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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, March 11, 2005

Clamor increases to spin off UH-Hilo

 •  By design, campuses don't get equal bucks
 •  Chart: UH-Hilo is booming

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

More than a decade after the calls for independence for the University of Hawai'i-Hilo were first sounded on the Big Island, they have grown strident enough to be heard in Manoa.

The café at the University of Hawai'i at Hilo has more students to feed as enrollment on the Big Island campus has increased 30 percent over the past seven years. The push to spin off the booming UH-Hilo from the Manoa-based system has gained strength in recent years.

Photos by Tim Wright • Special to The Advertiser

"If you were to move to a Neighbor Island, you would begin to understand how O'ahu-centric the state is," said Bobby Cooper, president of W.H. Shipman Ltd., which owns Kea'au Shopping Center near Hilo. "You feel like you're not getting what's due you and decisions are made based on the 800-pound gorilla in Manoa."
A bill was introduced this session that would begin the move to separate UH-Hilo from the University of Hawai'i system. Although the bill is buried in committee for this year, the move to create what would be called Hawai'i State University is no idle threat — and the independence movement remains alive.

Over the past seven years UH-Hilo has increased enrollment by 30 percent and federal financing by more than 500 percent under its popular chancellor, Rose Tseng; added the first two buildings in 20 years — for marine science and classrooms; and begun planning for a new private dorm.

But there's growing sentiment on the campus — and across the Big Island — that the university could grow faster and better serve its community if unshackled from the state system.

"If you were to move to a Neighbor Island, you would begin to understand how O'ahu-centric the state is," said Bobby Cooper, president of W.H. Shipman Ltd., which owns Kea'au Shopping Center near Hilo. "You feel like you're not getting what's due you and decisions are made based on the 800-pound gorilla in Manoa."

Equitable financing is the big issue now, with a general feeling on the Big Island that UH-Hilo has been shortchanged by Manoa, although UH administrators say financial divisions are fair.

"When you're independent, you're able to draw money from various areas, and more money is what they need now," said Amber "Cinnamon" Brown, president of residential housing on the Hilo campus and a supporter of independence.

"In comparison to Manoa, there are other things we could have — more housing, better quality food, a student rec center," said Brown, a 19-year-old sophomore from Atlanta. "The other campuses are draining our funds so we can't keep up with basic functions."

Beau Butts, student council secretary, said with greater monetary support, Hilo has the potential to be one of the best schools in the country, but he sees both positives and negatives to independence. It would smooth financial problems for students by having checks cut in Hilo, not Manoa, but it could mean a loss of 'ohana among the campuses.

"There's definitely going to be some sore feelings (if Hilo broke away)," he said. "When we go to O'ahu and meet with other campuses, there's a kindred fellowship between us. We might lose that."

Even if independence isn't realistic in the short term, some say it's inevitable.

"While there's lots of excitement on the campus about this issue, I think it's early days yet for really serious consideration," said Paula Helfrich, CEO for the Economic Development Alliance of Hawai'i. "With only two doctoral programs, we're maybe ahead of ourselves. But 20 years from now? There's no question."

The talk is causing consternation within the UH leadership and spilled over into strong words at a recent regents' meeting.

"We have to stay on the ranch," admonished interim UH President David McClain, scolding Tseng without naming her, for supporting independence for Hilo in legislative testimony.

McClain warned his chancellors not to try "end runs" at the Legislature for extra money, saying "we can remove money" if legislative initiatives give money to individual campuses not in line with Board of Regent priorities.

Already financially stretched, and still needing major state financing to restore flood destruction at Manoa, the UH system is trying to be all things to all people — a research university, a work-force developer, an economic engine for a growing biotech and bioscience industry, and a guiding force for the state's young people.

"We really don't want to pit one campus against another," said Linda Johnsrud, interim vice president for planning and policy. "We're trying to see how best to meet all needs. ... This state is too little for competing systems."

"If we favor anyone," noted McClain, "we favor UH-Hilo."

As McClain and his team work to balance needs, Tseng finds herself in an increasingly uncomfortable position between the top UH leadership — of which she's a key part — and the forces of independence on her own island.

"I think it's drawing a line in the sand," said Rep. Jerry Chang, D-2nd (Hilo), of the general Big Island feeling that UH-Hilo has been shortchanged.

"UH-Hilo has expanded to where it is today not because of the leadership at the university but at the Legislature."

Chang introduced a bill — House Bill 1591, HD1 — that asked the Legislative Reference Bureau to draft legislation to spin off UH-Hilo as the independent Hawai'i State University. There was enthusiastic support from the student senate leadership under president Ginger Takeshita, as well as from Tseng.

Though the bill received approval from the House Higher Education Committee, it's now considered dead, as the House Finance Committee plans no hearing.

While Tseng said her staff drafted her support statement hastily, she said she does support the concept, but for the future.

"The purpose is to analyze and sit down and discuss what's best," she said. "I don't think anyone said the current administration is bad. And I don't want to say you're treating me badly. But sometimes I think if we're independent, we can do things more efficiently, faster."

Many in the Big Island business, political and academic community support breaking away and are looking to see UH-Hilo grow more rapidly as an economic engine for their home island and to offer more opportunities for young people there. But there are also those who think the idea has arrived too soon.

Barry Taniguchi, president of KTA Superstores, believes Hilo has been shortchanged — getting barely 65-70 cents to every dollar going to Manoa. That equation should rise to about 85 cents for Hilo to every dollar for Manoa, he said, although he feels that can be reached within the current system.

"Equitable funding — that's 80 percent of the problem," said Taniguchi.

But Sen. Lorraine Inouye, D-1st (Hamakua, S. Hilo), vice-chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, maintains that since the talk of separating arose in the early 1990s, much has been added to the campus.

"Hilo has received a lot of attention," said Inouye. "We are ... trying to address a lot of the infrastructure (issues) and programs to enhance the campus."

Although Tseng believes financing hasn't kept pace over the past few years, she acknowledged this year's operating request will be adequate if approved.

Since her arrival in 1998, Tseng has been a fierce advocate for her campus, gaining support and accolades in her community. In that time, applied research grants have risen from less than $3 million annually to an expected $15 million to $20 million this year, and she initiated a drive to allow Hawai'i to tap into millions of new federal dollars through a little-known program for underfinanced states.

"We have been squeezing for the last few years," she said. "It's growing pains we're going through. ... He (McClain) understands that.

"My goal is not to say anything's unfair," she said. "If you don't have plans, in the long run you get into trouble. So I'm urging in every way I can to have plans. But I don't yet see a completely clear picture for the future."

Rep. Tommy Waters, D-51st (Waimanalo, Lanikai), who took his House Higher Education Committee to the Hilo campus to listen to concerns, said it's important to air these issues.

"They feel they're the step-child of UH-Manoa and not allowed to bloom like they could," he said. "It's kind of an interesting issue and should be debated. ... I'm open to the idea. ... I need to see whether it's practical and whether we can afford it."

He said he looks forward to more hearings next year — "and see what happens."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.

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