Heated exchanges in Senate UH budget briefing

Heated exchanges in Senate UH budget briefing
M.R.C. Greenwood
M.R.C. Greenwood
Senate President Donna Mercado Kim
Senate President Donna Mercado Kim
State Sen. Sam Slom
State Sen. Sam Slom

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State senators followed through on their promise to scrutinize University of Hawaii spending more closely following the Stevie Wonder Blunder during a testy briefing that featured heated exchanges between senators and UH leaders last week.

Senators sparred with UH President M.R.C. Greenwood and UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple over a number of issues, including tuition and spending on salaries and public relations efforts during the first informational budget briefing of the 2013 legislative session before the Senate Ways and Means Committee Thursday.

UH tuition has increased by 108 percent over the last five years and the university is in the first of five years of new tuition hikes that will raise tuition by another 33 percent.

"I think it's still modest.  It's still in the hundreds of dollars that we have to increase it per semester, not thousands," Greenwood told senators Thursday. "And while I know that's a lot of money and having paid both for my children and my grandchildren's tuition, I'm very sensitive to that.  I think most of us are.  Nationally, we're still a pretty good bargain for a high-quality undergraduate degree."

But Senate President Donna Mercado Kim (D – Moanalua, Kalihi Valley) -- who chaired special briefings investigating the failed Stevie Wonder concert last fall -- took issue with Greenwood's remarks during the three-hour hearing Thursday.

Kim: "I have a hard time with that word modest when if you look at over the five years when, by 2017, the tuition will increase by 33 percent.  Is that modest?"

Greenwood: "I think ... I think it's necessary."

Kim: "OK, but that was not the question.  You used 'modest' in your statement ..."

Greenwood: "I apologize if I used an adjective that was insensitive.  I think we are still talking about ..."

Kim: "It's just misleading, it's not insensitive."

Greenwood: "I didn't mean to be misleading, president."

Senators also wanted to know about the position being filled by former Hilo State Rep. Jerry Chang, who will be paid $120,000 a year to handle public relations and lobbying for UH Hilo as its director of university relations, if the UH Board of Regents approves his hiring.

Kim asked Greenwood how many university relations positions exist throughout UH's ten campuses, a question that was not answered.

"I'll be happy to get a numerical number for you.  I don't know how to count them on all the other campuses. Because they are not just public relations people.  Many of them only ten percent or five percent of their time would be involved with public relations," Greenwood told Kim.

State Sen. Sam Slom (R – Hawaii Kai, Kahala), the Senate's lone Republican, said he worries about UH expenses that do not directly relate to the classroom.

"Involve high salaries, perks, special benefits, and an awful lot of people and the students are paying for that in their tuition.  It's one thing to pay for resources and instructors, but it's another thing, we've got a tremendous overhead," Slom said. "I think the university has been too cavalier in trying to dodge specific financial questions, because we keep asking them over and over again."

Senators also asked UH officials exactly how much money the UH spent for a 40-page tabloid that appeared in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser earlier this month.

Called "The Sky Is Not The Limit," the insert highlighted research at UH which the university wants to double from generating a half billion dollars a year to $1 billion annually over the next decade.

"We wanted to try to elevate that, so that when we talked about doubling it, people didn't think it was a pipe dream.  That they really understood it was concrete, it was real," Greenwood told senators.  "Many people in the state of Hawaii have no idea what the pharmacy school is doing, they have no idea what the quality of research is."

"To talk about the examples of projects that we are doing that people don't know about that create jobs and could create more jobs," Greenwood said.

Greenwood estimated the UH spent $30,000 on the tabloid. But Kim said she was told its cost was more like $70,000. The UH provided figures to Hawaii News Now that show the insert cost at least $62,500.

UH officials could not provide the full cost to senators during a budget briefing Thursday.

"There was a rate for full-page ads and half page ads that was paid directly to Oahu Publications by the different campuses or units, and so I didn't tally up everything," said Kelli Abe Trifonovitch, the UH's director of communication and outreach in charge of public relations for what's being called UH's Innovation Initiative.

"Did you not anticipate that we'd ask these questions?" asked Kim.

Greenwood answered, "No, actually I was hoping that you would think that we were doing a good job promoting the university and its programs."

But Kim questioned how effective a tabloid will be to attract new research and jobs to the university.

"People that are looking to bring the jobs are not going to flip through this tabloid and say 'Oh, a-ha, we're going to go do something with the university' based on what they read here.  Half of this stuff is ads.  I mean feel-good kind of stuff," Kim said, as she paged through the insert at the meeting.

"I think we need to re-think how we're spending money at the university," Kim added.

Greenwood answered her: "Well, I'm sorry that you feel that way about it senator. It really is a disappointment.  But we will try to do better."

Senators also asked UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple to explain his comments before a campus-wide meeting last fall. In responding to a question about the failed Stevie Wonder concert, he said some losses are to be expected in large organizations with big budgets.

Here is a transcript of Apple's answer to the question about the Wonder Blunder at his Oct. 22 campus talk story event at UH Manoa: "By the way, $200,000 is not a trivial amount of money. But Manoa, just Manoa, not the university, Manoa is a $1 billion a year operation. I have people who report to me who handle 180 million a year, and they say, 'You know what, if somebody looked, you'd probably find, just through the handling of that much money.  If you went and looked at every individual thing, you'd probably find that much in terms of losses here and there, through kinds of processes.' It's a tiny part of what we do. It has overshadowed so tremendously by a factor of a thousand the great stories that should be coming out of the university."

When senators asked him to explain the remark Thursday, Apple said, "I think we can put that to rest as an off-the-cuff comment, of which I do, perhaps too often.  And I apologize for that.  I sometimes speak off-the-cuff, based on the kinds of things that I hear out and about."

"When we look, we learn from our mistakes.  When we run a billion-dollar operation, if we lose $200,000, which is regrettable, but we move forward.  And that was the point of the comment, which was received, by the way, with applause," Apple told senators, setting off another testy exchange.

Kim: "I watched that, I beg to differ. I did not see that."

Apple: "It's on the video."

Kim: "I did not think that..."

Greenwood: "OK, enough of this.  I'm sorry, but I don't believe that this conversation is getting us where we need to go, so if it's OK, I'd like to ask the chancellor to ..."

Kim: "I'm sorry, I beg to differ president, because I think it is this kind of statements, and this kind of response that we get that get us into trouble and that the students are being misled and told certain things by our administrators and I think we need to get straight answers and we can't just brush it over anymore.  That's not going to pass the muster."

Apple: "Senator, I've apologized here three times, I think twice here today and once previously.  I talk hyperbolic sometimes and I apologize."

Kim also complained the UH had failed to get basic information to senators for months, including the cost of public relations staff throughout the UH system, projected costs of PR staffing, projected costs of UH general counsel's office and amount the university has spent to hire outside attorneys.

"We asked this during the hearings, we never got it in October, November.  We asked for it in writing, we put it in our report, and as of today, we still haven't received it.  So, it's very disconcerting that this is happening," Kim said.

"I understand your concern," Greenwood said. "Some of that specific information I think we have provided.  Let me come in, or send someone in to be sure that we know which exact figures you don't feel have been adequately addressed."

The university system – which operates separately from each of the UH campuses -- is asking the legislature for $7.4 million in additional operating funds in fiscal year 2013-2014 and a $7.9 million increase in operating expenses in fiscal year 2014-2015. That's equal to about a 20 percent budget increase and something which Gov. Neil Abercrombie supports, UH officials said.

The UH's community colleges, which saw enrollment jump from 25,000 to about 34,000 during the recession, endured a loss of $18 million in state support but got help from tuition hikes during that same time.

About 19 percent of UH Manoa's tuition is returned to students in some form of financial aid, UH officials said, while the financial aid figure from tuition at community colleges is 11 percent.

UH Manoa has also worked to lessen the number of classes that students are unable to enroll in.  In the fall of 2009, the UH Manoa had about 20,000 "unsuccessful registrations," meaning every student at the campus, on average, had tried to get into one class that was full.  In the fall of 2012, that number had fallen to 3,000 unsuccessful registrations at UH Manoa, which UH officials called "remarkable progress."

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