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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 15, 2001

Volcanic Ash
UH vision requires sturdy legs

By David Shapiro

University of Hawai'i President Evan Dobelle has dazzled UH boosters with his grand vision of the university as a catalyst for a resurgent Hawai'i and the educational hub of the Pacific.

His enthusiasm has been infectious and welcome. But to make the promise real, Dobelle must back the vision with solid planning to prioritize goals.

Some of the big ideas he has floated so far, such as a new film school and an upgraded football program in a new stadium, come off as shots from the hip that circumvent any planning process.

When the director of Hawaiian studies is surprised that Dobelle plans to increase her budget substantially and the football coach is surprised that the president wants to join the Pac-10, it's hardly the sign of a master plan at work.

Dobelle's most important job is to define the university's core mission and sell it to his diverse constituency of students, faculty, regents, politicians, business leaders and community interests.

UH must support its core mission with a strategic plan that sets priorities for achieving goals according to the greatest needs and available resources.

Only then can such ideas as a film school or a new stadium be judged in a meaningful context.

These questions define the university's core mission: What programs can give our students the greatest chance to succeed in this world and provide better lives for our citizens? In which areas are we uniquely positioned by geography and culture to excel academically? How can the university best support the state's economy and the needs of the region? Which programs can bring in resources to support the university and Hawai'i's interests?

Dobelle's notion that UH should excel in everything it does is noble. But with finite resources, UH must choose carefully what it does and be realistic in defining excellence.

We can have an excellent business school without overtaking Stanford. We don't have to match Harvard to have an excellent law school. In areas such as astronomy and travel industry management, it's realistic to aim to be the best.

It's particularly absurd to define football excellence as contending for a national championship. For reasons of geography alone, this is unlikely to happen.

UH football has been favored with ample new resources in the past two years and has yet to fully assimilate the gains. For now, there are more important priorities for UH, and football fans would be happy to define excellence as returning to contention in the WAC, which the Warriors can do just fine from Aloha Stadium.

Dobelle has spent his honeymoon period telling people what they want to hear, and he's entitled to that. But the real test of his leadership will come when he has to tell some folks what they don't want to hear — that their interests don't fit the university's core mission — and then persuade them to support his vision anyhow for the common good.

Many of Dobelle's first steps have been impressive. He sent in savvy consultants to scope out UH before he arrived, made excellent appointments, is running the university's finances through a rigorous audit and shows interest in settling longstanding faculty resentment over salaries.

Regents and political leaders put their reputations on the line by bringing in Dobelle at such a high salary and have a big stake in his success. That gives him leverage to move aggressively, and he has the political skill to exploit it.

It's good that Dobelle has us thinking big about the University of Hawai'i. He just needs to keep in mind the difference between thinking big and living large.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net