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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Loan could make UH-West Oahu a reality

The refrain circulating in political circles about the University of Hawai'i's West O'ahu campus is that building the institution would be a drain on the UH-Mānoa flagship. Poorly managed, critics fear, a UH-West O'ahu buildout could be a fiscal burden.

But careful planning has raised the hopes that a West O'ahu campus can sustain itself without breaking the bank. After decades in limbo, it's finally time for the plan for a separate four-year baccalaureate state university to start taking shape in Kapolei.

The best route to that end would be for state lawmakers, embroiled in negotiations over the capital improvements budget, to authorize the sale of bonds to finance the first phase of construction. The option that makes the most sense while the state faces such dire cutbacks is one favored by the campus administration: The sale of a small parcel, about 15 acres, will provide the money to pay the interest on the larger loan of about $48 million to start construction.

This needs approval now so that the university can get its financing finalized and its contracts issued while labor costs for construction are low.

Most critically, swift action is needed if construction is to start by a December 2011 deadline. That date, already extended, has been set by the Campbell Estate, which donated the land for the campus and could reclaim the property if progress isn't made.

Gene Awakuni, West O'ahu chancellor for the past five years, oversaw West O'ahu's conversion to a four-year bachelor's degree program in 2007. For more than 30 years, it's languished in portable buildings in a corner of Leeward Community College where, Awakuni said, it can never fulfill its mission.

That mission is distinct from Mānoa's: UH-West O'ahu specializes in undergraduate credentialing in programs that generally aren't offered elsewhere in the state.

For example, students will be able to earn bachelor's degrees in early education; Hawai'i needs better staffing for preschools that begin the formal learning process for children and shape their development.

Programs in "applied disciplines," including degrees in occupational and physical therapy, long-term care and nursing, will help fill a need that's growing acute statewide.

Beyond the work-force training goals, the university will reach high school graduates who often don't make the leap to four-year degree programs. Tuition will be kept lower than Mānoa's, Awakuni said, drawing in students that the system now overlooks.

And that's key, he added, citing figures that show West O'ahu with some of the lowest rates of students progressing to a college degree.

This is a downward spiral that must be arrested. It's time for Hawai'i to deliver on UH-West O'ahu's promise, made 30 years ago, to help create an educated, highly skilled workforce for the 21st century.

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