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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, December 10, 2003


UH can't be victim of politics

By David Shapiro

It's exasperating that a third of the way into Evan Dobelle's seven-year contract that was supposed to bring stability and direction to the University of Hawai'i, we're back where we started: UH is in a distracted state of political turmoil with no clear vision for its future.

The UH president has lost the support of key Democratic legislators, and his conflict with the UH Board of Regents over his annual performance review is unbecoming to both sides.

Dobelle's ironclad $442,000-a-year contract guarantees a full seven years of salary if he is let go prematurely and over a million if he isn't retained when the deal expires in 2008. This was intended to insulate the president and the university from shifting political winds.

But it has only shown that nothing in Hawai'i is immune from politics, which Dobelle himself invited into UH with his ill-advised endorsement of Democrat Mazie Hirono over Republican Gov. Linda Lingle in the 2002 election.

The biggest shame isn't the wasted money if Dobelle fails, but the wasted time. After all the hype, promise and expense, we'll be back to square one in realizing the university's core mission of providing opportunity for our young people and energizing the state's economy.

Stakes are so high that combatants owe it to the public they all serve to make an honest effort to resolve differences and get UH back on track under Dobelle's leadership.

Dobelle's big thinking led to high expectations for the university, and there's widespread frustration that he's yet to deliver on achieving the big dreams or raising the money to pay for them.

His big spending in a tight state economy also has cost him support. A million dollars was spent to renovate the president's university mansion and he has surrounded himself with $200,000-a-year subordinates.

Two top Democratic lawmakers joined in a blistering attack on Dobelle over the summer, claiming an absence of major progress in fulfilling his promises.

His faltering support among Democrats has made it easy for Lingle's new appointees to the Board of Regents to retaliate against Dobelle for his political gaffe in endorsing Hirono.

Lingle said all the appropriate things about forgiving and forgetting, but there's little sign that her regents, who now control a majority of the board, were given that message.

They've gunned for Dobelle from the start, killing his West O'ahu campus and attacking lesser initiatives while offering little clue of their own vision for UH.

Now Dobelle is up in arms about the regents' apparently unfavorable review of his performance. The dispute has played out in secret, leaving the public in the dark about conflicted priorities for our state university.

The regents have every right to give Dobelle direction — and to pin him down on deadlines for producing results.

Dobelle has a point that he deserves a voice in setting the goals, and that it's not fair that many of the regents criticizing his performance weren't on the board during the year under review.

It's time for both sides to park their egos and work together to get UH moving forward again. It may take the governor's mediation to make this happen.

Dobelle was given seven years to do the job and we've invested too much in him and his program to abandon course this soon over short-term politics. He can still be an asset in taking UH to a higher level.

But Dobelle must accept the regents' rightful role in setting direction and regents must back him with true support to achieve mutual goals, not political traps that set him up to fail.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net