Saving UH from itself

A long-time University of Hawaiʻi professor outlines the three primary overhauls needed to save the University system and turn the failing Mānoa campus around.

Dr. Joel Fischer

Let’s get the most obvious point out of the way: It won’t be easy. The University of Hawaiʻi (UH) basically accepts its mediocrity by never making sustained, university-wide and objectively verifiable efforts to improve. There will be a great deal of apathy and obstructionism to overcome.

The second most obvious point: UH Mānoa is a failed institution. The evidence is crystal clear. In a nation-wide comparative evaluation by US News and World Report, Mānoa scored 29 points out of a possible 100. That is a failing grade in every professor’s class not only at UH, but across all universities in the nation. Certainly, in my classes, a 29 out of 100 on an examination would have meant to me that I had failed that student as a professor.

UH Mānoa also was ranked 168th out of 201 universities on the Best National Universities list, released by US News and World Report in early September. Embarrassing. Humiliating.

But it is not that awful national ranking that is so important, (though it should demand attention). No, the real reason UH—and the entire community—should be up in arms is because the evaluation used such important criteria to objectively evaluate all universities. These criteria included graduation rates, retention rates, acceptance rates, average class sizes, alumni giving and peer assessments. Every university administrator, faculty member, student and regent or trustee in the country recognizes these criteria as of critical significance in evaluating any university’s quality.

So let’s get to it.

There are three avenues we must pursue if we are to save UH: 1. We must address those criteria on which basis UH Mānoa was given a failing grade; 2. We must gain support from the Legislature and the Governor; and 3. We must address the problems with top administrators in the UH System and the Board of Regents.

1. Addressing the criteria. To evaluate and change the failing grades for UH Mānoa, every faculty member should be sent a copy of the complete article from US News and World Report.  Task forces can be developed for each criterion in the study, not because they were in the study but because these criteria address the core functions of any university.

The task forces should be relatively small; I suggest three faculty members (say, one from the faculty union (UHPA), one from the Faculty Senate and one at large), one undergraduate and one graduate student, one top-level administrator, and one Regent. Each task force should address only one criterion, and develop specific recommendations for positive changes that address that criterion. Once the recommendations are implemented, changes can be evaluated by peers at other universities. There should be an evaluation every year to ensure compliance and progress, and the results of these evaluations should be widely publicized to ensure transparency.

Let’s take an arbitrary example to clarify this process. Let’s say there are 10 criteria. Each one can be evaluated on a 10-point scale for improvement, from “1” being deterioration to “10” being perfect results and complete implementation. The 10 criteria would add up to 100 points, and the yearly point total can be compared with the UH and national ratings from US News and World Report. I predict that such a comprehensive process will substantially improve the entire UH experience for faculty, students and community and, not coincidentally, substantially improve the national standing of UH.

2. Political changes. Every governor and legislator seems to recognize the importance of UH. The faculty generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for UH, and the multiplier effects of these monies are of enormous benefit to the entire state. How, then, is it even remotely possible that for many years, governors and legislators consistently take money away from UH, practically impoverishing many of the campuses? Could anything be so far removed from what is needed to have a top-notch university then that?

This “shifting” of money away from UH has to stop. No governor or legislator should be elected without making specific promises to restore the countless millions of dollars taken away from UH over the past 20 or so years. The Legislature, in its lack of wisdom, thinks it is OK to shift the burden of expenses from the state to the students, who, of course, can least afford this burden. Let the call go out: No pledge of financial support for UH, no vote for you!

3. Radical changes in the Board of Regents and top administrators. Politics again. Even casual observers of UH wonder how it is possible to have a string of such obviously unqualified, incompetent and/or corrupt presidents of the university. The answer is straight-forward: They are appointed by even less qualified, incompetent and/or corrupt members of the Board of Regents. For many, many years, the predominant criterion for selecting most regents has been political connections and/or success in business. But what does either criterion have to do with successfully running a university? The answer is: Nothing!

The main purpose of business is to make money. But UH is NOT a business. The main purpose of a university is service through knowledge creation and dissemination. How can politically connected business-people have even a slight clue what the university enterprise is all about? UH is well-known all over the country for its tight political control and regent incompetence. How else does one explain the lack of any real choices in the candidates available in the last two presidential searches? And the result of these narrow searches got us an ethically-challenged administrator from California and, in the last search, a long-term UH bureaucrat who met almost none of the search criteria? I would even hesitate to consider General Wiercinski as a candidate at all, since he met none of the search criteria.

It is way past time for radical changes in regent selection criteria. Most regents should have at least some experience in a university system and not just as a student. Regents, in my experience, know so little about university functionality that they typically follow the advice of the regent with the strongest (but not necessarily best) arguments, or even just the strongest personality. This often results in disastrous decisions being taken and, in the case of selection of Presidents and other top administrators, virtually always results in poor decisions.

This problem may be the most difficult and challenging change of all. To have intelligent, wise, caring, experienced and independent regents requires an enormous change in mind-set from almost everyone involved in the selection process. But if that can be accomplished, everything else will fall into place.

Dr. Fischer recently retired from UH after 40 years as a professor at UH Mānoa.