Following up on a promise to continue investigation into the University of Hawai‘i’s policies and budget as a result of last year’s botched Stevie Wonder concert, some Hawai‘i legislators plan to examine the costs and effectiveness of certain UH administrative policies along with general university spending during the current legislative session.
“We have some responsibility as the ones who appropriate the money to university to be sure that it’s being spent well,” said Sen. Brian Taniguchi, Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.
The continued scrutiny of UH leaders and practices is a reaction to last fall’s special committee hearings into the failed concert that prompted other questions from state senators and representatives, as well as the general public, about the state and effectiveness of leadership at the university. Although the hearings took place in October, the 2013 legislative session represents the first opportunity for legislators to take action and draft legislation based on the committee’s findings.
Although he was not directly involved with the special committee’s work, Taniguchi said many of his concerns about UH’s management are related to the administrators themselves. In particular, the 19-year veteran of the Senate is wary of the high salaries that many top UH officials are paid.
Taniguchi explained that he understands the need of UH to pay more in hiring “the best” instructors, but wonders just how necessary it is for UH to participate in this competitive form of recruitment, which frequently involves outbidding other universities for administrators with millions of dollars.
“When these kinds of salaries come up, and they have bonuses on top of the salaries, there is that sense of ‘Why are we doing this?’” Taniguchi said. He also wonders why the university has to settle suits “for people who don’t really do their job right,” as almost happened with former athletics director Jim Donovan, who threatened to sue UH in the wake of the “Wonder Blunder.”
On top of the high salaries, Taniguchi explained that the numerous individual positions, such as the Vice Chancellorships, make accountability and pinning responsibility for a particular decision hard. The senator said that defining and separating roles, especially for these other administrative positions, will be key as the legislature moves forward.
Despite the senator’s dissatisfaction with the university’s management, Taniguchi also admitted that change may be slow to come through the legislature. He said that, while senators and representatives deal with public complaints about UH’s administration on a regular basis, they are actually in a bad position to take direct action on these matters. The managerial autonomy of the university from the rest of the State means that the legislature can only appropriate money for the UH System; any personnel decisions must be made through other bodies, such as the Board of Regents.
Taniguchi expressed that it’s unclear what sort of legislation could take form as a reaction to the issues at UH.
“We may have to muddle along this way because that’s how things are set up unless we change laws,” he said.
Looking forward, Taniguchi is reluctant to make any prediction about what will come out of the legislature this session related to the university. He said that, while he does agree that the time has come for UH to put last July’s “Wonder Blunder” behind it, that is no reason to avoid answering important questions about how the university is run.
“With regard to the incident itself, I can see where we probably need to put that behind us,” he said. “But I think it’s raised enough questions that the public as well as the legislature need some answers. ... Going forward, we need to say ‘How are we going to do this in the future?’”