SENATOR DONNA MERCADO KIM – Fiscal accountability or strategic targeting?
News Release from UHPA, May 17, 2021
Targeted Faculty RIFs: Senator Donna Mercado Kim’s Modus Operandi
The parti-pris decisions and actions made by Hawai‘i’s legislators this past session speak volumes about their views and support over Hawai‘i’s public higher education system – namely the University of Hawai‘i. It’s especially clear that those in the Senate who continue to chip away at the core foundation that makes the University of Hawai‘i a nationally respected research institution and demand justification for its existence – will better serve our community and its constituents – by working to build up this valuable economic engine for the state.
Harmful Legislation will Jeopardize R1 Status
Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, Chair of the Senate Committee on Higher Education, did not hold back this past legislative session pushing for proposed legislation that would negatively impact the nucleus that allowed the University of Hawai‘i to obtain the distinguished Carnegie R1 institution. The Senator’s proposals would have altered UH policies and practices that unfortunately have long-term, difficult-to-reverse ramifications, that not only jeopardize the institution but impact the recruitment, retention, and competitiveness of UH faculty members. The Senator believes the institution, in and by itself, magically obtained the R1 distinction not the Faculty who excelled and propelled the institution to get there. Ultimately, these impacts would have adversely affected the quality of instruction for students and the quality of life for the broader community.
The Silent Ones
As in previous legislative sessions, Sen. Mercado Kim has an ax-to-grind and has made a public fiasco and mockery of the University of Hawai‘i based on her perceived beliefs and perceptions. She had no qualms proposing to legislate the elimination of specific faculty positions under the guise of “a matter of statewide concern” all the while proclaiming that dismantling the university is justified and being done as the guardian of public funds. Her Higher Education Committee members and others in the Senate are complicit – rubber stamping her decisions – and failing to challenge the false narratives and innuendos. If it were not for the strong efforts and pushback from UHPA and the UH against these legislative endeavors, this past session would have been an unmitigated disaster waiting to happen.
Tampering with Funding and Compensation
Currently, general funds are used to pay for the majority of UH faculty salaries. However, if Sen. Mercado Kim had her way, she would demand that at least 25% or more of the cost of salaries of UH researchers would be the UH’s sole responsibility to fund via extramural funds or the research and training revolving fund (RTRF). As proposed in SB 1394, this would’ve been the new expectation going forward beginning on July 1, 2021, the start of the next fiscal year.
Refuses to Recognize Restrictions on Research Grant Funds
Her grandiose plans to single out UH researchers fell flat. If she had done her homework, asked the right questions, and taken the time to listen and learn, Sen. Mercado Kim would have realized that research grants often prohibit funds from being allocated for salaries for Principal Investigators (PI). This caveat ensures the university that the faculty member applying for a grant also has a vested interest in the success of the research project or equally a shared responsibility. This is just one example and one restriction that would’ve rendered her legislative proposal not actionable.
Questioning Value of Tenure
Another case in point: SB 1328 called into question the value of tenured faculty. It not only revealed Sen. Mercado Kim’s lack of basic understanding of university systems, but also her disrespect and disregard for faculty who work hard to achieve tenure. The bill attempts to unjustly support the Senator’s meddling by pointing out that a tenured position “results in the long term commitment of public resources for that position.”
Fish or Cut Bait? How About Just a Switch?
After successfully pointing out the purpose of tenure in higher education systems to preserve and protect academic freedom, Sen. Mercado Kim agreed to have the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly and the University of Hawai‘i administration prepare a joint resolution to reflect their concerns and opinions before the start of the 2022 legislative session.
UHPA and UH dutifully obliged, and immediately drafted a joint resolution way ahead of schedule – reiterating key points about the intent of tenured positions; the difficult process in obtaining tenure; and the value of tenure to retain faculty.
Espousing Her Cause
Not surprisingly, Sen. Mercado Kim disregarded the UHPA-UH administration resolution and created a resolution of her own, urging the UH and UHPA to convene a task force to examine the UH’s tenure system specifically targeting researchers and other non-instructional faculty. She also rolled in a compensation structure of faculty engaged in activities that are supported by extramural funding and grants, comparing this with peer U.S. higher education institutions.
Forms Task Force to Advance the Agenda
The Senator’s resolution convenes a task force to examine and assess the UH’s tenure system for researchers and other non-instructional faculty, and compensation structure of faculty engaged in activities supported by extramural funding and grants, in comparison to peer institutions in the UH and proposes best practices for the UH. Essentially, the narrative has been written and desired outcomes have been pre-defined for the task force. Bottom line is the belief that all non-instructional faculty do not deserve the opportunity and granting of tenure irrespective of their work and contributions to the UH and the students they serve. We hope that this seven-member task force chaired by the UH Board of Regents’ Chair will perform their due diligence in considering the meaning and value of providing tenure to Faculty irrespective of their classification and the true value and benefits that are provided to the institution and the students they serve and not capitulate to political interference and pressures.
The Relentless Pursuit
Perhaps Sen. Mercado Kim is hoping this new task force will give her a different response from what has already been shared with her. This being insisted by someone who claims to be focused and more concerned about saving public funds is puzzling. This time consuming exercise in futility will only waste money, time, and resources that could be put to better and more productive use elsewhere.
Killing the Living and Saving the Dead
The legislature has already proposed budget cuts that could impact a number of existing tenured positions. There is currently an occupied position slated for the chopping block to save $343,000, but six (6) vacant positions totaling nearly $692,000 have been kept intact. These types of decisions have to make you wonder if these actions are in fact purely budgetary decisions intended to save money or if they are part of a hidden-agenda to attack specific positions designed to enact a legislative reduction in force. No matter how you look at it, it seems to be more of a targeted RIF than a strategic fiscal decision as the guardian of public funds. What do you think?
Watch for upcoming information about our observations to hold our lawmakers accountable.