when I (hear that) college degrees are not meaningful, it’s just not factually accurate. In the ballpark of half of our public high school graduates go on to post-secondary education. That doesn’t mean you go to any post-secondary education. And we just have to do better as a state and UH has to be part of it. I meet regularly with the DOE with our P-20 program (on strengthening the education pipeline).
The second one, Kalbert talked about workforce. We’re looking at health care, we’re looking at education, we’re looking at technology. You know, the construction guys say, “We don’t have construction managers.” It pays over a hundred grand and they have to bring them in. So we’re trying to start a construction management program. So how do we find those niches across all of the sectors?
The third (guiding principle) is around economic development, development and jobs. We need more educated people. We also need to be thinking about where are the clusters, where we think there’s going to be jobs. And it’s creative media. We identified a bunch in our strategic plan where we think there are some jobs, but you can’t assume you’re going to pick winners and losers. The people in those jobs are going to do that.
And when we educate people in all those professions, they’re going to create the jobs — not me, you, DBEDT and the governor — but people with ideas. In my opinion, I don’t think there’s going to be one killer thing to replace tourism, which replaced plantation agriculture. It’s going to have to be a lot of things. And we have to look at what what’s a good fit here and what’s our competitive advantage.
And the last thing in there that I’ll mention is we identified as a priority our responsibility not just to the success of our Native Hawaiian students, faculty, staff, but to our role in helping Hawaii come to grips with what has happened over the past 150 years to Hawaiians and Hawaii. And we intellectually and socially need to be part of that solution. That doesn’t mean we’re responsible for it, but we’re a big part of that. Around the health of Hawaiians, the economic success of Hawaiians, the education of Hawaiians, the thriving of the language, which is so important. I mean, UH Hilo has done more than anybody to make the Hawaiian language a success.
So that’s kind of where I am and how do I help positioning these things with solid foundations for the next president to come in.
And to you, Alapaki, where does the University of Hawaii fit in the value, the role of the state? And what do you feel when people kind of bring it down a little bit?
Nahale-a: We will experience a great loss when President Lassner is no longer the president, because a lot of what he does is just behind the scenes, under the radar. And he’s not the kind of person that’s going to get credit for stuff. And more than anything, he loves our university. Like for me, he treats it like it’s his family, 24-7, 365. He can tell you specific names of people, several layers down the org chart. He cares. And we’re going to have a hard time.
I talked about having the capacity to manage and knowing Hawaii. But how do you find someone that loves to that depth, as their whole life has been dedicated to something. I’m saying it’s time for us as a community to love our university. It can’t be on a person, it can’t be on just staff. We have to come together. And if you have criticisms about (the university), and you think it should be better, are there any (suggestions)? You want a better engineering program, then make it a better training program, right? You want us to be more heavily invested in protecting our ocean system, then get passionate about that.
The university is one of the best avenues for anyone to influence where Hawaii is going. When I was young, I didn’t have the privilege of graduating from the University of Hawaii. I chose to go to Penn because that’s what we were told. We were told that, “Oh, if you can’t go to a mainland school, you can’t get to an Ivy League, then UH can be your safety program.”
We need to change that rhetoric because it’s false. I really wish I had gone to UH. There’s so many things that I sacrificed by going away. And sure, I gained some things by going away. But the university is remarkable on many levels, even though it can be better. And where it is tomorrow is up to us as a whole.
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