Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 13, 2001

Mortimer years tough to judge

By John Griffin
Former Advertiser editorial page editor

Kenneth P. Mortimer does not look or sound especially imposing, and yet he may go down as one of the more controversial University of Hawai'i presidents.

University of Hawai'i President Kenneth P. Mortimer will complete more than eight years as head of the university system when he leaves the Manoa position in June.

Advertiser library photo • May 1, 2000

So you have to wonder: What is his legacy after more than eight years heading what many of us think is Hawai'i's single most important institution? Is it the big budget cuts he was forced to make, his style that campus critics found at once evasive and abrasive, or something more positive?

It's early for any final assessments of the record of Mortimer, who leaves office at the end of June. Still, this might be a time to start.

Mortimer will be modestly in the news two ways today. He will preside over his last graduation at the MŒnoa campus. And the UH will announce he will next be a senior scholar at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems in Boulder, Colo.

Thus, mild-mannered yet controversial Ken Mortimer, at age 64 in July, will be going back to his longtime intellectual interest and specialty, policy and analysis. Some will say that's a better fit.

What follows is based in part on a phone talk with Mortimer this past week when he was in Washington, D.C., for meetings on higher education. It includes views from several longtime observers of the university. And part of it is my own thoughts as a one-time UH student and adjunct faculty member (in journalism), parent of community college and Manoa students, and member of a group that tries to foster better town-gown relations.

Mortimer took office at UH in March of 1993 amid conspiracy theories that he was brought in as an anti-union hatchet man to keep the university from greatness. More accurately, among his other attributes, he was chosen as a cost-cutting manager suitable for what had developed into Hawai'i's long 1990s recession.

"Ken was like Fudge (Fujio Matsuda, UH president in 1974-84)," says one observer, "a good guy who took over when the university hit a plateau or was sinking. They were managers, caretakers, which is not really what a university needs. Ken even called himself a bureaucrat."

Charismatic is not a word people use about Mortimer. But it's also possible to see some strange-bedfellow parallels with gruff Gov. Ben Cayetano in that they both took office in rough times yet managed achievements amid painful cutbacks.

UH president talks of his eight years at Manoa campus
 •  On leaving: "I'll have been here eight years and four months when I walk out the door. But who's counting?"
 •  On the recent faculty strike: "People will remember that forever, like they still do the strike back in the 1970s. One problem is the union faces the UH administration, regents, the governor, and legislature. Autonomy should give UH control over negotiating all non-money matters."
 •  The faculty: "It's a lot better than local folks realize or appreciate."
 •  The regents: "Their role will be more difficult with autonomy. There have to be changes. A lot more issues must to be settled at the vice president and dean level."
 •  The students: "It's been a difficult year, especially the last months of uncertainty. I feel for them."
 •  The community: "I wonder why we're not closer. There are more ties than people realize, groups that help the university. We get 30,000 gifts a year. There are some 90,000 alumni around. But people here have closer ties with their high schools. I know. Lori (his wife) went to Roosevelt."
 •  What UH needs: "First is more financial support. We lost more purchasing power than any other state university. Wages have got to go up more. Second, they have to deal with the internal issues."
 •  If he had a chance to do it over again: "You've got to play the cards you are dealt. We got seven years of budget cuts, and that dominates all else. It's best to be lucky."
Today, Mortimer feels that part of his legacy will be as "a slasher," remembered for the cuts he had to make in seven years of reduced state budgets, a problem not faced by any other state university.

Others give him varying grades. Some of their thoughts:

He and Cayetano didn't get on well, "but who does with Ben," says one insider. He did maneuver with skill in some political situations at the state Capitol. Also with the regents, some of whom came to resent his game-playing. He generally did well with business people downtown.

He never got close enough with the faculty, and he often picked weak staffers. He didn't communicate well on campus, where he was more an imperious defensive specialist than positive leader. His suit-and-tie style turned people off, although he could be fun and candid in personal conversation.

In any event, Mortimer leaves with what some call impressive achievements. Some points he and others make:

There is a better focus now on what the University of Hawaii really does well — ocean sciences, astronomy, tropical agriculture, etc. A start has been made in the biomedical field. "It's a focus that will live beyond my time," Mortimer says.

Autonomy — a new, more independent relationship with state government — has been launched. It could prove vital in coming years.

Donations of private capital have almost tripled, with $100 million raised in the last four years. That's called a major step.

UH-community relations have been enhanced other ways. For example, the point has finally been made about the university's key role as an economic catalyst. Citizen and professional advisory groups help various parts of the UH system.

There's a better sense of the university as a whole system of 10 campuses, which include the community colleges. But Mortimer himself says that only a start has been made and more is needed toward integration.

Mortimer and others tend to be philosophical as the end of his tenure approaches:

"Times dictate a lot," notes one former UH figure. "Tom Hamilton (the charming president in the booming 1960s) came in at the right time when funding was going up. I hope that incoming president Evan Dobelle has the same luck."

Mortimer, the 11th UH president, notes that there is a flow and continuity in the institution, which is approaching its 100th year. As he has spent most of his years dedicating buildings authorized in the time of his predecessor, the activist Al Simone, so Dobelle will be following up on projects and problems from past years under Mortimer.

"Part of his challenge is to deal with old problems in new ways," says Mortimer of Dobelle, who comes with the reputation of skilled political activist. Dobelle will be here briefly in late May to review faculty suggestions for a new chancellor for the Manoa campus, a position Mortimer has also held at the same time he was president.

Mortimer talks about his "love affair with Hawai'i" dating back to 1962, when he first came here to meet his Hawai'i-born wife's family. But now he says it's time to go:

"The best thing you can do is get out of town, and I'm going to do that."