Thursday | December 14, 2017
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UH-Hilo faces cutbacks: Students, faculty protest proposal to eliminate courses

Students and faculty are protesting the prospect of cuts to the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s performing arts and humanities programs, which they say includes a proposal to eliminate the campus’ popular jazz orchestra.

About 20 students on Wednesday waved signs with messages such as “Save the arts” and “Lose humanities, lose humanity” outside an on-campus meeting hosted by Hilo state Sen. Kai Kahele.

More than 70 additional faculty and staff attended the meeting itself, several voicing concerns to Kahele about a lack of transparency by the administration and frustration over the proposal to slash course offerings.

Kahele, who chairs the Senate’s higher education committee, held two on-campus meetings Wednesday — one with students and another with faculty — as part of his statewide higher education tour.

“These are classes students need to graduate next semester,” recent alum Leilani Johnson, a performing arts graduate, told the Tribune-Herald as she waved a sign outside the faculty meeting. “I feel like by cutting classes, we’re going backwards. They should be … (adding) more classes. Cutting is not the way to go to solve this problem.”

“I’m a senior, and I’m supposed to graduate next semester,” Sarah Dunaway, 22, said. “But there are three communication classes that I need that they want to cut. If they cut those, and I can’t graduate, I need to find some other way to graduate, and I’ve already been here five years. I don’t see the need for me to be here another year. It’s costing me money.”

Word of the proposed cuts began circulating last week, several faculty members told the Tribune-Herald.

Many said they received an email containing a list of at least 10 courses on the chopping block by the administration, including several upper-level communication and philosophy classes, a modern dance course and the jazz orchestra course, which produces a community Frank Zappa tribute concert each year.

It was unclear Thursday which — if any — other programs on campus also are proposed for cuts.

By Thursday, several community members, alums, faculty and students had emailed administrators and lawmakers in protest.

“Without the jazz (orchestra) band, there will be no outlet for those who are participating in the music discipline to have a performance,” Rob Abe, technical director for UH-Hilo’s Performing Arts Center told the Tribune-Herald.

Abe said the jazz orchestra’s annual performance has become a tradition for many community members and has expanded to multiple performances each year. He said both the orchestra and modern dance classes are “very popular” with students and the Performing Arts Department isn’t sure why they were singled out.

UH-Hilo interim chancellor Marcia Sakai told the Tribune-Herald in an email late Thursday the spring class schedule is not finalized.

She said “resources available to UH-Hilo are lower this year” because a decline in tuition revenue and state restrictions on general fund appropriations.

Enrollment campuswide decreased 3.5 percent this year, the sixth consecutive year it’s gone down.

Sakai said the campus is facing about a $1.2 million decrease in tuition revenue to Academic Affairs — the unit that administers the budget for instructional departments — and a $350,000 decrease to Academic Affairs as a result of the state restrictions.

Sakai said less revenue means “difficult decisions are being made across the entire university and are not limited to the Humanities division.”

She said administrators are “still examining the offerings of sections over the next few weeks, along with similar proposals in all other academic units at UH-Hilo.” She said the deadline to post courses for spring 2018 is Oct. 21.

“We remain committed to our goal of helping students complete their course of study with the least disruption possible,” Sakai said in the email. “Given the financial situation, we are having to examine such factors as whether a course is required for graduation, whether there are other sections of the same course available, and whether there are substitutes for elective courses.”

Faculty and staff who attended Wednesday’s meeting disagreed. Some said their departments have been trimmed multiple times over the years which makes it difficult to retain students. They noted that recent enrollment declines are largely among continuing students.

One staff member said at the meeting she’s aware of UH-Hilo students from the mainland who’ve already transferred out this semester “because they can’t get the classes they want.”

Another faculty member said at the meeting she’s often encouraged by the administration to retain students, but that becomes difficult when “what we see as faculty is our classes getting cancelled.”

“Students leave because they can’t graduate on time,” she said.

“I say give us back our classes. We’re the ones who keep the students here.”

“It’s difficult for students to graduate on time,” added senior Rhealiza Pira, 20, who was one of the students protesting at the student meeting. “And even worse, it’s ‘How can we pay for more schooling when we have to wait another year?’ And they’re taking away classes in departments that are (already) so small.”

Email Kirsten Johnson at


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