"System Is Broken"

State Sen. Kai Kahele’s plan to reform UH

Editor-in-Chief Brian Wild
Photo courtesy of the Hawaiʻi State Legislature

“Last year, only 35 percent of public high school graduates in Hawaiʻi decided to enroll in any of the 10 campuses that are part of UH.” – Hawaiʻi State Senator Kai Kahele

Hawaiʻi State Senator Kai Kahele

A UH Hilo alumnus, Kaialiʻi “Kai” Kahele may have succeeded his father in the Hawaiʻi State Senate last year, but in the younger Kahele’s words, “the people of Hilo did not elect me to be part of the status quo.”

The new Senator Kahele, rather, is keen to build upon his father’s legacy, as well as create a profile for himself – even if he ruffles feathers along the way. Senator Kahele recently spoke with Ke Kalahea about his recent efforts to push for what he sees as vital reforms to the UH system, including UH Hilo.

Kahele, who currently serves as chair of the Senate’s committee on Higher Education, is the sponsor of a bill – Senate Bill (S.B.) 1161 – that would establish a freeze on tuition hikes throughout the UH system. The proposal originally called for a 10-year moratorium, but Kahele scrapped any mention of a particular timeline: “All we did was blank the sunset [period], since some members of the Senate were hesitant to accept a 10-year moratorium.”

Kahele expressed openness as to what the final timeline for a tuition freeze would look like, should his bill be passed and signed into law: “It might be five years, or three, or even 20.”

In addition to the tuition freeze, S.B. 1161 “establishes a cap on the University of Hawaii’s general fund appropriation for operating expenses for the next five fiscal years.” It also proposes requiring “two members of the University of Hawaii board of regents be faculty members.”

Kahele’s bill now lies in the hands of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, of which Kahele himself is a member. When asked how the committee would approach the bill, Kahele deferred to the chairwoman of the panel, state Sen. Jill Tokuda.

A similar bill in the state House of Representatives, H.B. 424, also incorporates Kahele’s language. Kahele predicted that both houses of the legislature would likely need to “go to conference” and reconcile each of the bills before a final version is approved by the legislature and sent to Governor David Ige’s desk.

When asked for specifics on why he felt the need to introduce such legislation, which he acknowledges would have a sizable impact on the UH system, Kahele was eager to vent his frustrations with the state of higher education in Hawaiʻi.

“Last year, only 35 percent of public high school graduates in Hawaiʻi decided to enroll in any of the 10 campuses that are part of UH,” referring to the four-year institutions like UH Hilo, as well as the seven community colleges scattered throughout the islands.

In Kahele’s view, this is due in no small part to a sense that young people in “rural, underserved communities like Miloliʻi, Ka‘ū, or Wai‘anae… it’s not even on their radar to attend college. It’s just too expensive.” Kahele laments that this is a personal matter for him: his own family has roots in Miloliʻi, which lies south of Kona.

As a result, Kahele argues that UH “needs a restructuring of its entire system,” which he hopes is achieved once is signed into law. Others, however, have expressed doubts about the efficacy, or the outcome, of such a law. Among the most prominent skeptics are members of the UH leadership.

Kalbert Young, UH’s chief financial officer, told Hawaii News Now back in February that if any moratorium on tuition hikes were put in place, “we would see the university have to start to shrink… which means shrinking the number of programs and services that are offered to the student population.”

When asked to respond to Young’s concerns, Kahele attempted to strike a note of common ground with Young, saying, “I think he’s spot on.”

Still, Kahele stresses that this “shrinking” is not necessarily the problem in and of itself. From his perspective, Kahele explains that “it’s not a question of providing the services, it’s about creating efficiency.” As UH stands today, “we may be seeing programs that are duplicated, which should be streamlined… some programs may be underperforming, and not generating a sufficient amount of revenue.”

Kahele – who in addition to attending UH Hilo, also attended Hawaiʻi Community College and UH Mānoa – says his push to reform UH’s fiscal policies is something that all 10 campuses desperately need.

“The system is broken… we have to convince the UH administration and the Board of Regents that we are going down a broken path that will not lead to success.”

Kahele continued, arguing that “you need leadership at the UH campuses – people at the top making tough decisions, making a plan and seeing it executed. Everyone’s voices should be heard – faculty, students, the janitors, everyone.”

Kahele paused. “I don’t think we have that kind of leadership at UH, or among the campuses.”

For UH Hilo in particular, Kahele voiced his displeasure with the shrinking student population: “You’ve had declining enrollment rates ever since Don Straney became chancellor” back in 2010.

In fact, “every campus except UH West O‘ahu has had declining enrollment. They [UH and campus leaders] say it’s because of the economy, but it’s all excuses… UH doesn’t like to hear what I’m telling, they just want the status quo. They go to the Legislature every year and say, “Give us more money.” I don’t have time for the status quo.”

The frustration with UH and campus leadership explains Kahele’s argument for providing greater empowerment of faculty in UH decision-making.

“We see this problem with other places, too. It’s nationwide – debt is high, tuition is high, but administrators’ salaries are also high.” This, Kahele says, is a prime source for fat-trimming at UH.

Kahele likens his proposal to something that affects everyday families on a frequent basis: “If I’m your boss and I cut your paycheck, you’re going into crisis mode, saying “What do I have to cut back on in my life? What do I need, and what do I want?” That’s what UH has to do now.”

Ultimately, Kahele hopes for greater community involvement in challenging decisions made by UH: “Students need to demand greater accountability.”