(BIVN) – Hawaii State Senator Kai Kahele held a university town hall in Hilo on August 30.
Speaking to a crowded hall full of UH-Hilo administration, faculty, and students, the Hilo senator lectured on what he sees as one of the most pressing issues facing the University of Hawaii system, and he shared his ideas on how to fix the problem.
“The biggest issue I have at the university system right now is enrollment. It’s not a secret,” Kahele said. “It is a major challenge that we face is declining enrollments. And I don’t think using the word hemorrhaging is an exaggeration. I think we are hemorrhaging in enrollment. We need to plug the hole. We’re not plugging the hole.”
“The last six years we had declining enrollment and it’s accelerating,” Kahele told the full lecture hall. “Declining enrollments result in a tuition loss. It’s a concern for students and the faculties and communities that are intertwined with their institutions. And to me it’s now a matter of statewide concern. The University of Hawaii has autonomy that’s constitutionally mandated, right? The legislature is not supposed to micromanage a university. I don’t want to micromanage a university. I don’t expect our new regent to micromanage a university. Unless it’s a matter of statewide concern. Then, that’s when you have a little bit of legislative overreach, because now it affects the entire state.”
“I’ve heard the rationale is that we’re mirroring national trends,” Kahele continued. “Universities all across the country have declining enrollments. It’s because the economy is doing so great, students are not coming to school, they’d rather go to work. And maybe that might be true. But that’s not an excuse I want to keep hearing for declining enrollments. We need to fix it, and we need to fix it now.”
Kahele then presented the numbers, showing how the highest enrollment in the last five years was at 4,157 students. The numbers have gone down year-over-year since then. Last year, Kahele said UH-Hilo had 3,666 students.
Kahele said in the very least, the university system can put a stop to its plans to increase tuition, at least until the enrollment issue is figured out. One big part of the picture, for Kahele, is student life.
“I would like to see a business vanguard community created here at UH-Hilo,” Kahele said. “There’s some great people in here that have developed projects before. I would like to see (UH Director of Land Development) Carlton Ching engage with this big business vanguard organization to help develop some of the assets.”
Kahele revealed a slide showing the stalled Vulcan Village concept. “This entire 36 acre parcel … was, through executive order, transferred to UH (in 1999) to build a Vulcan Village, to build a China educational center for excellence, for retail and commercial purposes. And that was going to be the benchmark of creating a college town that leveraged university assets. It would provide housing, restaurants, retail, commercial office space, and urgent care clinics – so when you, as student, get sick, you can go someplace. And you don’t have to get a cab or borrow a car. If you don’t have a car you can walk there. It would have entertainment coffee shops and cafes.”
“The previous chancellor tried to,” Kahele said. “The sign is over there. The signs not there now, but the posts are there. But they got no takers. We came very close in 2009 to having Chinese developers from Taiwan develope this, but it never happened. So I want to know, what are we gonna do about it? You know, when are we gonna develop this? Because for you students, imagine if you had an amazing place you could go to right across from the Vulcan Athletics and there was a – maybe not a Buffalo Wild Wings – but there was a place where you could go, you could eat, you could watch sports.”
“A key component to this that’s already in place: university zoning,” the senator said. “Gerald DeMello got that. You know how hard it is to get university zoning? Is either a luxury resort or residential… and we have this special zoning called university zoning. Is that a good thing.”
“This is 36 acres. This is prime time real estate. This can be a really a benchmark for our community. But it’s gonna take a business vanguard community. You can’t just hand this off to somebody here at UH-Hilo. You can’t hand it off to Carlton Ching over in Manoa. You need to have that business acumen here in Hilo.”
Sen. Kahele will be conducting a statewide higher education tour at various University of Hawaii system locations throughout the month of October.