Wednesday, January 31, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 31, 2001

Island Voices
Abercrombie in running for UH president

By Bob Dye
Kailua historian and writer

Secrecy sucks! The search by so-called community leaders for the next president of the University of Hawaii has been kept from public scrutiny.

Neither the faculty nor the students have been informed of who the 60 nominees were. Nor do they and the rest of us know who the final 12 are. We are promised the names of the final five sometime soon. Too few, too late.

The secretive process employed in UH presidential searches in past years has not served us well. Look at the low faculty morale over the past decades, the dwindling academic reputation, the drop in enrollment at the Manoa campus, unfinished buildings and others in bad repair. The place has been badly supported and poorly managed. Which came first, I don’t know.

I hope Neil Abercrombie is still in the running for the top spot. He has single-mindedly devoted his adult life, a full quarter-century, to professional public service in Hawaii. And that experience makes him an excellent choice as the next UH president.

Unfortunately, "professional politician" is too often a pejorative term in Hawaii.

The two words carry bucketsful of odium, obloquy and sometimes even infamy and disgrace. So, I hesitate to attach that sobriquet to Democratic Congressman Neil Abercrombie, Ph.D., although he’s been one for a good long time.

Nominated for the prestigious post by the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly (UHPA), the faculty union, the 61-year old legislator has impressive professional credentials. He lists them as waiter, custodian, probation officer, graduate teaching assistant, college lecturer, professor, construction apprentice program director, and special assistant to the state superintendent of education.

But most people know him best as the vocal representative of local folks in Manoa and Makiki, first in the state House, then the Senate, and later as a Honolulu city councilman. Since 1990, he has served as Hawaii’s representative from the First Congressional District.

But we tend not to trust our own. Some old-timers will remember Neil’s comic-book campaign as "Super Senator," throwing pennies away on Bishop Street in a spectacularly unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate. And unforgiving hearts may recall a terse two-word letter to then-Gov. George Ariyoshi. (The word after the expletive was "you," as you may have guessed.)

Neil, at that time, was seen as an object of reform rather than its agent. Some voters got over wanting to cut off the messenger’s pony-tail and listened to his then-revolutionary message: Government can be a channel for change, not a barrier.

Recognized as politically gifted, he was elected, and went on to invest local politics with intellect.

Despite his outstanding record of public service, I freely admit that when I first heard that Neil was a candidate for the UH post, I was surprised. But my second thought was that Neil has the imagination and courage to reverse the negative attitudes about UH. We need him more in Manoa than in Washington, D.C. He can be the leader the students and faculty deserve.

What a refreshing personality change Neil would be from UH President Ken Mortimer, who was unkindly dubbed "Rigger Mort" by faculty who wanted a leader with vital signs. Neil would bring energy and idealism into the arcane political process of academe. Most of all, he would bring enthusiasm and passion.

Abercrombie may not have published a learned thesis on governance, but he has more intimate knowledge of Hawaii politics — from the City Council to the state Legislature to Congress — than anyone I know. How things get done is no mystery to him. But he will do them ethically as well.

Neil makes it clear that he did not apply for the job. He’s happily fulfilled representing Hawaii in Congress. But he’s willing to talk about accepting the UH position. For openers, he wants a promise that he has carte blanche in reorganizing the administration. He is a proven leader, and insists that he be free to lead this state’s most important institution.

There are other nominees from Hawaii, I’m told: at least one is a retired admiral and another a former Bishop Street bank executive. I hope their sponsors and supporters go public with expressions of endorsement. Only when the nominee list is open to public inspection can an informed selection be made.

The new president will be named by April Fools’ Day.

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