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Paradise in Trouble

Science Sushi
By Christie Wilcox
Nov 19, 2014 1:06 AMNov 19, 2019 10:54 PM


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Two weeks from Friday, I'll be defending my dissertation. It's a moment five and a half years in the making, one that I've been excited for and nervous about for years. I should be eagerly anticipating the moment I step up to that podium, and even more eagerly anticipating the moment I step down, when if all goes well I'll transition from PhD Candidate to University of Hawaii Alumnus. Instead, the thought of being an alum of this school leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Right now, the University of Hawaii at Mānoa is in bad shape. Years of budget mismanagement have led to a terrifying crisis, in which the main teaching departments are struggling to afford the instructors and teaching assistants they need to meet the demand of their students. The Vice Chancellor for Administration, Finance & Operations, Kathy Cutshaw, has been giving a "budget roadshow" presentation showing that the university it outspending its tuition revenue by almost $31 million. The Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, Reed Dasenbrock, has pushed the colleges to immediately cut spending to rectify this, though such cuts are deep and harm the quality of education that can be provided to the university's students. The Chancellor, Robert Bley-Vroman, however, keeps telling the media that the university as a whole is "in the black." There is no transparency, no explanation for Dasenbrock's sudden urgency, and no reason why dozens of TAs are fearful of the future—of what is coming next fall even if, as Dasenbrock is now saying, it doesn't come this spring.

Almost 100 students standing outside of Hawaii Hall, the seat of the Vice Chancellors, to demand reform. Photo by Kurt Stevens. UH is not the only university in the country with systemic budget problems. It's not the only university where graduate students are not unionized, leaving them unprotected. It's not the only university where politics and greed have trumped the mission of the school to provide a quality education. And it's not the only university where the graduate students have been compelled to rise up and fight back. But it's not any university—it's my university. Ani DiFranco once sang "We have to be able to criticize what we love, say what we have to say. 'Cause if you're not trying to make something better, then as far as I can tell, you are just in the way." I love the University of Hawaii. I love the lab that has been my home away from home, the colleagues that have become my family, and the school that has allowed me to get to this point in my career. It is because I love UH that I have to tell its story. I have to explain why almost 100 students marched around campus yesterday morning in red, screaming for change. Those students and I have only just begun to fight to save the school they love as dearly as I do. We won't give up, not until we have a university that we can be proud of.Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. A week from last Thursday, all the faculty whose appointments are outside the College of Natural Sciences with students that teach for the Biology Department received the following email:

Subject: Bad News for TAships Dear All: I have just come from a meeting with Bill Ditto [Dean of the College of Natural Sciences]. I regret to inform you that Biology will not be able to offer any TAships to your students who applied this spring. We will be closing lab sections and reducing the number of TAs. Going forward, under the current budget forecast, this pattern will likely continue through FY 2016 and 2017. I regret this necessity. I thought we would have a semester's grace on the budget cuts, but as it turns out, we're not getting it. I wanted to let you know as soon as possible to maximize the amount of time on your end to find other student support solutions. With best regards................... Kassi Kathleen S. Cole Chair, Department of Biology University of Hawaii at Manoa

For the spring semester, 81 students applied for TAships within the department of Biology. Only 35 of those have advisors within the College of Natural Sciences, leaving 46 students with no funding source less than two months before the end of the semester. The deadlines for applying for financial aid have long since passed. It's not like anyone has dozens of research positions to hand out willy-nilly. So this email left the advisors of 46 students with no time to react. Without their TAships, most of these students would be forced to take a leave of absence or drop out, because the loss of a position means the loss of a tuition waiver, too. For out of state students, that means paying more than $10,000 in tuition as well as losing $8,500 in income. It's hard enough to live in one of the most expensive cities in the country on a TA salary. It's basically impossible without it. And as Dr. Cole wrote, a sudden drop in TAs would directly impact the number of courses offered to undergraduates, negatively impacting their education that they pay thousands for every year. Some of these faculty told their students about the situation. Those students told others. Within two days, a group of over 40 graduate students met to respond to these drastic and last-minute cuts. We unanimously decided that both the manner in which the cuts were announced—or more accurately, not announced, as students have still yet to hear whether they have a position next semester—as well as how the students were being cut (based on advisor affiliation) were unjust and unacceptable. We learned of cuts in other departments, which are equally unacceptable. And we learned why these cuts were occurring, because of a broken budget that should have been addressed years ago. We unanimously decided that something needed to be done, and it needed to be done quickly. On Monday we began disseminating flyers to inform not only other TAs but the undergraduate students about the situation. We met with our faculty members, who had no good news. Several explained that there were expected to be only 25 positions offered in the spring—perhaps even fewer, but no one knew for certain. All they knew was that however many positions were offered, it wasn't going to be enough, and the rest of those 81 applicants, to paraphrase one professor's wording, were "screwed."

Students gather on Veteran's day to organize their response. Photo by Josh Levy. On Tuesday, we met as a group again and resolved to fight the proposed cuts. We drafted letters to Dean Bill Ditto from the College of Natural Sciences, Dean Brian Taylor from the School of Ocean and Earth Science Technology, and to the interim Chancellor, Robert Bley-Vroman. Almost 100 students signed their names to those letters. They were sent early Wednesday morning. Dean Ditto responded almost immediately, offering to meet with the students and discuss the situation. The interim Chancellor could not meet with us as he was vacation, but offered to have his executive assistant meet in his stead so that he could hear our demands and stay in the loop. Eventually, Dean Taylor also agreed to meet with students, though he was unavailable until late on Friday afternoon. Students met with each of these people. The only one who actually engaged with them, explained the situation and was open and honest about his choices and mistakes was Dean Ditto. In that meeting, Dean Ditto went over the budget problem. In the past few years, the College of Natural Sciences has been doing exactly what it should be: enrollment is up 35%. Faculty research funds are up 67%. The college—which teaches some 60% of all undergraduate majors on campus—has been booming, and now brings in 15% of all the tuition revenue at UH (and that's including the professional tuition revenue from the law and medical schools). However, the budget allocation model, overseen by Vice Chancellor Reed Dasenbrock and Vice Chancellor Kathy Cutshaw, has remained stagnant, basing funds solely on historical allotments. The College of Natural Sciences has been expanding, but it's budget hasn't. Though it brings in 15% of the revenue, it receives 2% back. That's it. I've seen the numbers—Ditto is right. He had two choices: cut TAs, or run in the red. He was explicitly ordered to balance his budget, so he cut TAs.

Why Natural Sciences is "in the red"—they're not allocated most of the money they bring in. Natural Sciences isn't alone in this. All four of the colleges in the College of Arts and Sciences—which bring in 52% of all tuition revenue—are in similar situations. They've hired every faculty member, instructor, and TA they can to meet the demands of a growing undergraduate population. But now, the demand has exceeded the budget. For the past few years, the Colleges of Arts and Sciences have been running on a deficit, burning reserves to do exactly what the administration has told them to do—draw in more students. They have asked repeatedly for the budget allocation to be reexamined. They have explained that investing in them ultimately leads to more money for everyone, as the more students they bring in, the more tuition money there is to share. Yet their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. There is a budget task force, put in place by the now-ousted Chancellor Tom Apple, which was supposed to come up with a new budget allocation model by December. Leading that task force are none other than Dasenbrock and Cutshaw. Perhaps it's pertinent to note that while Cutshaw is the Vice Chancellor for Administration, Finance & Operations, and in charge of an $841 million budget, she has no financial expertise—no MBA, no CFO. Though she has been asked time and time again for transparency, she has yet to post a complete budget. Though we are given the numbers for the allocation of the $200 million in tuition funds, she cannot seem to explain how the other $640 million is spent. And when it was explained to her that enforcing a broken budget model would lead to cuts to undergraduate classes and increased time to graduation, she (allegedly) flippantly quipped that this was ok because it meant 'increased tuition'. The task force has failed to come to a resolution, yet has been granted an extension until April. Every month, Dasenbrock is paid $23,750—over $6,000 more than a teaching assistant is in a year—while Cutshaw pulls in $18,602. Every month they have failed to do their jobs and reform the budget allocation model. After all of these months, the task force has gotten it down to three models: a Responsibility Centered Model which would allow the tuition funds to follow the students, giving the Colleges of Arts and Sciences the money they need to teach the students they enroll; the "Cutshaw-Dasenbrock" model which is little more than the status quo with the possibility for change (if they should so desire), and—I wish I was kidding—the status quo. The fact that such a model is even still being considered is beyond proof of Dasenbrock and Cutshaw's overwhelming incompetence. This semester, Dasenbrock demanded that the deans of the Colleges of Arts and Sciences immediately balance their budgets. Dean Ditto explained that there was nowhere to cut, but was told to cut anyway. So he did. 95% of his budget goes to faculty salaries, which cannot be cut because of their union agreement with the university. A little under 2% goes to operations, which also could not be squeezed any further. All that was left is the 3.1% that funds non-faculty instructors and TAs. He had no choice. He told the departments to make those cuts. And the email from Dr. Cole was sent. Now, Dasenbrock is attempting to rewrite history.  The graduate students at UH rose up. What may have started in opposition to TA cuts has become an unstoppable movement aimed at budget reform to ensure a sustainable future for our university. Not the flimsy promise of budget reform given by Dasenbrock and Cutshaw— we demand real, immediate change. Since our protest began, Dasenbrock has implied that we're overreacting. "We are not aware of any TAs who are at risk for Spring 2015 except for one college—the College of Natural Sciences. There's been a fair amount of miscommunication about that," Dasenbrock told KITV, though the Geology and Geophysics department faculty took a voluntary 5% pay cut to save 3 of their TAs (1 is still being cut), and sweeping cuts are still on the table for next fall. He has released a statement that no TA positions in the College of Natural Sciences will be cut in the spring, and continues to imply this was the case all along. "I don’t believe that we’re going to have anywhere near those kinds of cuts, but I don’t have an absolute number at this time," he told KHON2. "This time," by the way, is just a few days before the tuition exemption forms are due for the spring semester. Even the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs doesn't know how many TAs there will or won't be less than a week before their fiscal forms are due. Dasenbrock has made a statement that the problem lies with the deans. "Over the past several years, schools and colleges within the Mānoa campus have been spending more tuition revenue than they bring in and expending reserves to make up the difference," he told the media. "This practice has resulted in the current fiscal situation in which Chancellor Bley-Vroman has mandated that all units stay within their annual budget allocations." But while he implies this is why the College of Natural Sciences is in trouble, it's patently false. The college is one of the few that makes more money than it spends. It just isn't given that money to spend on its faculty, instructors, and graduate students.

The gross income and expenditures of each department. Note that though many of the colleges make more money than they spend, they aren't allocated that money to spend, which means that their budgets are not balanced (see the figure above). It's possible that Dasenbrock really had no idea of the effects that enforcing spending cuts would have on the colleges he oversees, but if that is the case, then he truly is unfit for his position. Since I'm inclined to believe he's not a stupid man, I see his recent media statements as a form of damage control, attempting to undermine the student protest by implying that we were never in danger in the first place or that we're blaming the wrong man. But there was nothing tentative about the email the faculty received regarding their students' loss of funding. There was nothing uncertain about the sadness in their voices when they told us there was nothing that could be done. And there's nothing unclear about the fact that the colleges which bring in tuition money are not receiving it back to them, thus prompting the proposed cuts for spring and even bigger cuts for fall. This was not a big misunderstanding. No, the TAships that were on the line are now being restored because we banded together and put pressure on the administration, especially Dasenbrock. The cuts have been reversed because of the media scrutiny that our letters and rallies have brought upon the Vice Chancellors. Dasenbrock hopes to calm our angry masses with a short-term Band-aid for one semester. But we will not be placated. We are sick and tired of being treated like numbers on a spreadsheet when we shoulder the burdens of both the teaching and research arms of our university. We are sick and tired of being underpaid and overlooked, labeled as the "student help" rather than the teachers and scientists that we are. We are sick and tired of being the political pawns between departments, colleges, and administrators. To steal from Fannie Lou Hamer, we are sick and tired of being sick and tired. But though we are sick and tired, we are not done. We will continue to rally to fight for the budget reform our university sorely needs. We will continue to meet with the administration to find a way for all of us to move forward with a concrete plan of action that will begin to heal these deep wounds. We will continue to speak out, loudly, about the problems that our university faces and how we, as a community, can resolve them. We will be here, today, tomorrow, and as long as it takes to affect real change. Our university is broken, and we will not stop until we fix it.

To stay updated on the protest and administrative response, follow Fix UH Mānoa on Facebook and Twitter, or check out the Fix UH Mānoa webpage.

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