ABOVE: An aerial photo of the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center

Hawai‘i Governor David Ige and the state’s lawmakers are still ironing out the kinks in the state’s new biannual budget after Ige vetoed 26 budget-related bills and line items. But buried deep on page 1133 of the legislative budget worksheet was a provision untouched by the vetoing frenzy: the removal of University of Hawai‘i faculty position number 86231, a job that, until the beginning of this month, was filled by cancer researcher Carl-Wilhelm Vogel.

Because Ige didn’t veto that particular provision, the position’s removal went into effect at the beginning of July. According the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly (UHPA)—the union that represents Vogel and all other university faculty—Vogel was assigned a different position number by the university so that he remained employed by the institution. Still, the union is concerned by what it says is an unprecedented move to terminate a tenured professor by legislative action. 

“Just the egregious attempt by a legislator to go after a position number that they knew was filled—that’s why we were so upset,” says UHPA executive director Christian Fern, adding that Senator Donna Kim (D-14), the chair of the higher education committee, “is attacking the very core of the institution and going after faculty tenure.”

“This attempt to get rid of a particular faculty member is just one component of a much broader issue that we’re having in working with the legislature,” he says.

Additional concerns about the proposed budget were echoed by Dan Meisenzahl, a spokesperson for the University of Hawai‘i. While he says cuts were expected because of the pandemic, the severity of the cuts—about 14 percent of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa’s operating budget—was a surprise. The university only learned the extent of the belt-tightening, including the removal of Vogel’s position, when the budget worksheets were released after the bill had passed.

“We’re absolutely going to do what we can and continue to talk to lawmakers about the issue and work with the governor’s office,” he adds. “We support our scientists. We support our researchers.”

Senator Kim didn’t respond to The Scientist’s request for comment, but she defends cutting Vogel’s position to Hawaii News Now, saying that “in addition to teaching zero classes, bringing in zero dollars, [Vogel] doesn’t hold office hours.” 

“I don’t believe that tenure allows you to have a position and you can do nothing,” she tells Inside Higher Ed.

Meisenzahl notes that, during his tenure, Vogel has brought in about $52 million in grants from the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, and other funding agencies, and that Vogel and other members of the University of Hawai‘i Cancer Center faculty are research-oriented and have never taught classes—something that state legislators are aware of. Vogel didn’t respond to The Scientist’s request for comment.

Fern says it’s not up to the legislature to decide whether or not Vogel’s contributions warrant his $343,800 annual salary. “When has the legislature turned into the employer? Is it the Senators’ job to determine whether or not a particular faculty member is meeting his or her expectations?” he asks rhetorically.

Faculty union cries legal foul

Fern and the UHPA maintain that termination via legislation is illegal because it violates the union’s collective bargaining agreement. “For lawmakers to specifically identify a position number, and then to eliminate that—it does seem to supersede the collective bargaining agreement,” notes Meisenzahl, adding, “I’m sure we’ll get to the bottom of the legality question.”

The UHPA filed a case with the state’s labor board claiming the move violated their members’ Hawai‘i state constitutional rights, but the board refused to make a ruling citing a lack of jurisdiction, opening up the possibility of legal action. “I imagine it’s going to probably work its way through the court system,” says Meisenzahl.

Any court case will rely on demonstrating the bill’s passage caused direct harm, says Fern. Because Vogel remains employed, it’s not clear any harm was done—this time. 

Fern points out that Vogel’s position was saved because the university had about 60 unfilled positions. “What if there isn’t an open position to place another faculty member under?” he asks.

And it’s not just university faculty at risk, Fern says. “This could happen to any public servant whose job is funded through the legislature,” he notes, something he says is “very concerning.” 

Meisenzahl notes that the university collectively bargains with three public unions, including the UHPA, and “to have the legislature start to fire people, so to speak . . . it does compromise the university’s position as a hirer and employer, as we sign and agree to contracts with our unions.”

Fern says it undermines union contracts in general. “Why would the employer have to work with the union or consult with the union if they could simply go down to the Capitol and say, ‘You know what? This person, I don’t like them. I want you to cut their position number because they’re not doing their job.’”