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

UH's Mortimer looks back on stormy eight-year tenure

 •  Recalling the best, worst of times at UH
 •  In Local News: Mortimer reign at UH a time of ups and downs

Q&A conducted by Jerry Burris, editor of the editorial pages of The Honolulu Advertiser

On July 1, Kenneth Mortimer will retire after eight years as the president of the University of Hawai'i. It has been a difficult tenure for Mortimer, who has struggled to lead a university in the face of the state's decade-long economic slump.

Mortimer recently sat down with Advertiser editors and reporters to look back at his time in Bachman Hall. Mortimer talked about the changing relationship between the university and state government; about his efforts to create a sense of financial independence for UH; and about the difficulty of being the only major public university on an island 2,500 miles away from anything else.

Q. So, taking the long view, how do you feel about your tenure at the University of Hawai'i?

A. I come with a sense of pride about the university and where we are. I believe the very large issues have gone very well.

I would have done certain things differently on the day-to-day stuff. But those things come at you all the time, and you handle them with the best information you have at the time. It's not like you can wait four years to make those decisions.

Q. What was your impression when you first got to Manoa?

A. I had some sense that the university was too much a creature of the state government, too closely intertwined with the political infrastructure of the state.

I believe we've made a lot of progress on that issue. The deciding matter was the constitutional autonomy amendment of last fall. That's an issue that people have been working on for 20 or 30 years.

In the '80s, they gave us lump-sum budgeting, and we just didn't know what to do with it. I've said we've got to find ways to handle these things when we get them.

The whole idea of the financial infrastructure of the university has undergone substantial revision.

If you look at the state's ability to step back, that has been a very successful story.

But it's not over by a long shot. I don't think we're operating in a perfect world. So at the Rotary Club this week, I said in order to make this work, we've got to have a fixed percentage of state budget — whatever the number is, 10 percent or whatever. If you get $3 billion, we get $300 million. We decide how much the faculty get paid.

All of this is just a complex way of saying we've tried to establish a different relationship with state government than that which characterized us in our first many years.

It's come a long way. It's important to the culture of our state to understand and, yes, at one time we were part of the partisan political infrastructure of the state. And we are not now.

Now they're arguing about what influence the governor has over the regents. That's a heck of a lot different than saying the governor is choosing the new dean.

So I think the Legislature and governor should be congratulated for their willingness to give up some element of control. That's an unnatural political act!

I believe that we've made a lot of progress on diversifying our revenue sources, and if you diversify your revenue sources, your customer base changes.

What is going on now is truly revolutionary. We are changing the way people think about money.

We have always been dominated by the general funds portion of it. Now, the general funds portion is something like $270 million and we spend $800 million. So what is happening is people are beginning thinking of the ways in which they can raise the money as opposed to just how they spend it.

That is the second major thing that has longtime implication in the way this university evolves. If you're going to be an entrepreneur, follow the money.

What is happening here is fundamental rethinking of ways in which we allocate resources.

Then there is a third matter. We have a better sense of what we do very well. We have made sure many times that our basis is at the level of which students can be proud: Teaching people how to read, how to communicate and understand that the quality of undergraduate experiences is crucial.

And a student who has been at any one of our campuses can transfer to a baccalaureate campus if they finish an associate degree.

Those are basic things which you have to do well. But what defines our character is our ability to invest in areas that are unique to the state of Hawai'i, or what our needs might be.

We are the only state in the union that has our own language. It is an official language — so we teach it. And wouldn't it be dumb if we didn't have ocean sciences and astronomy and all that?

The question you always have to ask, though, is where are we getting the money?

Well, we're getting the money from the other guy.

It's been an internal reallocation program. I listen to all this stuff about (cuts) being across the board, and I say: You oughta ask some of the folks who are suffering whether or not they think it's across the board. They know darn well, they are differentially disadvantaged so we can excel in the astronomy and ocean sciences and other matters of that sort.

Part of the dissent and disruption is: How do you tell someone they're not as high a priority as something else is? So the basic argument is responding to things we can do uniquely well. We have a better sense of priorities.

Q. It's been said that the price you paid for autonomy is a decline in the real level of support you've received from the Legislature — from the state general fund.

A. The basic challenge of that is to understand that the university is still a public university, and part of the conversation that's going to go on about our autonomy is how do you flesh out this skeleton that's been discussed?

We're in a state where the economic growth rate is 50th in the country for the decade of the '90s.

You have to deal with that reality. The denial that some of my colleagues feel about that is that somehow, during all of that, we should have done better then somebody else.

All over the country, resources have been shrinking. So I look at these guys who say we're shrinking because of autonomy and I say you are not living in the same world that I am living in.

Yes, our percentage of the state budget has shrunk, something like 12-13 percent in the eight years that I have been here. That's not so much because of the declining support of higher education — it's been part of it — but it's because of the increase in support for health, incarceration and other priorities that are moving up.

I've been criticized for acquiescing in this downturn, and I look at what is going on around the country and I say: "What world are you living in?"

I've made two arguments: 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.

I didn't think that was an effective strategy. In fact, I think this governor likes that kind of controversy. I just don't think it would be an effective way to do it.

They talked about my acquiescence (to the cuts) and how I lay down and enjoyed it all.

Hey, I relate somewhat when the governor starts talking about I gotta take wheelchairs away from people and take mothers off welfare so someone can travel to their latest conference. Those are real tensions that he has.

I'm critical of him privately and I've had ... very aggressive ... conversations with him about the future of the university.

And he is a person you can argue with privately. You don't often change his mind, I must say that, but you can at least enjoy your experience.

So I understand that argument, but I don't think that autonomy has a lot to do with the degree of support from the Legislature and the governor.

Q.When you talk about prioritizing ocean science and astronomy, was that done in part through internal reallocation, or on the basis of enrollment or what?

A. We made a conscious decision to concentrate on those things where we had a comparative competitive advantage.

We allocated money differentially to our high-priority areas and positions simply follow that. When you have the money, positions are not a problem.

Q. Should there be a faculty union?

A. I always said if you're heavily controlled by the state, unionization is the only protection. I wrote a book in the '70s in which the argument was that you can't be both management and labor at the same time. And in a mature university, the faculty really are performing managerial functions.

But if negotiations are really going to be with the state, then you've really got to protect yourself.

Q. Getting back to setting priorities: It seems more complicated in this state than in most. We are isolated. So how do you achieve excellence in astronomy or biology without damaging the basic core? Isn't this complicated?

A. It is. We have what I call the 2,500-mile syndrome. We have the structure for a research university for 35,000 students, but we only have 17,000. We have no choice. That is the 2,500-mile syndrome.

If you say you're going to shut down the law school, you are saying local kids have will have to leave here to become lawyers.

Q. So to come back to that question, how good does a program have to be before you can comfortably shift some of its resources?

A. Those who would argue that our base is eroding would have to deal with the fact that the student faculty ratio at Manoa is about 11 or 12 to 1. That's a very favorable student-faculty ratio.

It's a basic argument about what choices one wants to make.

Q. So is it like a buffet? The food's all there, but the gourmet entrees are scarce?

A. The gourmet entrees are going to be selective. You have to say that. For instance, I've said many times we're overextended at the Ph.D. level. If you're going to restrict, you have to do it at that level.

Or, did you know that we have as many master's degrees as we have baccalaureate at Manoa? So how are you going to sort this out? You cannot afford national stature in all areas.

The heart of the decisions about what programs is academic judgment. Somewhere in there, you have to fit in the money you can afford.

Q. What about simply eliminating some things that aren't top priority?

A. The one thing that I'm criticized for is that I didn't close major programs. Why didn't I do that? I'd suggest that's the wrong question.

The big decisions that should be reported more are the decisions not made. I didn't close the law school. I didn't close the medical school, I didn't move Trop Ag to Hilo. I did not move astronomy to Hilo.

Why didn't I do that?

Because we're in Hawai'i. Those are real judgment calls. So my critics would say: You gotta close the medical school. You gotta close something. I think I could have gotten away with things like closing the law school at the time when the money was so bad. But we put it on a tuition-driven model, so about 70 percent of its income now comes from tuition. So now it makes it less economically important to close the law school.

So I'm sensitive to the issue that you raise because it's unique to us. It's a curse and an advantage.