Accreditation report praises UH
By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer
Four years after the University of Hawai'i at Manoa was slammed by its accrediting agency as lacking leadership, planning and vision, a follow-up report last week showed a significant turnaround.
The campus had been heavily criticized for poor planning, program quality, communication, educational assessment and even its inadequate graduate library. But changes that have taken place were lauded in the hefty report released last week by the Western Association of Schools & Colleges, which accredits colleges throughout California and Hawai'i.
The WASC report evaluated each of the four-year UH campuses, giving its toughest criticism to UH-West O'ahu for lack of resources and poor planning. But there was particular praise for Manoa, which it said had made "significant" progress since the highly critical report issued by WASC in 1999.
Without accreditation a school can't receive federal money and its students are not eligible for federal financial aid.
Since 1999, UH has undergone dramatic change in leadership from former president Kenneth Mortimer to current president Evan Dobelle. In addition, the Manoa campus now has its own chancellor, Peter Englert. Dobelle has launched a new Medical School, overseen a new strategic plan and reorganized the 10-campus system, but has also come under fire in recent weeks for high salaries paid to top administrators and concerns about the success of his fund-raising efforts. In addition, new budget cuts will hit Manoa the hardest.
"We're in a hard phase right now because we have to tighten our belts, but we're in a positive phase," said C. Mamo Kim, a former student activist who is now an adviser to the chancellor. "With these bumps in the road, it's difficult if we focus on the bumps and not the fact that the car is actually working now and moving forward."
In the past year Manoa has made major leaps: contracts and grants have increased from $260 million to $300 million; a refurbished Hamilton Library has reopened; an open strategic planning process has created a blueprint for the future that recognizes Native Hawaiian values; new assessment tools for student learning are in place; an updated and liberalized core curriculum has been established; and new leadership teams of deans and directors are part of weekly priority planning sessions.
"These are significant accomplishments in a relatively short time," said Ralph A. Wolff, the WASC commission's executive director, in a letter to Englert. "The university community is to be commended for addressing Commission concerns with such energy, direction and accomplishment."
By phone, Wolff said the change at Manoa, while not unprecedented among institutions of higher education, grew from a new openness on campus.
"It (Manoa) took the concern seriously, it got well-organized and it was well-led and the results are in the pudding," Wolff said. "What makes Manoa unusual is it's such a large, complex institution yet was able to galvanize multi levels of support in that short time and use a number of strategies that were quite effective."
Along with the praise, the WASC report questions how resources are being allocated on campus and cautions that "immediate attention" is needed to bring more people to the table, something Englert has already launched.
"We have faculty representation even in the innermost circle of management," Englert said. "That has never happened before."
The successes at Manoa have been a combined effort that required the work of hundreds of people; a new leadership team; student leadership; faculty leadership; support from the vast array of campus organizations; and all the deans and directors. It has also taken a dedicated WASC-only Web site that kept the commission up to date, and an array of visits and workshops at each WASC meeting.
"We had a process to respond to WASC set up after 1999," said Karl Kim, Interim Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs for Manoa, "but the Sept. 11 crisis shook us all and changed our thinking. Being in the middle of the Pacific we felt almost cut off from the rest of the world. The flights were canceled and that was a time when we really had to look within. We said, 'We really have to think about the importance of building community.' "
From an immediate outreach to students in those first dark days came the "listening project" that later launched a new kind of strategic planning that swept up more than 2,000 people from the campus and larger community.
C. Mamo Kim remembers that the first seeds of the new openness began back in 1998 and 1999 when the previous WASC team met with campus dissidents, including herself.
"We asked for more students to be in on the process and that was before Dobelle came on board," she said. "What we were fighting for was open, inclusive town meetings where the whole campus would come together and speak about their vision of moving forward. Once Dobelle came aboard they abandoned that committee but Karl Kim took it seriously and Evan trusted Karl and we moved forward. That was the turning point ... because Dobelle said, 'Yes I'm going to trust this process,' even though he wasn't sure of it. When it came to the final event he was visibly moved."
In the past, strategic planning had been committees behind closed doors. This time it meant free food and open-door opinion free-for-alls that were gradually massaged through working groups into a series of ideals and principles. It meant administrators meeting with students in 70 to 80 separate sessions, reaching out with questionnaires, table talk in cafeterias and through e-mail.
From the new strategic plan came long-range goals but also a series of 75 "quick fixes" tackled immediately and ranging from fixing broken windows, to improving Varney Circle, to allowing students to stay in dorms through holidays. As well, ongoing campus cleanup and improvement projects got under way.
The campus is now facing its next challenge to implement the plan and continue the forward momentum, despite ongoing criticism and a whole new round of impending budget cuts of as much as $10 million this year across the 10-campus system.
The commission doesn't plan to return for its full accreditation review until 2009-10.
Reach Beverly Creamer at email@example.com or 525-8013.