Since the University of Hawaiʻi released its proposed program cuts and merges, the Mānoa campus community has been on edge.
On Thursday, over 1,000 written testimonies were submitted during the Board of Regents meeting. Testimony stretched from those in theater to microbiology programs, both of which are currently on the chopping block.
About 50 people orally testified during the first two hours of the meeting.
Marguerite Butler, an associate professor from the School of Life Sciences, criticized the BOR and administration for the university’s response to slowing the spread of COVID-19 on campus. Butler said that she and her graduate students submitted suggestions to the COVID-19 testing team, yet it was not taken into consideration.
“Over the summer, I shared with the COVID testing team examples of clever strategies of other universities for testing of their entire campuses. We could have had the same, but we still have no testing plan in place for our students, for our campus community,” Butler said.
Butler went on to enforce the seriousness of reducing scientific research programs and referred to this move by the university as “unfathomable and beyond discouraging” and told the administration to “put a stop to the assault on the university.”
“They proposed to stop-out a graduate program in microbiology – in a global pandemic. Who does this benefit? How is this going to work?” Butler said.
UH President David Lassner recognized the pushback, and plans to meet with the faculty and student government to discuss the recommendations. Those among the discussions include: the University of Hawai‘i Professional Assembly, the Mānoa Faculty Senate, the Associated Students of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, the Kauli‘i Council and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Graduate Student Organization.
“The work was indeed done over the summer when most students and faculty were not on campus,” Lassner said at the meeting.
If the recommendations are approved, they will take effect next fiscal year in July or later.
Campus community meetings
Faculty, staff and students held meetings to voice their concerns about programs affected by the recommendations.
On Wednesday, the Mānoa Faculty Senate highlighted their concerns on the fate of the programs, emphasizing that the administration’s discussions were behind closed doors.
Paul McKimmy, chair of the Senate Executive Committee, informed faculty members of a half- page document titled “Mānoa Budget Follow-up Approach,” which stated that deans and faculty have two to three weeks to come up with their own suggestions to counter the proposed recommendations.
“These are very difficult conversations,” McKimmy said. “They are obviously causing a lot of stress and angst, and there are some suggestions to change or eliminate academic programs, which many find very important. We need to be a part of this discussion.”
Also on Wednesday, ASUH invited Ashley Maynard, president of UHPA and psychology professor, who said the administrators were “cherry picking” small programs to cut based on data from the college’s Institute of Research website.
“This doesn’t make sense,” she said at the ASUH meeting. “I’m really worried about the vulnerability of these so-called small programs because it seems like the administration may want to move it to this entity called Interdisciplinary Studies, which is not really a department. It doesn’t have the same power that the department has.”
The Department of Ethnic Studies was originally on the list of cuts. While the option to stop admissions to the programs was removed on Tuesday, it is still recommended that the program merge with Interdisciplinary Studies, causing the department to fear a loss of autonomy.
At a virtual town hall meeting on Monday, more than 200 Theatre and Dance students, faculty, alumni and other supporters discussed their concerns regarding the proposal to significantly reduce their program in response to the COVID-19 budget crisis. Many of the attendee’s virtual screens had orange backdrops saying “Resist, Resist, Resist Reorg” and “@SaveUHDance.”
UH proposed that due to dance being a small program with low enrollment, the program should nix the degree and keep the option for a dance minor. For the theatre program, UH proposed that the number of Master of Fine Arts programs be reduced as well as ending the MA and PhD options.
Markus Wessendorf, a professor of theatre, stated that “there is no financial justification” on UH’s website laying out the proposed plans to remedy the near $100 million deficit.
“It’s really galling is that this university seems to run by its administrators who really don’t seem to know how the Arts and Humanities work,” Wessendorf said.
The seven MFA tracks may be facing the chopping block due to the administration’s belief that there are little curricular differences between them, though Wessendorf insists that there are stark differences in these concentrations.
“Of course MFAs are specializations … and for various obvious reasons, the curriculum for an MFA set design student is very different from someone studying acting or play writing… That’s just the way MFAs work at any university in the United States,” Wessendorf said.
Marley Aiu, a Bachelor of Fine Arts and English graduate from UH Mānoa, provided ways that those in the Theatre and Dance department and its supporters can push back against the administration's proposal.
“We want to make a big fuss, there’s a lot of ways we can do that,” Aiu said. A few ways they are tackling this is by sending letters contesting the proposal to President David Lassner and the Board of Regents as well as planning “digital walkouts” and protests to demonstrate that they are an integral part of the community and here to stay.
“We’re in a bad place”
The recommendations were an attempt to fix the university’s looming budget gap, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I really wish I had better news today, so let me start with the difficult part,” Lassner said at Wednesday's faculty senate meeting. “We’re in a bad place.”
Last fiscal year, UH had about a $2.3 billion deficit associated with the pandemic.“That’s on what was an $8 billion budget,” Lassner said.
“But to make it worse, more than half of the $8 billion we spent in our last full year, more than half of that is fixed cost,” he said.
Half of UH Mānoa’s operating budget comes from state costs. However, Hawaiʻi’s economy has been deeply affected by the pandemic.
“When the state suffers, we’re much more dependent on that loss of general fund support for the campus,” Lassner said.
Though UH is up in enrollment headcount at the Mānoa and West O‘ahu campuses, Lassner said there has been a higher rate of unpaid tuition compared to previous years. So UH can’t spend the money until it's collected, according to Lassner.
In turn, Lassner said the college cannot increase student tuition due to the pandemic and the recent tuition increase from last year.
“The students we serve can’t afford much more,” he said.
Tamara Goebbert contributed to this story