Hawaii Senator Takes Aim at Tenure—and More

The state senator behind several bills designed to overhaul operations at the University of Hawai‘i has a long and contentious history with the institution and no shortage of opponents.

March 8, 2022
Faculty groups oppose a bill that would change how tenure is awarded—and who is eligible—at the University of Hawai‘i.
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Changes to tenure could be coming soon at the University of Hawai‘i.

A State Senate bill designed to fundamentally alter tenure is headed to a third and final reading. If it passes, it will go to the House. The bill’s sponsor claims the legislation will lower costs and prevent students from taking on too much debt; critics argue it is a blatant power grab by lawmakers that undermines collective bargaining agreements.

And unlike tenure challenges in other states, this bill comes not from Republicans but from a powerful Democratic senator in the deep-blue Aloha State.

The bill—SB 3269—was introduced by Senator Donna Mercado Kim, chair of the Hawaii Senate Higher Education Committee. And that’s not the only way she wants to reshape UH; she’s also proposed legislation this session that would give regents more power over athletics and that would change how regents themselves are selected. Kim has a long and contentious history with UH that includes grilling school officials over money lost on a bungled Stevie Wonder benefit concert and a minor controversy over her son’s application—or lack thereof—to the University of Hawai‘i law school.

Unpacking the Bill

At its core, the bill would limit eligibility for tenure, excluding certain newly hired noninstructional staff. For example, researchers without teaching responsibilities would not be eligible for tenure, nor would various other specialists. Additionally, the bill would require the University of Hawai‘i to create a new classification system for employees and introduce new standards of review for UH employees, including both tenured and tenure-track faculty as well as nontenured workers.

For Kim, the bill is about efficiency. She sees a system where researchers aren’t pulling their weight in the classroom or bringing in enough research dollars; those off-kilter workloads require UH to hire additional instructors, she said, thus increasing instructional costs, which get passed down to students.

“My priority is to keep education affordable,” Kim said. “That is my No. 1 priority.”

Kim points to rampant student debt nationwide and notes that in a state already notorious for the high cost of living, many students choose colleges on the mainland. She stressed the importance of keeping the University of Hawai‘i affordable for students.

“The only way we can do that is to make sure the university is being very efficient,” Kim said.

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Her history with UH aside, Kim notes that the effort to revise tenure emerged from the Board of Regents, as part of a task force known as a policy implementation group. “What I keep pointing out is this is not our recommendation; it came out of the Board of Regents,” she said.

Those in opposition, however, note that there were two competing reports submitted to the Board of Regents on tenure—one from the State Senate, the other from the policy implementation group, which is made up of four regents, various university employees and a union representative. At a meeting last month, the Board of Regents ultimately adopted the recommendations from the Senate report and not the policy implementation group’s. Kim’s bill requires regents to “discuss and adopt” the recommendations of the policy implementation group, which the Board of Regents previously shot down.

Critics of Kim’s bill include the University of Hawai‘i Professional Assembly, the bargaining unit for faculty members and UH administration, both of which have spoken out against the effort.

Christian Fern, executive director of UHPA, said by email that the bill itself may be unconstitutional given that “by statute the Employer for Faculty at the University of Hawai‘i (UH) is defined as the Governor, the UH Board of Regents, and the UH President. The legislature has never been recognized as the Employer or manager of the University system.” Fern noted that “prior attempts by the Legislature to statutorily mandate matters that are subject to collective bargaining have in the past been determined unconstitutional” by Hawaii’s supreme court.

Fern also argues that “the Legislature is incorrectly and inappropriately attempting to connect tenure with taxpayer dollars and the narrative that by reducing tenure it will save taxpayer monies. Nothing can be further [from] the truth. Tenure has nothing to do with saving or reducing taxpayer dollars to fund a Faculty position regardless of whether it’s tenured track or not.”

Ultimately, the end result, he said, will harm faculty recruiting efforts at UH.

The proposed legislation prompted 227 pages of written testimony, with other professional organizations and the university's leadership joining the opposition.

“The university agrees that our unique faculty classification system should be updated and the Board of Regents has just charged the administration to do so with our union and our faculty,” UH president David Lassner said in an emailed statement shared by a UH spokesperson. “This is work that must be done collaboratively in consonance with collective bargaining agreements and policy rather than by fiat through legislation. Our world-class faculty work long and hard to serve the University and people of Hawaiʻi, and we have reported publicly on our current initiatives to improve accountability and transparency of faculty workload assignments.”

Efforts to undermine or fundamentally change tenure are commonplace in higher ed. But in these politically charged times, those efforts have typically come from red-state Republicans, not Democrats like Kim.

“Republican legislatures have been more activist” on the tenure front, said Michael S. Harris, a higher education professor at Southern Methodist University and director of SMU’s Center for Teaching Excellence, who also serves as chair of the Department of Education Policy and Leadership. But tenure remains a contentious subject in many places.

“Even if this proposal does not have the partisan overtones that we’ve seen in other states, it still can do significant harm to universities,” Harris said by email. “Despite the criticisms, universities and their faculty bring enormous social and economic benefits to their states. Legislators from both political parties would be well served to not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.”

Other Education Legislation

The effort to overhaul tenure is one of several bills brought forth by Kim this session that would give the Legislature greater power over UH. Another such bill is SB 3268, which would authorize the UH Board of Regents to terminate athletic directors and head coaches for cause and require regents to approve coaching deals with salaries upward of $200,000, including any additional private funding or bonuses in such contracts.

The bill emerged from the dramatic departure of Hawai‘i football coach Todd Graham, who left after multiple players transferred elsewhere, alleging various abuses on his part. Graham ultimately resigned, though Kim and others indicated a willingness to fire him if he did not.

Graham—who was hired in 2020—has denied the multiple allegations of abuse at UH.

The Graham controversy prompted a hearing from Hawaii’s State Senate in which Kim alleged that she had heard similar complaints about various other athletic programs at UH.

The university has not taken a public position on SB 3268.

Donna Lopiano, president of the Drake Group—an organization that pushes for reform in college athletics—noted that university trustees commonly approve major contracts, but it’s unusual for regents to hire or fire personnel, which is typically the job of the administration.

“That being said, for the trustees to take over any hiring or firing function is a clear expression of lack of confidence in the President of the institution. It is not the normal chain of command,” Lopiano wrote in an email.

Another bill submitted by Kim this session is SB 3186, which UH has publicly opposed. Ultimately, SB 3186 aims to “eliminate the requirement that the Governor appoint members of the board of regents of the University of Hawaii from a pool of candidates presented by the candidate advisory council for the board of regents of the University of Hawaii.” In essence, SB3186 gives the governor broad latitude on the selection of Board of Regents members.

“Not only is this an unwarranted and unjustified change that would reverse two decades of public policy, but neither the title nor the purpose of SB 3186 includes any reference to eliminating, lessening, or ‘clarifying’ the University’s autonomy,” Lassner said in public testimony. “Nor is there any justification set forth in the bill or the [Higher Education] committee report for this proposed seismic shift in the role of the Board of Regents and the very ability of the University of Hawaiʻi to function as Hawaiʻi’s statewide system of public higher education under the State Constitution.”

Both SB 3268 and SB 3186 are headed to a final Senate reading and will go to the House if passed.

Senator Kim vs. the University of Hawai‘i

Unwilling to pick a public fight with a powerful lawmaker at the helm of higher education in the Aloha State, UH administrators won’t say anything about Kim on the record.

But there have been well-documented public clashes between Kim and UH that precede the current legislative session by a decade or so. Notably, there was the “Wonder blunder” in 2012, when university officials were scammed by someone claiming to represent legendary musician Stevie Wonder. The university ultimately paid out $200,000 for a benefit concert that never came to fruition and then had to answer to a special committee led by Kim.

In another instance, in 2013, Kim called then UH president M. R. C. Greenwood to inquire about her son’s UH law school application. Kim learned that her son had misled her and had not applied, a revelation that Greenwood broke to Kim. Greenwood later claimed that Kim threatened to hold hearings on the law school if her son did not get accepted, unaware that he had not applied. Kim—who was on the tourism committee and not the higher education committee in 2012 and 2013—continues to dispute that account.

At the end of the day, Kim suggested that it isn’t her clashes with UH at the heart of her legislation, but rather that she has a “history of looking at things and revamping, upgrading and renewing,” ultimately pushing institutions toward uncomfortable changes. “Sometimes that’s met with a lot of objections because things have been done a certain way for the longest time,” Kim said.

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