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An Insightful Response to Lee Cataluna’s Column

aloha Lee,

I am very disappointed to read your position on the UHPA negotiations with the state in your column this past week.  The dispute over the contract is not as simple as a 5% pay cut. If you or anyone else in the media who are oversimplifying the issue would care to do more research on what you write (which the media has not been willing to do), you would more fully understand the true issues at stake.  You should read Professor Susan Schultz’ response to Greenwood’s memo to the UH community, or the text of Professor Jon Osorio’s speech at the teach-in on campus last week or listen to the numerous voices across our campuses expressing our collective frustration,  to gain a better understanding of what is really going on at the university, and what UHPA’s rejection of the contract offering is really about.

What is at stake here is not simply about a pay cut.  It is a moral issue that comes down to this: do we as a state, as a society, value education as we continually say we do, or don’t we?  Are we willing to “share the pain” of sacrificing for the good of education as a whole?  As the state “P-20” panel looks to ways to better integrate public education from pre-school through post-high, the state is demonstrating through their lack of funding and numerous cuts and take-backs that this is mere lip service aimed at winning re-election for savvy politicians, rather than real change and investment for our larger community.

As an UHPA member, I support the position my union has taken on our contract negotiations for several reasons.  First, I do not believe the Lingle administration has considered the interest of the state (including employees) in the contract offers, and I don’t feel pay cuts and/or furloughs are the best way to manage the current economic crisis.  The Lingle administration is trying to make UHPA accept a payroll lag as part of the new contract, which would result in a higher than 5% pay cut.  This, after UHPA took the state to court over the legality of the payroll lag during the last round of contract negotiations; the court, by the way, ruled in UHPA’s favor and against the state.  So why should we be forced to accept something which has already been settled?  There are also employee health benefit contribution shares and other benefits issues to be considered.

Second, I do not trust the UH administration, who is not being forthright with important issues such as retrenchment–the administration will not promise entire programs and positions will not be cut.  In addition, I am appalled at the horribly adversarial position the administration—led by a brand spanking new president, chosen from a dubious selection process, fresh from scandal and controversy at the institution she has come from, and good chums with the chancellor—has taken against the faculty.  Is this the best we can do for public education in Hawai’i?  Is this the kind of leadership the university and community it serves deserves? How does this position best serve Hawai’i?

Some people say that UHPA members are overpaid.  As a relatively new tenure track assistant professor in the humanities, I can honestly say I make nowhere near the $84,000 “average” salary being quoted in the media, and do not feel that constitutes overpayment in a career that requires a Master’s degree for some positions, a PhD for most.  By ridiculing our salary, you are also suggesting that public educators don’t deserve a decent wage for the work we do, which is an insult to all public educators and the education process; that is exactly what was intimated in your column, and through the state and UH administration’s mistitled, “last, best, and final” offer.  In addition, I don’t have any “cushy” consulting jobs on the side, as perhaps professors in selected fields, such as business or the sciences might have.  And really, if that is the case, isn’t that what professors—scholars, researchers, intellectuals and teachers—offer the communities we live in, our expertise we spent many hours and dollars in post-graduate education acquiring, so we can assist our communities, with our hard-earned expertise and knowledge, be better communities?  I don’t begrudge my plumber or lawyer or even elected official their salaries, because I value their expertise in these fields. Each profession has something valuable to offer society as a whole, if we are to be a vibrant, healthy community.

UHPA has been inaccurately portrayed in the media as pampered intellectuals, “haoles” from somewhere else.  There are a number of UHPA members—myself included—who are public school all the way, kindergarten through post-doctorate degree, born and raised in Hawai’i.  I dreamed of teaching at the University to work with local kids who I could relate to, who could have a teacher and mentor who they could relate it.  I come from a public school education on Kaua’i—where you and I were classmates at Kapa’a Middle School—where students have limited exposure to career possibilities, typically constrained to service industry jobs in tourism, the military, and until very recently, the plantation.  As a professor in a public university, I have the opportunity to teach and mentor many local students who, like me, struggled to even get to college, to break free from the “I am just a local kid, I am not smart and I am not worthy” mentality.  They struggle with their loyalty to family back home on Kaua’i or Moloka’i who don’t see why they are “wasting their time” with a college degree when they could be working in the hotel. Without a college education, I might ask, would you have had the chance to be a successful news anchor or columnist? Do you not feel your professors and mentors deserve to be fairly compensated for helping you and other hopeful students like you and I achieve our educational and professional goals?

Like most students, I worked long, long hours to even get to college.  I also paid huge costs in tuition, fees and books through the many years it took to obtain a BA, MA, and PhD.  I am still paying over $30,000 in student loans, and have colleagues in other fields—such as medicine, who are now teaching our young doctors in training—saddled with over $100,000 in school loan debts.  For those of you who are happily pursuing careers which don’t require the same level of education, perhaps if you had to spend the amount of time, money, and sacrifice we have had to invest to work at the post-high level of public education, you would have more understanding.

You and I are classmates.  We are the same age, and maybe have the same dream—to live and work in our homeland, the place we were born and raised and love.   I am 43 and divorced, struggling on one paycheck to pay rent and bills and just survive.  I can adjust to a 5% pay cut, if it were just that.  I cannot afford another estimated $200 a month in increased health benefit costs.  I cannot afford to lose one pay check in a payroll lag.  I cannot afford to put my trust in a state administration who continues to devalue public education at all levels.  I cannot afford to blindly follow a university administration who aligns itself with the state, effectively thrusting itself in an adversarial position against faculty, students, and ultimately, against public education.

This is not about a 5% pay cut.  This is about the foundation of democracy.  It is about the ethical stance of our state leadership on this issue.  Is public education a right, or a privilege?  For those of us who have dedicated our lives and careers to public service in the realm of education, it is the most basic of rights if we still value a free society based on democracy—the participation of all citizens for our collective betterment.  The United States continues to slip further behind in education than other western countries, and this is tied to our political and economic success.  Hawai’i’s educational ranking is also poor. I have traveled to third world countries with high illiteracy rates, where education is a low priority for the general population, where democracy is non-existent and only a selected few enjoy economic success.  Is this Hawai’i’s future as well?

I am completely dismayed that you chose to pit one level of public educator against another.  UHPA members have much sympathy for public school teachers and the deplorable conditions many of them work in: some of us have our children in those classes, some of our best friends and family members are HSTA members, some of us have even been HSTA members.  Some of us have worked, and continue to work, to support public education at all levels; we volunteer our time to our children’s schools, PTA, sports events, and so on.  Some of us don’t have children, but we do our part too—by supporting fundraisers, sewing costumes for the school play, making lei for our nieces’ and nephews’ May Day programs, volunteering to teach or coach.  In the past, I’ve been a literacy mentor in elementary schools on windward O’ahu.  Currently, I volunteer my time to teach writing in afterschool programs on the Wai’anae coast, driving on my days off from my home in Kane’ohe, trying not to look at my gas gauge, swallowing the cost with the usual teacher manta, “it’s for the kids.” As much as the general public paints us as ivory tower elites who don’t know what’s going on in the “real world,” we are part of communities across the islands—and yes, some of us live in Kalihi, in Wai’anae, in Waimanalo and Palolo valley.

University teachers do teach fewer classes than primary and secondary educators, not because we are the pampered elite, but because we work at a research university.  We are not paid to just teach classes.  We are paid to conduct our research, to run programs, to mentor and advise students, and for a host of other professional duties.  In the UH system, we have nationally and internationally recognized professors, researchers, and programs in many areas, from sciences to the arts, which demonstrate our excellence and commitment to these fields.  High profile projects, such as GMO or astronomy or sustainable technological advances make the news, but areas such as literatures of Hawai’i and the Pacific, drama, music, indigenous languages and area studies are also top notch,  due in part to the time, effort, research and mentoring that we as faculty do.

Many of us teach overload courses to make ends meet.  We allow extra students into our classes, or allow students to sit in; some class sections can easily have 36 students, others 60 to 100 or more.  While this means extra work for us, we do so to help students get through their programs faster (especially in light of tuition increases). Most, if not all of us serve as student advisors in our programs; some of us serve as graduate faculty and mentor the next generation of scholars and leaders in our fields, many of whom are Hawai’i students, and who will live and work in Hawai’i, contributing to our social and cultural fabric of life here as much as they will to the economy as employed, tax-paying citizens.   Students from other states or countries also contribute to the political, cultural, social and economic ties created through or fostered by their time in Hawai’i as part of the UH ‘ohana.  Many will serve as word-of-mouth ambassadors for the state and the university, with positive results for both.

Moreover, UHPA is not immune from the same shoddy teaching environment faced by other public educators.  The recent condemnation of Gartley Hall is but one small example (and one entire department, psychology, is now homeless).  I started my time at UH Manoa as an undergraduate student in the mid-1980s.  A few new buildings have appeared on campus.  Some of them (like the POST building) were so poorly funded they remain unfinished years later.  Many of our remaining classrooms and facilities have seen few if any upgrades, and typically they are only cosmetic ones.  The classrooms I teach in contain broken equipment—including tables and chairs for students—grossly stained carpets, cracked or broken plaster, windows inoperable due to rust or other mechanical malfunction.  Much of the furniture is older than me.  For decades the elevator in our building (Kuykendall Hall) has left disabled students stranded in, or locked out from the building, which is not ADA compliant.  It is only a matter of time before a lawsuit from serious injury or loss of life happens, and just hoping it won’t occur should not be par for the course.  We have an inefficient air conditioning system which breeds mold, resulting in a completely wasteful system in which classroom windows MUST be left open—wasting thousands in energy dollars—because closing them creates unsafe air quality, and hazardous respiratory conditions.  It is very difficult for me to accept that salary cuts are necessary, when every day I go to work I see the incredible waste of money poured into inefficient and ineffective facilities, which linger year after year.  Elsewhere on campus, the Hamilton library roof has leaked for years, resulting in some collections perpetually covered in plastic tarps, and moldy air quality so bad I can’t be on the second floor longer than 15 minutes or an asthma attack will commence.

UHPA is an easy target for public pressure and ridicule to accept the contract, because our last contract included a substantial 11% raise, which you bring up. But you failed to mention that this raise was to make up for inadequate levels of pay from previous contracts, and was an attempt to attain parity with similar educational institutions on the continental U.S.  With the proposed current pay cut, combined with increased employee health benefit contributions, the payroll lag, and taking inflation into account, we will not be losing just 5% of our pay, we will be economically worst off than before our last round of contract negotiations. That we are the ire of tax payers’ money is equally insulting—are we not taxpayers ourselves, who contribute to the economy?  Will employee recruitment and retention go the way of the “low bid contract,” where only those willing to take the most meager salary are left to teach? It may be the most cost effective for the state, but is that how we build quality public education?

UHPA is an easy target because post-secondary education is not viewed to be as valuable as primary and secondary education, despite many economic indicators that a high school diploma is no longer enough for sustained success in the work force.  However, without support for public education at all levels, including for HSTA, we will be even less relevant, because our students at the secondary level will be even less prepared for college.  This is the first step to eroding democracy. It is also outrageous and ironic that while our Hawai’i-born president calls upon educational institutions across the nation to increase school hours, Hawai’i is severely cutting back instruction days in the public schools, slashing pay and benefits for school employees, demonstrating in every possible way that public education in Hawai’i is not valued by our political leadership here.

You are correct that this is a very real economic crisis, one that we—as tax payers and citizens, not just university professors—are equally concerned with. And our union negotiators—as well as lawmakers, other union representatives, business leaders and other smart people in our community have all said the governor’s position is not the only way to successfully deal with this crisis.  Lingle has been presented multiple options to choose from to help ease the economic crunch; balancing the state budget on the back of public employees and education is unfathomable.  It is immoral and wrong.

You conclude your column by saying that we are smart people.  We are very smart people, and our overwhelming rejection of the current contract offering demonstrates that.  The community applauds us when we find breakthroughs in cancer treatment, or discover a way to eradicate fruit flies, or save papaya crops from damage, or when their children obtain their hard earned diplomas from our institution.  Maybe, just maybe, these kids will be saved from a life of hard labor in a sugar or pineapple field, from scrubbing hotel toilets or counter help at the fast food drive through.  Maybe they will be able to earn a descent wage and be able to stay home in Hawai’i, and not feel forced to move to another state, like my sister, and many, many others who can no longer to survive here.  Maybe, with a college education, they will be the next scholar to find a cure for cancer, find the breakthrough to make solar and wind technology more viable, and electric cars a closer reality.  Maybe, just maybe they will be the next generation of politicians and civic leaders and media commentators who will finally understand that state budgets cannot be balanced by sacrificing public education.   UHPA professors may not garner the most sympathy when compared to other publicly employed educators.  But the last I checked, the average primary and secondary classroom teacher was not on the cutting edge of these kinds of discoveries which benefit our communities and our economy.  Rather, they were hard at work doing their jobs—educating our children.  At the same time, we have been hard at work doing ours—educating and mentoring our future political, economic, and community leaders, conducting our research, finding breakthroughs, contributing new knowledge to established fields, creating or investing in new ones.

Recently, I find myself contemplating leaving education, and possibly leaving Hawai’i.  After struggling for 20 years with getting my own education, specializing in Hawaiian and Pacific literature, and running a journal to promote Hawaiian writers (‘Oiwi), I’m not sure I can take it anymore.  I never thought I would even consider leaving Hawai’i, but as a professional educator working in this field for most of my adult life—the culmination of which was supposed to be my professor position at UHM—I have never felt so devalued by an employer.  Sometimes I feel that all I struggled through to achieve an education was worthless—sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off staying in my hotel job just out of high school, because maybe I could have bought a house here, something I have already given up on as an educated professional.  But I realize that this is how those who don’t value education want us to feel, so they will continue to impose their own will on our society, shaping it to suit their political agendas and budget priorities, rather than do the hard work they were elected and chosen to do—serve their communities, and support public education.

Let’s be clear: the dismantling and erosion of public education is the dismantling and erosion of democracy itself.  Public education is a right, not a privilege. A good educational system must be funded in all aspects.  A good education should not be just for those who can afford private institutions.  We must have leadership who not just say they support education, but actually make painful choices to lend it full support.  Or, we must be prepared to concede that true democracy and the betterment of our community is no longer our common goal.   As a journalist who values our community, as a writer who has garnered success from working within and writing about the unique values and character of our Hawai’i communities, as a local girl who is a beneficiary of public education, and as a friend who I grew up and shared experiences with, surely you can understand that.

me ke aloha,
ku’ualoha ho’omanawanui