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Crisis at UH Mānoa

The consequences to the university's flagship campus, should the Board of Regents refuse a faculty demand for overhaul of board policies that promote interference and micromanagement, could be disastrous.

Will Caron

By now, every media outlet that has been paying any attention to the continuing University of Hawaiʻi (UH) at Mānoa drama regarding System President David Lassner, former Mānoa Chancellor Tom Apple and an upset student body and faculty has reported that the Mānoa Faculty Senate voted last week to approve a resolution censuring President Lassner for his unilateral firing of Apple—a move that violates the principles of shared governance at the university. Faculty and students should be very concerned about this, regardless of how they feel about Apple’s leadership.

It’s somewhat amazing, therefore, that what has received very little attention is the second resolution passed by the voting senators during the same Senate meeting. This resolution, which Senate Executive Committee (SEC) Chair Ron Bontekoe says is the “more important” of the two, is an implicit statement of a loss of confidence in the Board of Regents (BOR) itself, delivered in the form of serious suggestions for board policy overhauls that would restore and protect the system of shared governance that is vital to the health of the university.

While the first resolution was passed by a roughly two-thirds majority of voting senators (and some felt the censure was inappropriate), the near-unanimous passage of the second resolution shows that faculty are deeply concerned about this issue. The second resolution calls on the entire BOR to meet with Mānoa faculty to discuss how to implement these changes and restore faculty confidence in the BOR.

However, while discussion on the first resolution censuring President Lassner made it onto the agenda for the September 25 BOR meeting, there was no mention of any discussion on the second resolution. This absence prompted Bontekoe to submit testimony to the BOR on behalf of the SEC, urging them to meet with the Faculty Senate to discuss the recommendations.

“The Mānoa faculty are angry at President Lassner for removing Tom Apple for no good reason, and for offering spurious reasons to justify this removal. But the Mānoa faculty are just as angry at the Board of Regents for supporting the System President in this move,” wrote Bontekoe in his testimony. “The Mānoa faculty are not privy to what is said in BOR executive session, or in private conversations and phone calls between regents. Thus we cannot know that the Board of Regents actually called for Chancellor Apple’s dismissal, but we have heard a great deal to suggest that some senior regents did not merely support President Lassner’s decision, but that they instructed him in the matter. We cannot know this; but we can and do believe this. And it undermines our confidence in the Board of Regents to think that they are willing to jeopardize the welfare of UH Mānoa by engaging in such actions.

“The second of those two resolutions passed by the Mānoa Faculty Senate last week included a request that the Board of Regents, as a whole, meet with the Mānoa Faculty Senate Executive Committee to discuss how we might go about restoring faculty confidence in the BOR, which I think it is safe to say is currently at an all-time low,” the testimony continues. “As the Chair of the Senate Executive Committee, I would like now to reiterate that invitation, and to express my sincere hope that the Board of Regents will meet with us.”

BOR Chair Randy Moore told the Independent that the second resolution was not on the agenda because the board did not know that the Faculty Senate had adopted the resolution until after last Friday afternoon’s deadline to post the agenda. The BOR has to receive any material to be placed on their agenda a full week before the scheduled meeting, and the BOR office did not receive either of the two resolutions passed at last Wednesday’s Faculty Senate meeting until early this week.

“The question should be why the resolution concerning the President was on the agenda,” Bontekoe wrote in an email to the Independent. “I’m told, however, that [the first resolution] was dispensed with immediately when that agenda item was reached because the resolution was not in BOR hands a full week before their meeting yesterday.”

When Bontekoe returned to his office yesterday morning, after delivering his testimony to the BOR, there was a letter waiting for him instructing the SEC to meet with Moore and BOR Academic Affairs Committee Chair Chuck Gee, instead of the whole BOR.

“Whenever the SEC has met with regents before, it has been with two at a time—normally the Chair (Holtzman, now Moore) and Chuck Gee, as the regent most familiar with faculty concerns. But the request we submitted was to meet with the entire BOR, in order to discuss with them the BOR’s mindset and standard procedures—which we consider to be currently erring in the direction of micromanagement of Mānoa,” Bontekoe told the Independent after the meeting.

It is actually a violation of state sunshine laws for the BOR to meet as a whole unless such a meeting is declared to be an official BOR meeting and made open to the public. “So there was a problem involved in the Senate’s request that the BOR meet with our executive committee in private,” Bontekoe said. “Under the circumstances, the SEC does intend to meet with Chair Moore and Regent Gee sometime soon, in the hope that we can at least start a dialogue with them about the issues that concern us.”

But Bontekoe reiterates that a meeting with the full board is still necessary. “It is the whole BOR that bears responsibility for supporting the President in his dismissal of Tom Apple,” he said.

“If, after Regent Gee and I meet with the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, the SEC still believes a meeting with the full board is desirable, I will place the matter on a subsequent board agenda for discussion and action,” Chair Moore told the Independent.

Bontekoe is hopeful that the BOR will do just that, rather than continue a policy of business as usual. He believes such a refusal to acknowledge the serious problems current board policy is creating for the Mānoa campus could be disastrous.

“UH Mānoa faces a daunting financial future,” Bontekoe reminded the BOR in his testimony. “Tuition cannot go on rising forever. Student numbers are now declining and are unlikely to return any time soon to the peak enrollment we enjoyed in recent years. And for the past decade or so the state’s contribution to Mānoa in terms of [General] Funds has declined, and seems likely to continue to, at best, remain where it now is. In the meantime, costs keep rising. Mānoa simply must engage in a painful and distressing examination of how our resources should be used to sustain, not just a medical school, and a cancer center, and a Division One athletics program, but a well-rounded university.

“Whether you realize it or not, Tom Apple was beginning that process of self-examination on the part of the university, and most of us believe that he paid the price for doing what desperately had to be done. (He was not always the most politically adept administrator, but he was an enormously courageous one.) That conversation which Chancellor Apple tried to get started needs to be allowed to occur—for the welfare of the university as a whole. Politicians, regents, and even system presidents, need to recognize that the Mānoa Chancellor is the person primarily entrusted to safeguard the overall welfare of the state’s one research university. His efforts to sustain the whole university must not be undermined, as Tom Apple’s were, by individuals concerned only to protect or enhance the share of the financial pie currently enjoyed by their pet academic or research unit.”