Sunday | December 10, 2017
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Wright On: Student drain puts Vulcans in precarious spot

There’s a warning sign on the road ahead

— Neil Young, “Rockin’ In the Free World”

The precursors of evolving fractures in course offerings at the University of Hawaii at Hilo are out there, and growing, on a pace that threatens to endanger the overall mission of the university.

As is usually the case, the issue is money, or lack of same, combined with the ongoing practice of the school to essentially kick the can down the road when problem arise.

Funding has forever been an issue in the University of Hawaii system, as exemplified last week, when, for the second time in less than a month, students at UHH publicly demonstrated their concerns about the ways in which the state funds higher education.

It’s a serious issue that will find its way to athletics unless there’s a course correction in the way the University of Hawaii system prioritizes its funding mechanisms.

Reported Friday by the Tribune-Herald, a collection of students started a letter-writing campaign to Gov. David Ige, the UH Board of Regents and District 1 state Sen. Kai Kahele, asking for help to allocate a “comprehensive funding package” and to “consider the burden” that course cancellations — necessitated by budget shortfalls — place on students and the community. Before the end of the week, the campaign gathered 240 signatures.

The issues have been foremost in the concerns of Kahele, the Hilo Democrat and former athlete at Hawaii at Manoa, who chairs the Senate’s higher education committee

The senator’s concerns brought back unwelcome memories.

“It reminds me of the Death To Education March,” Kahele said Saturday in a telephone interview of a notable 1995 student protest. “They were increasing tuition, there was talk of eliminating classes and thousands of us protested.”

The march got its desired attention. The school shut down, thousands marched from UH campus to the state Capitol as a demonstration against state budget cuts to the university system.

It has been 22 years since and history is repeating itself in a way at UH Hilo where Kahele has heard the complaints of a lack of transparency from the administration over potential slashes in the curriculum, and there’s more than just classes that may be cut.

“Everything is on the table,” Kahele said, “it has to be. If the university doesn’t prioritize what’s important in concert with the state legislature and the governor, things like student success rate, student development and more will jeopardized.

“If we just do the status quo (at UHH), which is what they have always done, it’s going to be a big concern because it will prompt interest in what BYU-Hawaii did with its declining enrollment.”

Kahele took particular notice at the BYU-Hawaii decision to discontinue its athletics program, effective for the 2017-18 seasons, because it was centered on years of declining enrollments that had dropped the BYUH student body to 2,700, a loss of 500 from just a few years earlier.

“We are losing even more students than that,” said Kahele, the former UH Manoa volleyball player. “We hit a peak of right about 4,200, and now we are down to about 3,400, that’s about 800 students we lost and they have been cutting programs all over the place.”

The idea that the athletic department at UHH is immune from cuts avoids the reality. UHH already offers fewer scholarships in athletics than its Pacific West Conference opponents — sometimes only half as many — and it pays coaches below the level of other schools, to the point that some UHH head coaches are paid less than assistants at some other conference schools.

The athletics issue at UHH is anything but new and has always relied on the decision to do things as cheaply as possible. A basketball floor and a soccer field were both improperly installed, causing teams to seek out acceptable practice facilities elsewhere in the community.

Vision has been lacking. For instance, had the soccer field been properly installed more than 12 years ago, with suitable drainage and lighting, it would today be the jewel of the Hilo soccer community. The field could be filled 12 months a year with college, youth and adult leagues and tournaments, with ample parking already in place.

The cost to put on tournaments would have paid for the drainage and lighting by now, but instead, university teams rely on local high schools for acceptable practice facilities.

Kahele suggests a major issue rests in the administrative approach at UH Hilo.

“I would say if we are going to look at cutting athletics or other programs, we better start by looking at administrative salaries,” he said. “Did we need to pay the chancellor at UHH (Donald Straney, who has since been moved to another role for the University of Oahu),$335,000 a year for seven years, including six years with declining enrollment, cuts to arts and humanities? Why are we paying the chancellor $335,000 a year for seven years while all of this is going on when we need more library hours, better Wi-Fi for our students on campus?”

Kahele said he could find “at least 10 extremely qualified individuals on the Big Island who know the university, are aware of the issues and would do that job for probably 60 percent of what the school has been paying.”

An overpaid and top heavy administrative structure that clogs the money flow at UH Hilo is a standard complaint many feel has restrained the University.

“The university needs a different mindset,” Kahele said. “Doing what they have always done has got us where we are and continuing down this path will lead us in a direction we shouldn’t go.”

The pertinence of BYU-Hawaii dropping athletics as it relates to Hawaii Hilo, is clear, in Kahele’s mind.

“What happened at BYU is a sign that should make people here wake up,” he said. “What happened there is happening here and my message would be that people cannot depend on a status quo situation, we need to be more involved and we can’t sit back and wait.”

Saving approximately $3 million a year on the athletic department may come into sharper focus, but Kahele thinks the school should already be doing more than it has to attract and retain students.

He is interested in pursuing an idea he came up with about matching incoming freshmen in an opt-in program with local families of UH Hilo grads.

“I go to these (UHH) Distinguished Alumni dinners all the time,” Kahele said, “where the room is full of committed individuals who benefitted from and believe in the university. Why are we not embracing these people, why are we not pursuing matches with local families so the parents back on the mainland would know their son or daughter has a ‘phone-a-friend-type’ situation? Why are we not trying to use the resources we have available to us? Why do we only react when something bad happens? We need to look ahead.”

For athletics at UHHilo, the vision is anything but a clear-eyed view.

The status quo means the trend continues, enrollment plunges further, funding trickles down from administrative largesse, classes and entire courses are cancelled, athletics continues to swirl the drain until offered up as cost savings.

Time to watch what administrators do at UHH. The future depends on them making the right decisions, and in that regard, the track record has not been good.

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