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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, August 1, 2004

UH focused on tasks ahead

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

With a new semester ahead and six tumultuous weeks behind, the University of Hawai'i can now get down to the business of education.

Evan S. Dobelle

Even before the legal battle over the firing of Evan S. Dobelle as president was settled last week, the Board of Regents was moving to address important initiatives: a West O'ahu campus in Kapolei, a new Cancer Research Center in Kaka'ako and the question of whether to refurbish or rebuild the Manoa campuses' three oldest dorms.

There's hope that UH can go on to build on the best of what Dobelle leaves behind — swelling enrollment, a surge in research income and a can-do spirit.

The announcement on June 15 that Dobelle had been dismissed hurt the university's image nationally, but it's time to move on, former Hawai'i Gov. Ben Cayetano said.

"It's too bad that the regents didn't think this through," Cayetano said. "But now that it's been settled, the only thing to do is to look forward."

David McClain

Regents rescinded the "for cause" termination in a mediated settlement Thursday that required Dobelle to resign.

With acting president David McClain firmly in charge and talking about "tailoring" Dobelle's initiatives to fit financial realities, regents emphasized in the joint statement on the settlement that they are indeed trying to move forward.

Even so, they're in no rush to launch a search for a permanent president.

Board chairwoman Patricia Lee has said she doubts that a search would be immediate. UH needs to "settle down" first and McClain "is going to be a great asset in achieving that goal," Lee said.

Patricia Lee

And vice chairwoman Kitty Lagareta said regents could well choose to keep McClain in an acting capacity for as long as two years to give the university stability during this transition.

Taking time may be a necessity, say some national observers.

"It's going to be a long time before the reputation of the university is clear of all of this," said Raymond Cotton, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney considered the foremost national specialist in contracts for university presidents.

Cotton thinks it's wise for the board to "let some time pass" by waiting at least until September 2005 before launching a search, while taking time to work on immediate university priorities — and itself.

Jim Shon

"Clearly this board needs to change the way it does business," he said Friday from his Washington office, and advised that the board begin working with an outside consultant "who specializes in helping boards look at themselves and determine what they did right and what they did wrong in this case."

And he firmly suggests that the board be sure "to select their next president from a public university."

But former UH president Fujio Matsuda, born and raised in Hawai'i, has made the point that the next leader of the university system must have a sense of local culture and the humility that is so much a part of Hawai'i's multicultural fabric.

Jim Shon, associate director of the Hawai'i Educational Policy Center housed at UH and a former legislator, agrees that in any search for a new president, no matter when it occurs, it will be crucial to have local candidates considered.

"That's part of the pride of place," Shon said. "Everyone wants to feel not that someone here is the best choice, but we're in the running. When there are no local finalists, a certain pride is hurt."

Shon also said: "Maybe it's too soon to search for a new president, but it may not be too soon to begin looking carefully at what is desired. ...

"We have tasted excitement, maybe in the wrong person, maybe not. But maybe we want to taste it again."

He emphasized that a search must include candidates from beyond the state, because UH — and all institutions of higher learning — are increasingly playing on a world stage.

"There's a desire for the best of both worlds," he said. "For the excitement and boldness and vision and raise-the-bar environment that was there when Dobelle first came. But also there's a desire (for a new person) not to make so many mistakes and to make a real effort to understand and respect certain aspects of local culture."

Vitally important for regents to consider, say national education experts, is the exact criteria they want in a new president. In the past year there have been conflicting reports about what the committee that picked Dobelle wanted — an agent of change or a fund-raiser.

This time, said Richard Novak, from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges in New York, regents would be wise to define exactly the qualities they want in a new president, and pick accordingly.

Novak, who is executive director of the association's Center for Public Higher Education Trusteeship and Governance, urged regents not to rush into a search, but to "step back and define the mission strength of the system and try and match that with a person."

It's also a time for introspection and openness by the board, Novak said. It should consider reaching out to many constituencies asking what kind of person they want for the job — "to make sure the university community has input in the process," he said.

"To say, 'We're going to enter a search and let everybody be on the same page, not only about the capabilities (desired) in the new person, but are we clear about the authority of the board and our own processes for governing,' " he said. "It's these reflective kinds of things that can heal any wounds that might be there with the board and the university community."

No matter who eventually takes the helm — and a final choice is expected to be a consensus candidate with input from many sectors of the community — he or she will face daunting challenges.

These include a system that needs $160 million worth of facility repairs and maintenance; faces thorny questions about how to finance the future of everything from a new West O'ahu campus to new dorms; and has accrediting bodies questioning the behavior of its board, especially over micromanagement, as well as how the Manoa campus has been "stymied" in moving forward without clear lines of authority and enough staffing.

McClain and the board are trying to address the concerns of accreditors, in preparation for an "update" site visit in the fall.

As acting president, it's McClain who has an edge over other potential local candidates simply by dint of being on the job. At a recent press conference he noted that he has been acting president 94 days over the past year. As second in command to Dobelle, he was often the tireless, patient link between Dobelle and the regents.

"The question of leadership going forward is what's best for the university," he has said. "It's not about my ambition at all. What I want to do is work with the board to find the best president."

McClain, who works well with the regents — important in the eyes of UH's accrediting agencies — said his job is to bring stability and move forward on initiatives under way. But he has suggested changes in administrative structure between the system and campuses. And he has had preliminary conversations with the board to sketch out upcoming challenges, including raising tuition.

"We have a 'super-sized' structure," he says. "It's kind of a big suit of clothes. ... We want to tailor it down to our financial reality."

Both the regents and Gov. Linda Lingle have expressed trust in McClain and he has met with the governor — at her request — a step that didn't occur with Dobelle.

No matter who comes aboard as the next president, Shon said he or she should expect to suffer in the short term.

"Legislators have gone through a couple of years of what they saw as over-promising and some of them are going to be even more scrutinizing," he said.

"They're going to be asking 'But can you deliver?'

"There's going to be greater skepticism, especially if a dynamic Dobelle-esque new president comes in with grand ideas."

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