University of Hawaii regents defer controversial tenure proposal

Oct. 22—The University of Hawaii Board of Regents on Thursday deferred a controversial proposal to modify the tenure system following a morning session in which dozens of faculty members criticized the effort as detrimental to the university.

The regents voted to refer the recommendations to a special ad hoc committee, made up of all of the members of the board, for further discussion in conjunction with the findings of a legislative task force also looking at tenure.

That task force, created by the state Legislature in 2020 and chaired by UH regents Chairman Randy Moore, is comparing the UH tenure system for researchers and other noninstructional faculty with peer universities and is expected to suggest best practices to lawmakers by the end of the year.

Before the regents Thursday were the recommendations of a Permitted Interaction Group established by the board in February to examine the evolving issues tied to tenure.

The recommendations, among other things, give deans and other administrators greater input in the five-year review of tenured faculty members. They also reserve tenure for faculty who actively engage with students in the classroom, tie tenure to enrollment requirements and eliminate tenure tracks for support faculty and extension agents.

From the moment they were made public, the recommendations were opposed by the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the faculty union, saying they are a threat to the well-being of its members and the state's entire university system.

Individual faculty members rallied against the proposals and offered up more than 600 pages of written testimony slamming the proposed changes prior to Thursday's meeting.

But members of the task group Thursday said the proposals weren't intended as an immediate action item, but merely as the starting point for further discussion that would also involve administrators, the faculty and its union.

"It's a long, long process, " said former trustee Jan Sullivan, who chaired the task group. "I hope everyone understands that what we are proposing to initiate is actually the beginning of that discussion."

Regent Robert Westerman, another task group member, said no one who served in the group of mostly regents and UH administrators said they wanted to get rid of tenure.

"This wasn't an attempt to fire anybody. This was an attempt to start talking about tenure and how it applies to today's university, " Westerman said.

"We actually heard from faculty and staff saying, 'Hey, we've got a lot of problems in this system, and we need to figure out a way to fix it, '" he said. "We need to let that discussion start. And it's not going to be a couple months. It's going to be a year or two, I would think, as we move it forward."

Moore added, "We need to be deliberate and inclusive if we expect a result that will be acceptable and supportable by the entire university."

Earlier in the meeting, faculty members showered the proposal with criticism, declaring that to undermine tenure is to weaken the university.

"If you pass these proposals, we will have a revolving door of faculty, which is costly in time and money, and there will be a decrease in faculty willing to do essential service, which will lower our status and threaten accreditation, " said Ashley Maynard, a psychology professor.

Davianna McGregor, director of the UH Manoa Center for Oral History, said the proposals would work to tear down Manoa as a university that provides essential research that supports the community's needs.

"Dismantling the tenure system will downgrade the University of Hawaii at Manoa, expand the diaspora of Hawaii-born residents to the continent to seek opportunities no longer available at an R-1 (research ) university and betray the legacy of Hawaii's leaders, " she said.

Specialist and extension faculty members came out in force to defend their roles as faculty members deserving of tenure.

Nicholas Comerford, dean of the UH College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources and director of the Hawaii Cooperative Extension Service, also spoke out against downgrading the status of extension agents. "I don't see this as modernizing or simplifying the tenure process, " he said. Comerford said UH is a rare R-1 research university that also is a Land Grant, Sea Grant and Space Grant institution.

"Exactly how is this supporting and promoting our Land Grant mission ?" he asked, adding that extension agents at most universities are considered faculty. "So we're not modernizing the system, we're actually going backwards."

Several faculty members criticized the task group for going beyond the scope of the original assignment, which generally was to investigate tenure practices past and present.

"If my students turned a report like the one submitted by the tenure (group ), I would have assigned it an F grade, " said Sania Fa'amaile Betty Ickes, associate professor of history at Leeward Community College.