Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 21, 2003

Conflict between Dobelle, regents could hurt morale

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

From the moment Ted Hong took his seat in his first meeting as a member of the University of Hawai'i Board of Regents, it was evident something had changed.

Some say the politicization surrounding UH President Evan Dobelle would be nonexistent had he hit it big with fund-raising from the start.

Advertiser library photo • July 11, 2003

Before the May 16 meeting was over, Hong had questioned another regent's ethics, declared that the UH administration needed to be "taught a lesson" and accused President Evan Dobelle of ordering people to withhold information from him, a charge Dobelle called "absurd."

On the surface, the meeting signaled that a more politicized Board of Regents intended to use the reins on a leader who favors the spurs. Hong is among seven people Gov. Linda Lingle has appointed to the 12-member body. There has been no love lost between Lingle and Dobelle since he brazenly — some say foolishly — endorsed her Democratic opponent in the waning days of the gubernatorial campaign.

But having a regent speak out bluntly simply brought to flower a seed of discontent sown during Dobelle's beginnings on the job nearly two years before and fed by concerns ranging from high administrative salaries to fund-raising that has fallen short of expectations.

On Dobelle's first day in July 2001, he "shocked" former regent Billy Bergin, a Big Island veterinarian, by announcing several appointments Bergin said should have gone through the regents — his bosses — first.

"The stallion was out of the barn and gone," said Bergin, an appointee of former Gov. Ben Cayetano, a Democrat. "You weren't going to get a bridle on him. ... We stood there with our mouths agape."

Top-level conflicts are nothing new at public universities, but left unresolved they can affect the school at large, everything from fund-raising to legislative appropriations to morale. In this case, the rift between Dobelle and the regents seems to grow with each passing week, and there is concern it could hinder the drive to capitalize on initiatives such as the new UH medical school and a proposed four-year campus in Kapolei.

"It's a disservice to the public and the university if a dispute gets in the way of the president getting what he wants done," Cayetano said. "Things are going to come to a standstill.

"The thing about the president is he's got a very expensive contract and the regents have to make up their mind whether they're going to work with him. If they can't, they should buy him out and everybody goes on his way. But then who would want the job after that?"

Effects on fund-raising?

Ted Hong

• Personal: Age 46, married, with two children, and has a private solo law practice on the Big Island.

• Current appointments: In December 2002 Gov. Linda Lingle appointed him chief state negotiator; he represented the state in contract negotiations for the University of Hawai'i Professional Assembly last year; currently negotiating salary adjustments.

Appointed by Lingle May 8 as an interim UH Regent for one year.

• Political background: Spoke in support of Lingle as a Democrat and appeared in an advertisement for her candidacy.

• Education: Leilehua High on O'ahu; the University of Hawai'i, with a law degree from William S. Richardson School of Law at UH.

• Professional experience: Assistant Corporation Counsel 1993-2000 under Big Island Mayor Steve Yamashiro. Previously served as deputy corporation counsel and deputy prosecuting attorney for the City and County of Honolulu and practiced law with Stanley Roehrig.

• Quote: "As an interim regent one of my goals is to make sure the university focuses on its mission, which is to provide the sons and daughters of Hawai'i with a good, solid undergraduate education. I don't think the graduate programs are as important as the undergraduate, and I'm a graduate of both."

Former regents' chairman Bert A. Kobayashi said he worries that the dispute will dampen the kick-off of the fund-raising Centennial Campaign in January, and threaten the progress of the growing biotech industry tied to the university and the new medical school going up in Kaka'ako.

The campaign, which aims to raise more than $200 million, will be the largest in the university's history and help propel some of its plans for expansion, including the Kaka'ako biomedical park.

"At the end of the day, the university is the second-biggest economic engine in Hawai'i," Kobayashi said. "And if the board and president can't work together it would be very difficult for any huge improvement."

Hong, with his willingness to speak out among a body that until recently had self-imposed rules compelling silence on such matters except during public meetings, is driving much of the debate involving Dobelle. Regents Kitty Lagareta and Jane Tatibouet have likewise been vocal.

Hong said he is not trying to get rid of Dobelle, but just establish more open communication with him.

"I don't expect to be bosom buddies and lifelong pals in any working relationship," Hong said. "But I do expect open communication and dialogue. I don't have to like 'em or love 'em as long as we communicate effectively.

"A lot of people come from the perspective they don't like confrontation or conflict. They think it's a bad thing. I see it as discussion and dialogue and part of the natural back-and-forth. And I see it as the first step to resolving something. Reasonable people will differ and have different opinions.

"(But) a general consensus to getting rid of him? I don't see that."

The situation Dobelle finds himself in has played out in Hawai'i countless times before: The brash, high-flying Mainland golden boy arrives full of new ideas and energy but offends by trying to bull his way forward without demonstrating deference to local sensibilities and building strong, supportive constituencies right away.

"We are cautious of people who can be too selling, too flamboyant, too forward," Bergin said. "A lot of times we look and watch and it doesn't pan out."

Never mind that Dobelle was brought in to be an agent of change.

"We wanted someone visionary, to establish goals and carry out actions," said Lily Yao, a former First Hawaiian Bank vice chairwoman, former regent and member of the search committee that brought Dobelle's name forward.

And create change? "Oh yes," Yao said.

If Dobelle had hit big with fund-raising from the start, he'd be fine and none of this politicization would have occurred, some say.

But he has also tread on dangerous ground politically when he handed out more than 200 termination notices to deans, directors and top managers last Christmas. Even though most of the notices weren't acted upon, they left bad feelings, sentiment that reverberated all the way to the Legislature.

Dan Boylan, a UH-West O'ahu history professor, emphasizes that much of any president's success involves money.

"If you raise a lot of money, then you're (considered) a great president," said Boylan, a member of the search committee that picked Dobelle.

Trouble over money

Early on, Dobelle promised to raise $1 million to pay back the UH Foundation for refurbishments to the official residence at College Hill, as well as $150 million for the second half of the biotech project in Kaka'ako, a new cancer research center.

Dobelle said he always intended for that amount to include a combination of financing sources, including $80 million in federal money sought with the help of U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, to build the cancer center. Dobelle said that's how he raised the money needed at Trinity College, the small private school in Connecticut where he led the redevelopment of a nearby ghetto into a "Learning Corridor."

But Dobelle did not specify that at first, and as a result critics are questioning why those big dollars haven't yet appeared.

The rift between Dobelle and the regents has become increasingly visible in recent weeks. Among the more notable developments, one of Dobelle's key appointees, Chief Financial Officer J.R.W. "Wick" Sloane, recently received word that his contract will not be renewed.

At the same time, Hong called on Dobelle to release the contents of his latest evaluation by the board, which is believed to be highly critical.

The message from the regents is unmistakable: We're in charge, you're not.

"I think Dobelle was used to a board that functions in a very different way than the UH board," said former regent Everett Dowling of Maui, who resigned in July over suggestions that as a developer whose company could potentially do business with UH, he had a conflict of interest.

"The Trinity board does an exceptional job of setting policy and raising money to further the interests of the institution, whereas the UH board does very little, almost nothing, when it comes to fund-raising and has a tendency to micromanage and just kind of meddle in the administration's activities," Dowling said.

Public universities are often "political whipsaws" and top-level conflicts aren't uncommon, said Richard Chait, a Harvard University professor of higher education and author of "Improving the Performance of Governing Boards" and "Beyond Traditional Tenure."

"Universities are large budget items in states with ever-shrinking resources," Chait said, "so the university becomes a financial battleground. Everyone knows someone at the university. It's just a very available political football."

Nonetheless, life goes on, he said, just as it does nationwide.

Rep. K. Mark Takai, D-34th (Pearl City, Newtown, Royal Summit) who is chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, said there have been disputes between the president and board factions from Dobelle's early tenure, so he sees no difference now.

Takai said he doesn't have confidence in the president for a variety of reasons, including the spiraling salaries of top-tier managers including new vice presidents and provosts-turned-chancellors.

But he was more optimistic for the UH budget this year, compared with last year when the university was cut by 2 percent, as were other state departments. "We have to support the university 100 percent," he said, noting that economic forecasts are brightening.

Sen. Cal Kawamoto, D-19th (Waipahu, Pearl City), who has been a critic of Dobelle's style, worries that the controversy will affect students and says "bickering, name-calling and finger-pointing isn't helping anybody.

"It's just power plays," he said, adding that it won't affect his legislative proposals for the coming session.

"I've got my mind set as far as what I want to do — primarily West O'ahu and a bill for $85 million for general obligation bonds, and a proposal for half a percentage point excise tax increase to go to (both the state Department of Education and UH) to get rid of the ... backlog of repairs and maintenance over the next decade," Kawamoto said.

J.N. Musto, executive director of the UH Professional Assembly, the faculty union, said the situation "looks a lot more contentious than it may be" because the board seems willing to take "a more public approach" to the issues facing the university.

"I'm sure there are some real differences," Musto said, "but I think it's just the fact that the board is more transparent." But he also said it's the responsibility of the chief executive "to come to an accommodation" with his or her board, "not vice versa," Musto said.

Shake-up still the mission

For his part, Dobelle said he doesn't intend to leave or to change his action plan.

He continues to see his mission as one to shake up and revitalize the university system, one that has a new strategic plan; a new organization that puts the community colleges on an equal footing with Manoa; a new medical school, parking garage and dormitory in the works; and a foundation poised to raise $30 million this year — up 22 percent from last year — and launch a $200 million-plus campaign through the 2007 centennial.

"My main agenda is the strategic plan," he said. "We need to continue to fund Native Hawaiian studies. We need to raise money to finish the biomedical center, to get an academic plan that's comprehensive for West O'ahu. We want to get the film school up and running, dormitories. We just keep working it.

"I'm excited. I refuse to allow any kind of bunker mentality to exist among my senior staff. I want not a word of criticism about any regent or any legislator or the governor. I will not stand for it. We're going to continue what we're doing."

Even Bergin, a critic, says Dobelle "has a lot of good in him," though Bergin said he believes the president needs a dose of humility. He urges the president and regents to resolve issues and work together.

So does former board chairman Kobayashi.

"The solution to me is for the regents to sit down with Dobelle and give him some guidelines and let him run the university instead of the other way around," Kobayashi said. "I think they're making it very difficult for him to stay."

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8013.