The accrediting agency that six years ago raised serious concerns about the University of Hawaii's operations is praising UH-Manoa for a big turnaround, saying the campus has "emerged from a difficult past," benefited from "stable" leadership and shows promise on meeting its goals.
But excitement about the glowing review is being tempered by questions over how tens of millions of dollars in state budget cuts will affect students, and continuing concerns over some $235 million in deferred maintenance at UH-Manoa's 300 buildings, most of which are more than 30 years old.
"We're doing a great job, and we're doing it with fewer and fewer resources," said Jon Goss, director of the UH-Manoa honors program, who is on a UH committee helping oversee the reaccreditation process.
"But at some point, it's going to snap . . . where the quality of services that you provide to students is going to be compromised."
Still, UH administrators, professors and students said the new report from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, whose accreditation is needed for UH to receive federal funds and for its students to be eligible for federal financial aid, shows that UH-Manoa is in a far better position than in 2004, when WASC reaccreditation was in question.
In its report, the WASC acknowledged it has had an "intense" relationship with the university, coming to a head in pointed "action letters" to UH administrators or at-times scathing reports.
A 2004 WASC report following a "special visit" expressed concerns about the distrust and discord between the Board of Regents and then-president Evan Dobelle - and how that friction was hurting progress at the UH system and its biggest campus. In an action letter to UH that year, the WASC said its concerns were serious enough to threaten accreditation of the four-year campuses in the UH system and said Manoa, in particular, had been "stymied" in its goals.
UH administrators later said it was unlikely WASC would ever pull its accreditation.
In the new report, the WASC said the concerns it raised in 2004 appeared to have improved somewhat by 2007, when a team made a special visit to the system. During a visit in December 2009, the situation was significantly better, it said, and UH-Manoa was making big strides.
The report, which was approved by a WASC commission last week, is a key milestone in UH-Manoa's reaccreditation process. The WASC is expected to renew accreditation for the campus for 10 years in spring 2011, after a second visit next year to review educational initiatives.
The new WASC report commends UH-Manoa for clearly defining its strategic goals, for moving forward on improvements despite the tough economic times and for its stable leadership.
It said the regents, the UH president and the Manoa chancellor have a very "collegial working relationship." And it added that the campus has made progress in everything from academic advising to establishing a campus-centric identity and improving the experience for incoming freshmen.
Areas of concern, meanwhile, include students' perceptions that the campus doesn't offer enough support and mentoring, and that tenured faculty "avoid student interaction," the WASC said, adding that the perceptions - true or not - "can significantly impede" campus community-building.
The WASC also noted longstanding concerns about deferred repairs and improvements at UH-Manoa, and said plans to address infrastructure concerns could be hampered by increasing budget woes. It also said increasing energy costs are of concern and should be addressed.
With about 20,000 students, UH-Manoa is by far the university's largest campus and a big economic engine for the state, bringing in more than $400 million a year in grants and contracts. The campus boasts some 87 undergraduate and master's programs, and 54 doctoral and professional programs.
Administrators said the WASC praise was welcome but noted that continued improvements depend on how the university makes it through the difficult economic times.
"The WASC report recognizes . . . UH-Manoa has made tremendous strides," Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw said in an e-mailed statement to The Advertiser. "The challenge for us is sustaining the progress we've made despite substantial reductions in our budget."
UH-Manoa has seen its $386 million budget shrink by about $66 million, and more cuts are expected.
Reed Dasenbrock, vice chancellor for academic affairs at UH-Manoa, said the budget cuts largely mean that the university will not be able to move as quickly as it would like on several new initiatives. But he also said that improvements are being made - and sustained - despite the cuts.
"The core message is . . . we here at Manoa are taking a lot of the right steps," he said.
State Sen. Jill Tokuda, D-24th (Kailua, Kaneohe), the chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, said the university deserves high praise for improvements made over the past several years, especially in light of budget reductions.
"Even during tough times, our Research I institution . . . can show that it is doing well in providing our students a top-quality" education, she said.