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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 17, 2001

Mortimer reign at UH a time of ups and downs

 •  In Focus: Recalling the best, worst of times at UH
 •  In Focus: UH's Mortimer looks back on stormy eight-year tenure

By Jennifer Hiller
Advertiser Education Writer

The marching band stood by with a drumroll, 500 people in the Stan Sheriff Center leaned forward expectantly and University of Hawai'i President Kenneth Mortimer struggled under the spotlight, wrestling with a box decorated to look like a cartoon dynamite detonator.

UH President Kenneth Mortimer oversaw a substantial increase in the amount of federal grant money the school received.

Cory Lum • The Honolulu Advertiser

Finally, after a long, awkward pause, the fake dynamite boomed, confetti fell and a banner unfurled in victory to announce the final amount in Mortimer's successful fund-raising campaign: $116,353,839.

It always seemed to be like that for Mortimer. Even at times of triumph, there were complications.

At the end of this month, Mortimer will complete his farewell to the university and state he seemed to have so many connections to, but no connection with. After eight years as president — and nearly 40 years after his first visit to Hawai'i to meet his in-laws — Mortimer leaves one of the most powerful positions in Hawai'i to return to policy study, publishing and consulting in a life of semi-retirement.

His institutional legacy is one of accomplishment. He oversaw a substantial increase in the amount of federal grant money UH received, established autonomy, drew millions from a newly active fund-raising initiative and, despite an unprecedented budget crunch, targeted innovative academic programs for special infusions of money. He attracted talent as diverse as football coach June Jones and Dr. Edward Cadman, who left Yale New Haven Hospital to run Hawai'i's foundering medical school.

But nearly every advance was countered by a fumble as Mortimer struggled to repair an institution rotted by malaise, political intrigue and a seemingly endless series of budget cuts. Plunging faculty and student morale, tuition increases, sliding national rankings, the difficulty in attracting and retaining top-flight staff and a bitter 13-day strike by professors are easier to remember than the crucial but arcane realm of his administrative prowess. Ask a layman about the bright lights of Mortimer's tenure and he'll likely talk about cloned mice or a bowl win — hardly the sum total of Mortimer's accomplishments.

Quiet, occasionally aloof

Kenneth Mortimer and UH through the years
 •  November 1992: Kenneth Mortimer appointed University of HawaiÎi president, effective March 1, 1993. He replaces Al Simone.
 •  October 1993: Mortimer selects Hugh Yoshida as new athletic director to replace the late Stan Sheriff.
 •  1995: UH faces a $27.8 million budget cut.
 •  November 1995: Bob Wagner is fired as UH football head coach. Fred vonAppen is hired.
 •  1996: University must cut another $10 million from its annual budget. Enrollment in the UH system drops 8 percent.
 •  February 1996: UH Board of Regents approves tuition increases for undergraduates over a two-year period. Regents also vote for tuition increases in the medical and nursing schools the following month.
 •  February 1998: Regents approve a 3.3 percent tuition increase.
 •  June 1998: UH scientists successfully clone multiple generations of mice.
 •  November 1998: UH fires von- Appen after a winless football season.
 •  December 1998: June Jones hired.
 •  June 1999: Announcement that the School of Public Health will lose its accreditation in one year.
 •  July 1999: UH receives poor accreditation report. Western Association of Schools and Colleges says the university urgently needs to fo- cus on communication, planning, administration and governance. Students and faculty members call for Mortimer's resignation.
 •  August 1999: UH's ranking out of 228 national universities in U.S. News and World Report drops from 98th to 152nd.
 •  September 1999: Board of Regents votes with Mortimer's suggestion to fold the School of Public Health in the medical school rather than pay for improvements. Students call for Mortimer's resignation.
 •  March 2000: Board of Regents unanimously rejects a 3-4 percent tuition increase that Mortimer had advocated. He is criticized for the use of armed deputies at a student sleep-in protesting the proposed tuition increases.
 •  May 5, 2000: Mortimer resigns as president.
 •  November 2000: UH wins constitutional autonomy.
 •  March 2001: UH students walk out of class in support of faculty members seeking better salaries and working conditions. Evan Dobelle, Mortimer's successor, is hired. Days later, the regents pass a controversial tuition increase that Mortimer pushed for.
 •  April 2001: UH faculty members go on a 13-day strike.
 •  June 19, 2001: Farewell roast at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.
 •  June 29, 2001: Last day on the job.
A quiet, occasionally aloof academic who unapologetically describes himself as a bureaucrat, Mortimer was a political outsider who never quite clicked with Hawai'i's Democratic machine or, for that matter, with his own faculty, who looked at his background as an expert in administration and saw a different breed of academic.

At his most difficult times, students and faculty held signs that said "Lead or Leave" and wore "Axe the Axeman" buttons around campus to call for his resignation.

But even during the good times, Mortimer never quite managed to shake the budget and morale problems that hung around his presidency like a weight.

"I wish I had been luckier and had a rising economy, but I didn't," Mortimer said last week. "I take a lot of heat for the things I did."

In March 1993, Mortimer became president of the 10-campus UH system and chancellor of the Manoa campus. Word spread quickly that UH had hired a detail man. But conspiracy theories soon spread that Mortimer was brought in as a union-buster, a number-cruncher rather than a visionary. Professors worried about his published work that talked about the three R's of higher education: reduction, reallocation and retrenchment.

More realistically, among his other attributes, Mortimer was chosen as a cost-cutting manager suitable for what had developed into an economic plunge that lasted most of the decade.

"He was in a box and was never able to climb out of that box," said Alex Malahoff, president of the UH faculty union. "That box was the budget and very poor morale. The other problem he had was a governor that was not favorably inclined toward the university."

UH lost vast amounts of state money during Mortimer's tenure. Its percentage of the state budget dwindled from around 13 or 14 percent a year to 9 percent in 2001. The system now receives about $35 million less than it did in the early 1990s.

University spending grew 22 percent in a decade, barely half the national average. The state ranks 45th nationwide in increases in the amount of state tax money dedicated to higher education over 10 years, according to a recent study by the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University. When the past two budgets are considered, Hawai'i ranks last.

The result was that about 13 percent of faculty positions — 370 — went unfilled during the last academic year because there was no money to hire people. The university also has a $166 million backlog in repairs and maintenance.

A report from the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems released last fall said UH needed at least $100 million more to begin recovery.

"Mortimer came in at an awful time and is leaving at an awful time," said Jim Dator, director of the Center for Future Studies, who has been at UH since 1969. "Just like (Mortimer's predecessor) Al Simone couldn't fail even though he was not particularly able — but there was lots of money to go around — so no one could have been a successful president when Mortimer was here."

Nothing makes Mortimer angrier than people saying he acquiesced when the Legislature and the governor cut his budget. "If it was going to be effective for me to bang my head on the table and stamp my foot and lay down on Kalakaua and scream bloody murder, I'd have done it," he said.

Fundamental changes

His legacy, he maintains, will be that he made fundamental changes in the way UH thinks about money. The $116 million fund-raising campaign was Mortimer's brainchild and a new effort for the university. The amount of federal dollars flowing to UH in research grants and contracts has doubled and could pass $200 million for the first time next year. Autonomy has given UH administrators and board members more control over their finances.

Mortimer acknowledges that history may treat him more kindly than the present assessment of his tenure. "I don't think you'll understand it a year after I'm gone, but I think you'll understand it five years after I'm gone," he told the Honolulu Rotary Club last week.

Mortimer was raised the son of a Massachusetts farmer who also supervised a prison farm. His mother sewed his clothes out of feedbags and made him go to school every day in a coat and tie.

The experience of his childhood bred a stubborn streak in Mortimer that gave way over time to a detailed, analytical mind. By the time he was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, the Mortimer persona had solidified and a classmate took to calling him "Stone Face."

While in graduate school, Mortimer met Lorraine Murai, a Honolulu girl who graduated from Roosevelt High School. They married and raised a daughter, Lisa.

Despite his family connection to Hawai'i, Mortimer could never shake the image of the isolated, East Coast bureaucrat from Bachman Hall. "I'm an academic," Mortimer told The Advertiser in 1998. "I didn't take this job to become a personality... I'm not a walk-across-the-room, shake-hands kind of person. I'm a stand-back analyst."

In a state that prides itself for its diversity and acceptance, Mortimer found himself constantly chided for wearing suits and ties. At times, he made a sort of fashion compromise— aloha shirt with jacket.

The suit-and-tie criticism became a metaphor for Mortimer's lack of rapport with faculty and the community, although in his self-effacing way, Mortimer eventually joked about his wardrobe.

But the disconnection was never more apparent this spring when one of the most popular homemade protest signs during the faculty strike revealed the distance between UH leadership and the rest of the campus: "Someone Please Do Something."

Mortimer did enjoy popularity among the business community, who appreciated the difficulty in making the unpopular decisions forced by a shrinking budget.

"Running that university is like running a large corporation," said Bruce Coppa, executive director of Pacific Resource Partnership and a board member of the UH Community Partnership. "He had to deal with the Legislature, the governor, the professors, the union and the students. He took a lot of hits. I'm sure there were times when he looked in the mirror and wondered why he was doing it. I'm sure he leaves with good memories more than the bad ones, though."

Mortimer was also admired for his efforts to win more independence for UH, Coppa said.

"I was quite impressed. He knew what he wanted and he was very clear and focused. He was very clear about autonomy," Coppa said. "He came across as an average guy. This was a guy who had the same objectives I did: to get the economy going. He opened up my eyes to the ways the University of Hawai'i could be so important to state."

Budget accountability

Evan Dobelle descends the stairs at Bachman Hall ahead of outgoing UH President Kenneth Mortimer and his wife, Lorrie, following the announcement of Dobelle's appointment as the new UH president.

Advertiser library photo • March 9, 2001

Mortimer did manage to establish a new relationship between the university and the state. In 1993, the Legislature began giving UH increasing authority to manage its own affairs but demanded more budget accountability.

UH eventually gained control of its tuition money and in November 2000, voters approved constitutional autonomy for the university by an overwhelming majority.

Rep. Roy Takumi, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said Mortimer's greatest accomplishment was winning autonomy.

"He's really laid the groundwork for the new president to take the university to another level," Takumi said. "I think he had one of the toughest tenures. He had to deal with shrinking resources and increasing demands, especially at UH-Hilo and the community colleges. He was perhaps the right man for the time."

Although Mortimer may never have been completely at ease with the political role he had to play, neither did he make political enemies. "I think President Mortimer is a very straightforward, plain-spoken kind of president. He's not a politician," Takumi said. "He feels very passionately about the university, but he's not the backslapping, joking guy. He's very staid. I think he's better in small groups."

If Mortimer made any enemies, they were in his own back yard.

"He created divisions on campus," said Victor Kobayashi, dean of the Outreach College. "Now there's a lot of suspicion and a lot of distrust." Some of Mortimer's biggest accomplishments —

fund raising, winning autonomy and emphasizing the profitable grant-winning colleges at the expense of others — call into question what is considered sacred about academic study, Kobayashi said.

One of the lowest points came in 1999 when the Western Association of Schools and Colleges renewed the university's accreditation but blasted its communications, planning, administration and governance. The accreditation report gave new fuel to faculty and students who had been calling for Mortimer's resignation, complaining about his lack of leadership, isolation and budget cutting.

Many saw the last straw for Mortimer as the decision by the Board of Regents to reject his proposed tuition increase in March 2000. He had worked on the proposal for months and saw it as essential to proving that the university could move closer to raising more of its money. He announced his resignation soon after the vote.

The regents approved the tuition increase this year.

No tell-all books

"For his sake, I hope his legacy improves," said Barry Baker, outgoing president of the Manoa Faculty Senate. "It's not particularly positive now. It's not something he could have helped. I'm very sympathetic to him. Being a university president is not a popularity contest. But you have to ask, 'Is the university a better place?' Unfortunately, one has to say, 'No, it is not.'"

Mortimer's departure may also be defined by the list of things he says he won't do: comment on the new administration, stay in the state or keep a visible presence at UH, either as an emeritus president or a tenured faculty member.

"I'm not going to do a David Yount," Mortimer said, referring to the book "Who Runs the University?" by the former vice president for research and graduate education that detailed the inner workings of the UH administration.

Instead, commensurate with his personality, Mortimer will slip off Hawai'i's radar screen at the end of June. He likes it that way.

Although he will keep his tenured position at the College of Education, Mortimer will officially go on a paid sabbatical for a year. He will continue to receive his salary of nearly $170,000 a year and will become a senior scholar at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems in Boulder, Colo. If he wants an office away from the home he and his wife purchased and are remodeling in Bellingham, Wash., he can have one at Western Washington University as their emeritus president.

He turns 64 next month and says he is growing happier every day. "I can't imagine taking a full-time job and running anything," he said. "I don't want to run anything anymore. We're looking forward to not having the responsibilities."

After a farewell roast Tuesday at which he will have the last word, Mortimer will leave Hawai'i still wearing a suit and tie. In eight years, no one came to expect otherwise.