Ignoring UH-Manoa For UH-West

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - July 18, 2007
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The proposed UH-West Oahu campus
The proposed UH-West Oahu campus

There are many things in Our Town that journalists question at risk of bringing a load of opprobrium down on their heads.

Those who questioned Momi Akana getting an Extreme Home Makeover while she draws $100,000 a year from her own-creation non-profit agency (her hubby gets about $125,000 at his bank job and her mom’s husband draws $80,000 from Akana’s non-profit) got slammed by angry readers who wrote: nice woman doing good work for kids, so who cares how much she pays herself or her mom’s husband?

This Friday, the 25th Infantry Division’s Wolfhound regiment at Schofield Barracks will bring in four orphans from Osaka, Japan, for the traditional visit and plenty publicity. I’d suggest doing something for at-risk Hawaii kids might be a better and a not-so-obvious military PR pitch to Japan, but I can guess your reaction. “You ogre! How dare you?”

Similarly, questioning the wisdom of the new UH West Oahu campus that almost everyone seems to want won’t be a wildly popular column. Certainly not with my MidWeek colleague Dan Boylan, a UHWO history professor.

But borrowing words Shakespeare put in the mouth of King Henry V, I will offer you “no tiddle-taddle nor pibble-pabble.” Just good questions.

Why has approval of $135 million in initial costs (estimated total = $400 million) for that Kapolei project sailed through while the main Manoa campus languishes as a deteriorating eye-sore? Is it mainly for town-bound traffic management and to buttress the Second City concept by drawing in private developers and the Kroc Center-Hawaii?

If so, what takes priority - development vision or educational excellence at our flagship four-year school in Manoa?

I’m not set against the new campus. I do think somebody needs to address my question about priority because there is not enough money to handle both.

Why isn’t the money that’s going to the Hunt Building Corp. to start UHWO infrastructure being spent on facilities at the Manoa campus that’s supposed to be a great undergraduate experience? Instead, we’ll spend the initial $135 million for a UHWO classroom building, administration, library and student services buildings and a power plant. A kind of low-grade, start-up campus with no guarantee the money will be there to build the real McCoy.

The UHWO concept appeals to many. It gets the current faculty and students out of the portables on the Leeward Community College campus, and adds a freshman and sophomore year so students don’t have to go first to community colleges. It’s a vote-getter for politicians because of construction jobs. Then more construction jobs to house students and faculty. The first phase will serve 1,500 students. It will keep some traffic away from town. It can be a business magnet for Kapolei.

If the Legislature can find more construction money, the Kapolei campus can expand to 7,500 students and 1,000 faculty and staff. And if the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands also does its huge shopping center on 67 adjacent acres, we’re looking at perhaps 7,000 new jobs. The West Oahu chancellor claims that in a short time after opening, the new school can generate $200 million a year in expenditures.

Who can sneer at that? Nobody, and besides it’s a done deal, isn’t it? Or is it?

I have this nagging question about starting a new four-year campus in such a small state when you haven’t been able to do the upkeep on the current one or provide adequate housing for students; also the new one will compete for faculty and grants.

I suspect that UHWO is largely driven by creation of construction jobs and the Kapolei-magnet vision rather than real need for a second four-year campus on this island.

Remember all that empty talk during the short Evan Dobelle reign about creating a university town in Moiliili? We’re still waiting for that and watching crumbling on-campus facilities under the David McClain reign.

Hawaii Pacific University is scorching UH-Manoa in the competition for paying foreign students.

If we go ahead and spend all $400 million (very unlikely to be the final cost) on UHWO, I sure hope it turns out well.

If it doesn’t, we’ll have two state universities on Oahu offering second-rate undergraduate experiences.

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