Politics — About The Political Football With The UHH College Of Pharmacy

By Tiffany Edwards Hunt

In 2006, when John Pezzuto came to Hilo from Purdue University, he was at the pinnacle of his career.  A cancer researcher who’d worked at top ten ranked colleges on the mainland, he accepted the job as the founding dean of the University of Hawaii at Hilo College of Pharmacy because he personally wanted to help build something from the ground up.

Eight years later, a demoralized Pezzuto doesn’t have a permanent building to house the college, the Accreditation Council for the Pharmacy Education has threatened to put the college on probation for the fact that a building is not in place, and state lawmakers appear to be playing political football with the program for no good reason, or at least for no reason that anyone can say with certainty.

There is some glimmer of hope that the UHH College of Pharmacy can be saved. State Rep. Isaac Choy has introduced House Bill 1652, ensuring the financial self-sufficiency of the pharmacy program and appropriating funds to get a building constructed. That bill passed first reading and was introduced to both the House Education and Finance Committees by press time.

Hawaii pharmacy leaders first made the pitch for such a college in 1998, after the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye expressed his desire for UH Hilo to be the crown jewel of the university system, a “center of excellence,” and with Hawaii Island being “the healing island,” a good fit for the College of Pharmacy.  The UHH College of Pharmacy, according to Rose Tseng, then chancellor, was supposed to complete the UH system’s triad of medicine, nursing and pharmacy.

In April 2004, lawmakers authorized UH Hilo to receive $18.4 million for planning, design, construction, and equipment for a pharmacy building. In the fall of 2007, Gov. Linda Lingle released $5.5 million for the design and construction of four modular buildings on a four-acre parcel in the Univeristy Park of Science and Technology, next to the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

UH named WCIT Architecture of Honolulu to design the college’s permanent home. WCIT Architecture, headed by Hilo native Rob Iopa, worked with SmithGroup’s science and technology branch to design the building.   SmithGroup has also designed space for General Electric, Eli Lily, and the new Science and Technology Facility at the National Renewable Research Laboratory.

Iopa won the American Institute of Architects Honolulu Award for the design of “Ka Haka Ula O Ke’elikolani UH Hilo College of Hawaiian Language building as part of its 2010 Design Awards.  He promised to create one of the greatest spaces in Hilo with the pharmacy building.

At the last legislative session, Dean Pezzuto brought in the plans and design for a $55 million building, seeking money to build it. The College of Pharmacy had sought $38 million from State Legislature to build out the lower three floors of the five-story building for the UH Hilo College of Pharmacy and have the remaining two stories serve as shell space, mostly for laboratories for future growth. But Pezzuto  was told that the design, praised in Honolulu Magazine for being architecturally “innovative,” wasn’t any good and that it would be a “maintenance nightmare.” Lawmakers sent the pharmacy building plan back to the drawing board.  This was after Sen. Michelle Kidani had gone on record trying to see if the program couldn’t move to her district, to the West Oahu campus of the University of Hawaii system.  When College of Pharmacy administrators noted that that wasn’t feasible, that the program would have to be shut down before it could be relocated, Kidani and others in her camp pressed pharmacy college administrators on where their graduates are working and how much they were paid.  When legislators came to Hilo for a tour, Kidani asked one pharmacy student from Oahu how he endured living here.  (He noted that the cost of living was a lot better here and that he could afford to live in a house for the same amount he would be paying for an apartment on Oahu.)

Even Hawaii Island’s own Rep. Richard Onishi joined in the political football game.  He was among those who suggested the College of Pharmacy should solicit pharmaceutical companies to construct the building — an idea that Pezzuto plainly described as “nonsense.” 

Neither Onishi nor Kidani returned phone messages.  Nor did Rep. Sylvia Luke, whom Honolulu Advertiser columnist David Shapiro labeled as one of the “overbearing” legislators “who are getting way too big for their britches.” Shapiro, in a recent column entitled, “Overbearing legislators are tarnishing their images,” described how Luke “browbeat” UH officials for running a public service ad encouraging lawmakers to fund a building for the UHH College of Pharmacy.

Meanwhile, Pezzuto is doing all he can to keep the ACPE from putting the UHH College of Pharmacy on probation and, in essence, killing the program in which, at this very moment, 350 students are enrolled. The UHH College of Pharmacy fails to meet all 30 standards of the accreditation council, because there is no permanent building for the program. ACPE gave the College of Pharmacy two years from June 2013 to get a building in place.

“This is the kind of stuff to put you over the edge,” Pezzuto said. “There are so many facets to this, it’s like walking through wonderland in multiple dimensions.”

Pezzuto doesn’t understand fully what really is going on, and he doesn’t think he ever will. But he does understands bits.  “I can tell you what is going to happen to this college if we don’t get the funding, it will go down the toilet.”

UHH College of Pharmacy with $2.4 million to hire faculty and launch the program in 2006. The idea was to build the program step by step: to bring in students, bring in money, hire faculty, and build the program. Then, with the next class the following year, the college would hire more faculty and add more classes. But as the college has grown to collecting over $10 million in tuition per year, its funds have been getting tapped. Currently, its budget is a million dollars less than its revenue collected.

“What led me here was an opportunity to build a top ranked high caliber college,” said Pezzuto, seemingly deflated, having shown a poster sized colored drawing of the would-be $55 million building that legislators rejected last year.

Maybe a high caliber college can still be built, though.  In the year since lawmakers rejected the first design, WCIT Architecture has put on paper a run-of-the-mill square box type two-story building. And Rep. Isaac Choy has put forth a bill to save the UHH College of Pharmacy and fund the building. Choy’s bill essentially gives the college some of the money it collects back and then protects the college from the state taking pharmacy-generated revenue for other things.

Choy doesn’t believe the situation is as dire as Pezzuto does.

“My whole thing is, can we have a sustainable model at the college, from now into the future? Yes,” Choy said, noting, “the state and college have to make some concessions.”

Choy said the state can construct a building that is “sustainable for the future,” that will “hold up.”

“No other school at UH has tried this,” Choy said. “Only the pharmacy school will be independent and have to take care of its own finances, if everything is approved.”

Choy is optimistic the House will support his efforts. A CPA by trade and the chair of the Higher Education Committee, Choy spent the last few months developing a business plan with the College of Pharmacy. Noting that he had applied his “professional credentials” to the project, Choy said, “I’m confident the model should work.”

Beyond the College of Pharmacy, though, Choy pointed to the “macro level” and “the problem with the whole UH system.”

He recalled the state’s hope that UH West Oahu campus would be built for free — “all these things people buy into never came to fruition.”

“This is another clog in the way UH operates,” he said. “For the pharmacy school, we’re going to pick up the pieces. The other thing we’re working on is the cancer center,” Choy said.

“The way business is done in the UH system has gotta change,” he added.

He doesn’t blame Pezzuto for feeling demoralized.

He pointed out how the state is on the hunt for a new university president.  “Do you know all the problems the first day or do you get the job and then months later feel demoralized?”

“I have great hopes for the pharmacy school,” Choy said, adding of his bill, “I hope its accepted and we work the plan. Then, on to the next mess.”

 (Tiffany Edwards Hunt is the editor and publisher of Big Island Chronicle.)

2 replies
  1. Susan
    Susan says:

    Get rid of Onishi! He does not represent our interest, he is the same guy continuing to push GMOs! Is he on the same planet?

  2. Karl
    Karl says:

    As much as I feel for the pharmacy school’s trouble with politics, I’m not sure what else they expected when they got allocated $18 million and came back with a plan that cost $55 million. I would have told them to shove it as well. UH-Hilo has a chronic shortage of space and resources for the number of students it has, yet they want to take a huge chunk of the budget. Sorry, but it’s harsh when reality smacks you in the face.

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