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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 3, 2010

UH stalemate can't be left for courts to fix

The so-far fruitless University of Hawai'i contract talks are not only about faculty salaries.

The outcome will have a direct impact on a university system that trains new generations of professionals and leaders in the workforce and lays the intellectual foundation for a stronger, healthier Hawai'i. We all have a stake in a sensible settlement.

That's why it's so unnerving to see negotiators try to hammer out new contracts for its faculty, not with rational give-and-take, but with a bludgeon that threatens to damage the institution rather than sustain it.

The University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, representing teaching staff, and the UH administration seem locked on a trajectory for disaster.

M.R.C. Greenwood, the university's new president, has decided to unilaterally impose salary cuts based on the administration's final offer before the talks broke down, seemingly for good. The union calls this a breach of contract, contending that an arbitration ruling keeps current pay levels in effect due to an "evergreen clause" in the old contract.

Hello, ceaseless litigation. This strategy won't end well, for teachers, students or the university itself.

With every week that the dispute over the contract drags on, with more money thrown down the drain in legal costs, the more likely deep cuts in programs and staff will result. This would be a grievous step backward for a university system that needs to take several steps forward.

As for the union, it's hard to see that clinging to the "evergreen clause" is going to work for the members in the long run. There is no money to keep up the old pay package, and very little chance that lawmakers facing an election year will have the stomach for a tax increase to drive more funds into UH coffers, particularly when other unions are making concessions and some worthy public services are being slashed.

This is not the way to build a case for a larger, more forward-looking public investment in higher education and more support for faculty once the economy recovers. Taxpayers are all feeling the pinch now and have the right to expect that everyone makes concessions during such extraordinarily hard times.

It's time for UHPA and UH to bargain seriously for reasonable concessions with a clear end date so that the university won't lose too much ground in competitive hiring.

This impasse should not be left to the subordinate negotiating teams to solve. The crisis should prompt Greenwood and top union leaders to hit the restart button and initiate a settlement. It's critical to the university system's future that a productive relationship be forged between the new president and the unions that are established and permanent parts of the system.

Administrators also should consider other structural changes and prioritize spending to make the most of limited resources.

Unfortunately, raising revenue through tuition hikes must be an option, but one of last resort. For many Hawai'i students, UH offers the only affordable path to a college degree. Pushing the price beyond their reach defeats one of the principal purposes of the state university, and it may suppress enrollment growth, as well as sustainable financial support.

Both sides need to consider the greater good and long-term health of the institution in finding a way forward. Allowing key issues to be settled by the courts is not just unwise; it's an abdication of responsibility, both by the university administration and the faculty union.

It's time to stop posturing and to start talking in earnest.