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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 28, 2007

COMMENTARY
Find the political will to fix facilities mess

By David Shapiro

It's too bad that as the University of Hawai'i celebrates its centennial year, dreams of academic greatness must still be tempered by worries about past failures to take care of the basics.

In her inaugural address as UH-Manoa's first permanent chancellor in three years, Virginia Hinshaw said our state university's flagship campus is "a jewel in many ways," but is tarnished by dilapidated physical facilities and a low rate of students able to graduate in six years or less.

Hinshaw hopes Manoa will blossom in the next 10 years as a campus of "modern classrooms and laboratories, native plants and public art accenting our Hawaiian heritage throughout the campus, affordable, quality housing and retail opportunities for faculty, staff and students adjacent to the campus, providing a vibrant sense of community for us and our neighbors."

But before any serious thought can be given to new classroom buildings, labs, campus housing and pedestrian malls, the university needs to fix the neglected facilities it already has.

And before great strides can be made in academic achievement, UH administrators need to do something about the dismal graduation rate of only 55 percent 12 percent below the national average for comparable universities.

In talking about Manoa's physical infrastructure, Hinshaw said, "The poor state of our facilities across campus is so overwhelming and depressing that it is hard to know how to start."

The recent electrical fire and flooding at Edmondson Hall and the leaky roof at Hamilton Library that threatens to destroy treasured resources are just the most visible examples of campus-wide physical decay, she said. "Facilities, whether dorms, classrooms, libraries, offices or laboratories, are critically important in recruiting students who have choices and also faculty who are predicted to retire in large numbers within the next five years," Hinshaw said. "Inadequate facilities will make us non-competitive in recruiting the next generation of scholars who will teach our students."

Building shiny new things is always more politically popular than keeping the shine on what we've already built, and the problems at Manoa are just a microcosm of a longstanding aversion to spending money on upkeep at all levels of local government.

Decades of deferred maintenance have caught up with us all at once as we struggle to deal with crumbling schools with a more than $500 million repair backlog, public housing units without working elevators or hot water, a decrepit state hospital, potholed roads and disintegrating sewers.

The only solution is to commit to a plan to do the repairs and maintenance and then muster the will to stick to it over the long term.

This has been a special challenge at Manoa, where ever-changing leadership in recent years has resulted in ever-changing priorities, with few strategic initiatives ever completed.

It's a managerial nightmare as administrators must jockey politically among the competing agendas of regents, the governor and legislators to get anything done.

It could become even more challenging with the constitutional change that will have UH regents nominated by a hodgepodge of interest groups, increasing the horse trading in setting UH policy and making long-term strategic commitments almost impossible.

Hinshaw says, "The important thing is to start, even with baby steps even though we know giant leaps are needed."

It's easy to believe her when she promises "to beg, borrow, not steal but reallocate resources to repairing and replacing our physical infrastructure."

Her sincerity and reasoning are unquestionable when she argues, "We must prioritize and move on these issues now."

All we can do is wish her good luck. If she pulls it off, she'll succeed where many before her have failed.

Reach David Shapiro at dave@volcanicash.net.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog at blogs.honoluluadvertiser.com.