Seniors in the rigorous dietetics program at the University of Hawaii at Manoa may not be able to graduate at the end of this year because there is no one to teach a mandatory class.
University administrators can't find a suitable accredited teacher to oversee a one-year course that two dozen or so seniors need to complete to earn their undergraduate degree.
Without the class, the students won't be able to fulfill the final steps necessary to become registered dietitians, which is why some fear being trapped in academic limbo that will delay their entry into their profession.
“It’s not just our education, it’s our careers,” said student Danielle Vivarttas, 27.
As Douglas Vincent, who chairs the department under which the dietetics program falls, said, “The consequences of having to cancel this class are enormous for them.”
Part of the problem is that students are not allowed to substitute the course in question, Medical Nutrition Therapy, with any other class. Across the nation, two semesters of medical nutrition therapy training are required to get a mandatory dietetic internship for anyone who wants to become a registered dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (Dietitians are experts in food and nutrition who advise people on what to eat in order to be healthy.)
The problem emerged when a professor who had taught the course at UH Manoa for three years and who was seeking tenure unexpectedly resigned just weeks before the start of the fall semester and relocated to California.
Dr. Vincent quickly lined up another one. He recruited a trained dietician who had previously taught the course. The challenge was that the instructor was already working full-time in another capacity at UH. The department chair arranged for her to cut that job down to 75-percent of her job so that the other 25 percent could be devoted to teaching the dietetics course. Bureaucratically both positions would be bracketed under the same salary. Vincent thought his problem was solved and the instructor started to teach the class in late August.
They soon discovered that the arrangement was a no-go when Vincent received a notice to that effect last Friday from high-level university administrators. The two funding sources to pay the salary couldn't be combined into a single salary due to funding regulations, Vincent learned.
And when the department chairman offered to hire the woman — who was already teaching the course — as a lecturer, a title that pays less, she refused the job.
“We moved forward assuming the approval would go through,” Vincent said. “When we were told no, we were kind of stuck.”
Several officials who oversee Vincent’s department couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday. The recently approved two-year UH budget included across-the-board cuts that average approximately 7 percent per program, according to Kris Hanselman, a faculty union spokesperson. This has forced administrators to rein in costs, she noted.
But Vincent says that the problem isn’t as much about funding as it is about bureaucratic restrictions on the use of money.
At this point, Vincent is desperate to fill the position — a particularly difficult feat given how small Hawaii’s "dietetic community" is. The course requires specific knowledge and training.
“We’re trying to find the right person,” he said. “And maybe not even the right person, but a right person.”
Asked about the possibility that the course will be cancelled, Vincent said, “It’s certainly a worst-case scenario, but it’s not an unreal scenario.”
Seniors say that cancellation would have far-reaching consequences because it’d push students at every level back one year. They sent a petition to several administrators Wednesday morning.
Some students even fear that the missing teacher problem is putting their program’s accreditation in jeopardy since it necessitates a medical nutrition therapy course that is taught by a qualified professional.