Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 17, 2001

Island Voices
UH: a university in crisis

By Douglas Hilt
Professor in the department of literature and languages of Europe and the Americas at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa

The University of Hawai'i is in the most crucial period in its nearly one-century history.

Already the target of severe budget cuts involving salaries, teaching positions and programs, not to mention campus maintenance and library holdings, UH is now undergoing a strike and the ill-concealed hostility of the state's governor.

What is the heart of the current impasse? Faculty salaries and working conditions have slipped yet further behind those of universities of equal rank, and the governor's original insistence that medical coverage, pension contributions and other fringe benefits be inoperative during the summer months would place UH in a totally uncompetitive position.

UH's reputation — we are recognized as the leader in many diverse fields — and the climate of Hawai'i still attract applicants the world over, but inadequate salaries and concomitant problems highlighted by the strike will deter many scholars from choosing a career in such unsettled conditions.

Universities, for all their solid outward appearances, are fragile entities. Student enrollment is dependent largely on the institution's reputation.

Here in Hawai'i we need to convince ourselves that UH plays a vital role in the state's economy and quality of life. Far from being a luxury accessible only to a chosen few, the university is a vital element in the training and preparation of thousands of local citizens. UH is closely involved with the future of the state at all levels —government, manufacturing, education, tourism, to name but a few — and any weakening of the university will have the most adverse effects down the road.

Whereas the role of public education up to and including the high school level is readily understood and accepted, the value of a broadly based university education, as distinguished from that of a business school or trade school, is more elusive. but the ideals of a university are brought to fruition in those citizens who acquaintance with history, other cultures, and ecological and social concerns result in a higher awareness of the responsibility of each person toward other life. This in turn benefits all people, whatever their occupation.

The case for higher salaries throughout the Hawai'i public school system, including schoolteachers and college lecturers and instructors, often the hardest workers but the most poorly paid, cannot be questioned. In return, the public paying the taxes that support the university has every right to ask what professors might do for their part.

Unlike large corporations and commercial businesses, the university can do little to raise productivity. Any speeding up of the graduating process would be at the expense of academic quality to the detriment of society as a whole.

But surely there are several areas open to improvement. Some programs and classes have not undergone any serious review for years and would benefit from candid re-evaluations. Similarly all of us, as individual professors, might question our teaching methods, the content of our courses and the object of our research work.

In a profession reluctant to criticize its more wayward members, especially those with tenure, some effective mechanism might be devised to ensure positive results. Merit pay, one of the sticking points in the governor's proposals, is but one instrument available. Ultimately it is a matter of both individual and collective conscientiousness.

These are momentous days in the history of the university. In general terms, there are three possible outcomes to the current crisis. The university can muddle through at the present level, doing a sound, if unspectacular, job in educating local students, all with little panache and even less enthusiasm. Another scenario is too scary to contemplate: UH continues to slide down a slippery slope, faculty leave in droves and are not replaced, and the withdrawal of accreditation threatens UH's very integrity. Such a vision surely cannot be wished by anyone.

There is also a third option. State government, the Board of Regents, the UH faculty and the community at large all pull together in a determined effort to make our university a center of excellence and one we can all be proud of.

Should we settle for anything less?