Growing tab for UH head-hunts amid budget crunch

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A campus that’s in disrepair. Students paying more. Even cuts in the classroom. So why is the University of Hawaii spending big bucks on recruiting for high-paid positions? And is it money well spent?

The latest top-job openings at UH are for two high-paid research and development posts, one at the system level, one for Manoa. We wanted to know what they’ll do for the university. The answer we got? Be rainmakers when it comes to high-tech and training grants.

“We currently are in the $450 million to $ 500 million range in extramural funding,” explained David Lassner, the university’s VP for information technology and chief information officer. “We aspire to double that to $1 billion over the next 10 years.”

But how to find the right fits? UH policy requires any executive search to be a national recruitment effort, for which they advertise to spread the word in a variety of industry publications. They also say an essential element is a paid search firm.

Those research jobs will cost UH $169,000 just in head-hunting fees.

Others that cost a lot in executive search include UH president, $109,000 to find candidates that included M.R.C. Greenwood.

Wooing athletic director applicants cost nearly $70,000. UH picked up Ben Jay there.

Finding a chancellor for UH Manoa cost more than $100,000 dollars for a pool that included Tom Apple.

It all adds up to nearly $800,000 over five years, and a couple hundred thousand more had been approved, through procurement exemptions, but not contracted for or withdrawn.

“That’s ridiculous,” Physics major Malu Beamer says of the nearly $800,000 expenses. “I just feel they shouldn’t be spending that kind of money on that kind of stuff. The department I work on could definitely use some new lab equipment.”

“We pay so much and we want to see that come back to us,” said Library Information graduate student Annemarie Aweau. “Support programs, looking around you can see there’s definitely a lot of repairs that need to be done. I think it would be great if we didn’t have to pay as much parking.”

“That’s a lot of money, man, could be going toward the campus, especially the state our campus is in,” said undergrad Cory Morimoto.

KHON2 asked UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple this: “How can you tell a student that these hundreds of thousands of dollars not spent in the classroom are really going to benefit them?”

“You could ask me the same question, is it worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars to mow the grass, and to clean the leaves and things, that’s not being spent in the classroom,” Apple said. “I argue, yes, a beautiful campus helps us recruit better students and better faculty and better staff.”

UH says the research executives will pay off for students, faculty, even for Hawaii’s economy if they can bring home the bacon.

“You can’t just pick between fixing the toilets in the athletic department or fixing the leaky roofs in the library or building the research mission and fixing up classrooms, we have to do all of that,” Lassner said, “and in fact this investment helps us generate revenue that helps us solve those other problems as well.”

The spending on headhunting to get them is just the start. All these paid-search posts since 2008 cost about $2.7 million a year in salaries. More than $400,000 of that goes to Apple.

“I would hope that having a good chancellor is worth it to the student body,” Apple said. “Probably ought to ask them whether they’re happy I’m here or not and whether I’m moving the campus in the right direction.”

So we did ask: “How’s Tom Apple doing?”

“I have no idea who that even is, yeah?” responded Beamer.

“Is Tom Apple doing a good job?” we asked Morimoto. “Honestly I don’t even know who that is,” Morimoto said.

“I don’t know who that is,” said undergrad Japanese/SLS major Stacie Nomura.

“He’s your chancellor,” KHON2 said.

“Good to know,” Nomura said. “There’s always going to be a disconnect between the students and the administration.”

A disconnect, that is, until things start going wrong. Take past UH President Evan Dobelle — he cost $147,000 dollars to hire. The search firm that brought us former athletics director Herman Frazier cost more than $60,000.

“If we look at the record of people we’ve recruited from out of state, as high as the president’s office, down to VPs and AD’s, we’re going to find that many of them did not meet what it is we were looking for and in fact did some damage to the university,” said Senate President Donna Kim.

“They say they’re going to keep going with it, that this is an essential part of what they need to do to find the best people, what can be done about it?” KHON2 asked Kim.

“I think the regents need to stand up those are the kind of things we talked about in the session, in the (Stevie) Wonder Blunder hearings (into the concert-booking scam),” Kim said. “I hope the message is finally getting through. I will be calling upon the regents to make sure they in fact exercise their accountability as well as their oversight over the administration, and some of these costs have to be cut.”

Will they ever pare back that spending? I’ll be following up with the regents to find out if, and when.

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