Rethinking UH Hilo Academics

College of Arts and Sciences could be split into separate colleges

News Editor and Photographer Nick Carrion

UH Hilo’s organizational structure can expect some major changes in the near future, according to plans proposed by Chancellor Donald Straney. As stated in an email from the chancellor’s office to faculty, the proposed changes would serve to accomplish two goals: “stabilize and rebuild enrollment and retention, and remove a level of administration between the Dean and faculty.” Possibly the biggest shakeup outlined by this plan is the splitting of the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) into separate colleges.

The largest college at UH Hilo, CAS currently covers everything from philosophy to physics, from astronomy to performing arts. While specific plans for this goal have yet to be determined, physics professor Philippe Binder says it might actually have been a long time coming.

“No one knows what’s happening 100 percent, but what’s happening is there was an initiative from the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs’ office to restructure the university. This has been attempted a couple of times before. People have talked about it, largely unsuccessfully,” Binder said.

Binder explains one of the driving forces behind this impending split can be found within CAS itself.

“As far as I know, the unit that has been more interested in doing this is Natural Sciences, which right now is a division of the College of Arts and Sciences. I think a number of faculty here feel, or have felt... there are too many intermediate steps between us and the upper level administration,” Binder said.

“At different times there has also been the feeling that the person who was the Dean of Arts and Sciences for a long time was not a scientist, and didn’t really have a good understanding of what our needs were and what our issues were. Right now there’s an interim dean. She comes from the social sciences, but her work is a lot more scientific. And the associate dean right now is a marine biologist, so maybe that’s a better representation than before,” Binder continued.

While some find this plan based on sound principle - that the natural sciences should exercise more autonomy and have a clearer self-identity - Binder admits there also may be a financial factor to their call for independence.

“There are other issues I don’t understand very well. There’s the fact that people in natural sciences tend to bring more grant money than people in humanities or social sciences, although there are exceptions both ways. So this is not a general statement, but there’s a feeling that on the average, perhaps, the Natural Sciences Division faculty were bringing more money to the university, which later was getting spread among other units. And maybe we should keep it more to ourselves. Also because our labs require more funding, keeping our research working requires more infrastructure. There was maybe a feeling of a little bit of unfairness at some level.”

Though such a motive may seem inherently divisive, Binder was quick to add that breaking up CAS would not necessitate a rift between faculty members.

“It’s not an issue of anyone looking down or up on anyone, it’s just that our needs are different, our issues are different,” he explained. “And CAS is definitely a very large unit with over 20 programs, if I remember correctly. It’s definitely the overpowering unit, to the point that 10 years ago I heard someone say ‘the dean of arts and sciences is practically the vice chancellor for academic affairs.’ In terms not of the power and the duties, but in terms of the number of people he or she commands and has under his charge.”

As good-natured as they may be, the actions of one group on campus can often start a ripple effect, turning one division’s request for independence into a college-wide movement.

Speaking about the Natural Sciences Division, communication professor Ronald Gordon says that “their desire to do some reorganising is really what has triggered all of the other programs around to say, ‘well, if they’re doing that, and we’re in a systemic relation here, how will that affect us?’ So then everybody started to think about the impact of that reorganization affecting them too. So then everybody started thinking about reorganization.”

Gordon also states that while the natural sciences may be leading the push for reorganization, the idea is backed by senior members of the UH Hilo administration.

“It’s not like the faculty on this campus are saying ‘hey, let’s reorganize the structure of this puppy.’ It’s that the chancellor is saying, in these economic times, we have to start to look for ways to save money and to get students. But not everybody’s clear that this will achieve those ends. So there’s some lack of total confidence there.”

This prompts others to ask: how exactly does splitting up the university’s largest college help to “stabilize and rebuild enrollment and retention?” According to the plan proposal sent to faculty members, it actually puts a lot of that power back in their hands.

“We are looking at the smaller college unit as an investment,” says an email sent on behalf of the chancellor. “Where our faculty can be empowered as departments to work more closely with administration, develop stronger relationships with other campus units, and be innovative in student recruitment and retention.”

And what about the second part of that goal, to “remove a level of administration between the Dean and faculty?” Gordon notes that this particular issue actually ignited a lot of passion from the faculty.

“One of his proposals was let’s do away with department chairs, and then only have division chairs. And then the division chairs report to the deans.” So far so good, but it wasn’t the cuts themselves that angered UH Hilo teaching staff. It was who was getting cut.

“80 percent of faculty overall in the College of Arts and Sciences said we don’t like that whatsoever, because the department chair is a faculty member in our department, somebody who’s teaching. So they know the problems that department is facing, the personalities in that department, the challenges that department has, much better than any division chair who is not from that department can know.”

Christopher Lauer

Facing this resistance from faculty, Straney amended his proposal to keep department chairs, instead eliminating the division chairs.

In terms of how such reforms will affect students in the near future, professor Christopher Lauer, chair of the CAS Senate’s executive committee, says it’s likely that, “in terms of your path to graduation and that sort of thing, nothing will change.”