EXCLUSIVE: UH officials feel financial impact of telescopes as legal costs mount

EXCLUSIVE: UH officials feel financial impact of telescopes as legal costs mount
Published: Sep. 23, 2015 at 12:21 AM HST|Updated: Sep. 23, 2015 at 11:53 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The financial impact from legal and other challenges to the Thirty-Meter Telescope at Mauna Kea and the Dan K. Inouye Solar Telescope at Haleakala is beginning to be felt on the University of Hawaii Manoa campus.

The UH has already spent $2.2 million in attorney fees defending the construction of the telescopes.

But now, the UH is being forced to cut funding for some of its overhead costs on the Manoa campus to pay for future legal bills, according to a UH memo obtained by Hawaii News Now.

"We're taking it away from the kids and we should not be doing something like that," said state Rep. Isaac Choy, Chairman of the House Committee on Higher Education.

"I would prefer the $2 million be spent on students' education, repairs and maintenance, fixing toilets, athletics ... the cancer center."

Added Robert Cooney, Chairman of the UH Manoa Faculty Senate:

"Paying lawyers instead of the academic mission of the university always hurts."

The money comes from the Manoa campus' Research and Training Revolving Fund, which receives about $30 million a year from the UH system.

From each federal grant, the UH system gets a 30 to 40 percent cut for overhead, then passes about half of that money back to the Manoa campus.

That money is used to pay for everything from electricity bills to fixes on research equipment to travel for teachers. The money from that fund is not earmarked for academics.

"None of this is research money," said Vassilis Syrmos, UH Vice President for Research and Innovation, who wrote the memo.

Syrmos noted that last year, the UH spent nearly about a million to fix a research vessel for the Oceanography Department.

"The year before we contributed almost a million dollars for our electricity spike," he added.

But Cooney, a UH Public Health professor, said its unusual that such a large amount of the fund is being spent on a subject as controversial as the telescopes.

"I think faculty are divided on that issue. There's certainly no consensus I can point to," he said.

Choy blames the protests for running up the legal tab, especially since projects like the TMT have been properly vetted in public.

"I feel that a vocal few is costing the university money," he said. "The process has been going on for seven years. We've dotted our i's, crossed out t's. How much more do you guys want?"

Syrmos said that any poll of research faculty members who bring in significant amounts grant money will show widespread support.

He noted that the telescopes are a major economic driver in the state, citing a recent study by UH economists that they created nearly $170 million in direct and economic benefits in 2012.

"It is concerning within the university that the new normal is that in order to do any kind of research activity up on the mountain, it's costing the university millions of dollars," he said.

"If the university is legally challenged we need to defend ourselves."

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