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The Hawaii Legislature has taken the unusual step of terminating a tenured professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa through the legislative budget process.
It’s not unheard-of for a legislature to eliminate empty positions at different agencies, but the professor affected by the Hawaii Legislature’s decision is still occupying the role and has worked at the university since 1999.
“The affected faculty member was director of the UH Cancer Center (one of only 71 [National Cancer Institute]-designated Cancer Centers in the U.S.) from 1999-2008 and has brought in over $50 million in external funding to the University of Hawaiʻi supporting education and research over the last 22 years,” a spokesperson for the cancer center said via email. “He was founder and leader of a large collaborative multi-million dollar grant for 17 years through August 2020 and has authored hundreds of publications over the years, including three peer-reviewed publications during 2020.”
The university and the faculty union have not named the affected employee, but Hawaii News Now, which first reported the news, says that he is Carl-Wilhelm Vogel, a tenured researcher. According to legislative documents, Vogel makes $343,800 per year. He did not respond to a request to comment.
Senator Donna Kim, chair of the higher education committee, said the effort to sweep the position at the university was part of cost-cutting measures. The provision is in the main budget bill for the university.
“We need to control the costs and we need to make sure that our students in Hawaii are being able to afford higher education,” she said.
Two years ago, Kim requested from the university a list of professors who did not teach classes and did not bring in any extramural funding. She had at the time proposed cutting that entire list of about 100 professors, but that did not come to pass. This year, Vogel’s position was the only one proposed to be cut. There are no classes taught at the cancer center, where he works. She said she did not have names associated with position numbers, but she was informed that the position’s occupant did not hold office hours and was hardly on campus.
“A majority of our researchers are bringing in extramural funding, they’re doing valuable research, they work with graduate students,” she said. “I don’t believe that tenure allows you to have a position and you can do nothing.”
The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, a union for UH faculty, is fighting the termination and has filed a petition with the Hawaii Labor Relations Board.
“We think it’s an overreach by the Legislature to essentially be attempting to act as the employer and discipline or fire an individual when they shouldn't have that type of authority,” said Christian Fern, executive director of the union. “This is an issue not only for that one faculty member, but an issue for all faculty members as well as any state or county employee to think that a legislative body can go in there and make a determination.”
Part of the union’s petition argues that the termination was primarily the work of one senator.
“The purported deletion of position #86231 is a direct and personal attack on the incumbent by a senator who misused her position to insert this item into the conference committee’s final budget worksheet. She knew the position was occupied, knew who she was attacking, traced the incumbent to a particular position count, and has now escalated her multiyear campaign to evict the incumbent from UH employment by introducing a line in the budget bill,” the petition states. “The senator ignored over 60 vacant positions that arguably might have been swept, to much greater financial advantage to the state, and focused on deleting the incumbent’s position; illustrating the absence of economic motive and the presence of invidious motive. The attempt to have the incumbent dismissed from position #86231 is a particular component of her broader strategy to undermine the authority of the regents, the president, and UHPA, inter alia, by regulating the employment of researchers and their wages through legislation.”
Kim said that she has talked to the university and would like them to make cost-saving decisions like this on their own so the Legislature doesn’t have to.
“If you don’t agree with [the union], they say you have an agenda or you’re trying to target people,” she said. “I keep saying to the university, we would like you guys to be the ones to monitor and to make sure your faculty is providing the instruction that is needed to our students.”
Daniel Meisenzahl, spokesperson for the university, said UH is looking at all of its options for how best to respond.
“It’s unprecedented. The University of Hawaiʻi continues to work with the Legislature, the faculty union and the governor to better understand how this happened and prevent it from happening in the future,” he said. “This is unfortunately just one part of a larger issue for us.”
The same budget bill also cut the university’s funding by $47.9 million for this upcoming fiscal year and $42.3 million for the year after. The Mānoa campus was the most affected, with nearly 14 percent of its current budget cut for fiscal year 2022.
According to a release from the UH Economic Research Organization, the university’s research expenditure in fiscal year 2020 totaled about $477 million and generated $735 million of total business sales, $237 million of employee earnings and $42 million of state tax revenue, while supporting an estimated 5,400 jobs.
“UH Mānoa is ranked 48th among U.S. public universities in the level of extramural research expenditures ($317 million), and 37th among U.S. public universities in level of federal research expenditures, according to the latest figures from the National Science Foundation,” Meisenzahl said via email. “With these funds, UH Mānoa maintains a vibrant and active research program.”
Outside of the union’s petition to the Hawaii labor board, Governor David Ige has until June 21 to sign or veto the budget bill.