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

Recalling the best, worst of times at UH

 •  UH's Mortimer looks back on stormy eight-year tenure
 •  In Local News: Mortimer reign at UH a time of ups and downs

By George Simson
Emeritus professor of English, University of Hawai'i

What follows is a reckoning of the six best and six worst occurrences at UH during my 38 years as both active and emeritus professor.

Reinstatement of faculty member Oliver Lee in 1968 established First Amendment freedom of speech as a living principle.

Advertiser library photo • April 15, 1969

The six most important good events

1. The most important good event: the successful resolution of the Oliver Lee case (1967-69) in favor of Lee, academic freedom and the First Amendment. The reason this is important is that it was about freedom of speech.

Without freedom of speech a university is nothing but a cultural trade school. The Lee case established First Amendment freedom of speech as a living principle at UH.

2. The second most important good event: the late David Yount's book, "Who Runs the University?: the Politics of Higher Education in Hawai'i, 1985-1992" (1996): Why was Yount the only one brave enough to speak out, and speak out with so many specifics?

Yount may have been the first to admit the historical irony that his book is one of the beneficiaries of the Lee case, even after UH President Mortimer threatened him with a lawsuit. Under the aegis of freedom of speech, Yount and the UH president were able to write and publish a wittily styled and meticulously documented memoir with some excellent short pieces showing why Bachman spends too much money on too many anchors and not enough on topgallant sails when the ship is stuck in the Sargasso Sea.

3. The third most important good event: the slow, painful and steady development of the UH Library into a major research library between 1965 and 2001. That the UH library through the admirable dedication of its librarians and concerned faculty has been able to rank as high as 42nd (in 1994) among over 110 research libraries in the United States and Canada is one of the outstanding stories of institution-building in Hawai'i.

4. The fourth most important good event: the growth of the UH Press. The UH Press, like the UH library, is at the heart of the UH duty to communicate to the world.

The UH Press has risen from roughly position 40 in annual sales among its national peers to about position 12.

5. The fifth most important good event: the visiting lectures at UH sponsored by the ASUH in the 1960s: Martin Luther King, Jr., James Farmer, Robert Simmons of the Louisiana White Citizens Council, Communist Party boss Gus Hall and American Nazi fuhrer George Lincoln Rockwell. When King walked down the aisle of a packed Amdrews Amphitheater, he created the one moment of inspired grandeur I ever witnessed at UH.

Judge Simeon Acoba, while a student senator and one of the main movers of these symposia, told me that at first ASUH was not going to perform its one historically significant act. ASUH never again rose to such heights.

6. The sixth most important good event: the UH faculty finally acting in concert to preserve its identity and self-respect by pulling off a moderately successful strike — in effect giving UH a fighting chance to compete academically.

The six worst events, often perennial

1. The worst event, because it is the perennial outward and visible manifestation of an inward state of gracelessness, is the architecture of the Manoa campus. The bluff in lower Manoa has one of the most salubrious climates in the world and is one of the all-time great university sites. The university buildings put there represent one of the great despoliations of a beautiful place in the history of man-the-maker. Form, function, motive, craftsmanship — you name it — show that the pourers of these buildings hated UH.

Only the UH baseball stadium and maybe Korean Studies are world-class.

2. The second worst event is the overmanagement "Systems Central" bureaucracy at UH, ingesting from 13 percent to 22 percent or $70 million to $79 million of the budget for what is essentially picking up the telephone or punching to e-mail to "coordinate," or "cooperate" in counting paper clips.

3. Related to the second worst is the third worst: the management of money at UH.

Mismanagement of moneyfalls into three categories: A. overstaffing with watchbirds because the faculty may not go along with old-boy masking, B. paying too much for goods and services, perhaps $100 million too much in my 38 years here, mainly through bad bids, overruns without fines and shoddy goods; and C. placing the UH Foundation in peril through various lamentable skim-scams, the latest being a fine by the IRS of some $385,000.

4.The fourth worst act at UH has two parts. The first is the unconscionable leasing of the unseaworthy boat Holoholo in the 1970s with the subsequent loss of all hands including three UH researchers. The second part is the development of Agent Orange to defoliate Vietnam using UH people and facilities in the early 1960s. Those two occasions mean that UH is a purveyor of death rather than an enhancer of life.

5. The fifth worst act at UH is also not a single act, but an ongoing bad habit: the pervasive secrecy that affects all the most important personnel and money decisions at UH. The theory is that secrecy makes people more honest; my observation is that the opposite is true.

6. The sixth worst act at UH is specific, but has enormous implications for the future of UH: the failure of the UH administration to defend both property and intellectual rights against piracy perpetrated in China of the groundbreaking Chinese-English dictionary compiled and edited by UH Emeritus Professor John DeFrancis and published by UH Press.

DeFrancis, now 90, showed for the first time with 76,000 entries (expanded to 192,000 in the second edition) that Chinese could be phonetically alphabetized. This made written Chinese accessible to everyone who could hear it; 200-plus visual radicals no longer had to be the only organizing principle for written Chinese. UH could have been the catalyst for bring together over a billion Chinese and over a billion computers in the world.

George Simson is emeritus professor of English and retired director of the Center for Biographical Research at UH. He taught at UH from 1963 to 1998 and sits on three Ph.D. committees.