Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, August 8, 2004

The meanings of the Dobelle incident

By Robert M. Rees

The events surrounding the firing of UH President Evan Dobelle by the Board of Regents plunged an arthroscope into the heart and soul of our community.

Members of the news media get their first look at documents released by the University of Hawai'i Board of Regents concerning recently fired UH President Evan Dobelle, including e-mails, memos, phone records, project management records and an audit report.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

The view inside is not flattering: We're a narrow-minded bunch — nearly a mob at times — opposed to meaningful change, fearful of new ideas, resentful of any perceived transgression into what we label "local" and perfectly willing to let our political establishment destroy our chances for the future for the sake of its petty political feuds.

All these character flaws came to a head on June 15 when the UH Board of Regents summarily fired Dobelle "for cause" — meaning criminal behavior, corruption or mental illness. The board locked him out of his office, cut off his home and office phones and denied him access to his computer. All while he was out of town.

In the groves of academe, always enamored of gossip, this was big news. The University of Texas student newspaper, Daily Texan, ran the story of Dobelle's firing for cause and without severance on its front page. The Hartford Courant led its story with: "Evan S. Dobelle, the former Trinity College president who made the school a national model among urban colleges, has been fired for unspecified reasons as president of the University of Hawai'i. ..."

It was no wonder that attorney Rick Fried, hired by Dobelle, led off his press conference by noting that his client had become "damaged goods."

Not to worry, responded the Board of Regents. After mediation between Dobelle and the Board, the regents on July 29 agreed there had been no cause to fire Dobelle, absolved him of any wrongdoing and

rescinded the decision. After having defamed him on June 15, the board on July 29 provided Dobelle with resignation severance worth $3.2 million, a mix of current and future dollars.

Dobelle, as if to flaunt his vindication and the respect he commands — if not in Hawai'i then nationally — could be spotted on network television that very night on stage with John Kerry and others after Kerry's acceptance speech to the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

Looking on from the audience as part of the Hawai'i delegation was one of those who had ganged up on Dobelle, state Sen. Donna Kim.

6 distinguishing marks

Evan Dobelle has been vindicated with a $3.2 million settlement. But the incident leaves a legacy that will not soon be forgotten.

Advertiser library photo

Future historians studying the self-destructive firing of Dobelle will gain insight into our community. Apparently, we resent owners of Porsches, for example. As a professor of journalism at UH, Beverly Keever, critically observed, Dobelle's "public aura of extravagance was magnified by his driving around campus in his pricey Porsche...."

Also of interest to historians will be our concepts of fairness and justice. One Dobelle critic, a public school teacher on the Big Island, actually wrote in a column for this newspaper on July 9: "Specifically, what he is guilty of we do not yet know. That he knows he is guilty is now beyond question. ... "

Historians may conclude that we as a community were characterized by six traits — political retribution, reckless disregard for the truth, "Think Local, Act Provincial," suspect motivations, piling on cheap shots and political patronage — that led us to turn on the very person who was transforming higher education in Hawai'i.

• Political retribution

This first trait will surprise no one who knows Hawai'i; what will surprise many is learning that Gov. Linda Lingle has outdone the old boys against whom she campaigned.

Lingle first targeted Dobelle after he endorsed her opponent, Democratic Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, in the 2002 gubernatorial race. Lingle told the press she had hung up on Dobelle when

he called to talk about it. She refused to invite him to Cabinet meetings. She held a press conference to describe his request for faculty pay increases as "unprofessional."

The University of Hawai'i Board of Regents meets to consider a settlement with former UH President Evan Dobelle.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

When UH reached agreement with the faculty union on pay increases, Lingle refused to include Dobelle in her press conference, even when his office made inquiries about it. When Lingle recently invited interim UH President David McClain to meet with her, it was her first such invitation to the UH president's office since Dobelle was installed.

As a candidate in 1999, Lingle had written an op-ed piece aimed at Gov. Ben Cayetano and UH President Ken Mortimer: "UH president, regents must go." With this approach as background, Lingle's newly appointed and confirmed regents began to meet in May 2003. Heading the personnel committee that would evaluate Dobelle was Kitty Lagareta, by now a veteran of Lingle's gotcha wars.

Only four months later, in September, Board of Regents chair Patricia Lee and Lagareta, during a meeting on Maui, presented Dobelle with a damning evaluation. Dobelle objected to its tone and sophomoric quality.

In a portent of things to come, Lagareta and Lee retreated.

After some legal sparring, the report was released on April 2, 2004. The first complaint or bill of particulars — that Dobelle was "politicizing" the university and allegedly had told a regent he would not endorse any political candidate —revealed what was on the regents' minds. Today, that No. 1 complaint is a smoking gun.

The report, indicating either a gross misunderstanding on the part of the regents or a desire to demote Dobelle, went on to falsely assert that Dobelle had been hired as a fund-raiser and not as "a change agent."

This seemed to verify Dobelle's observation only two months before that "my trouble is (the Board of Regents) have a sense they can't control me."

The desires to control and to take retribution led inevitably to the botched events of June 15.

• Reckless disregard for the truth

In an attempt to obfuscate and conceal their big lie about having contractual cause to fire Dobelle, thereby depriving him of severance, the regents provided another big lie on July 29 when they rescinded the first big lie: "The Board recognized at the time (June 15) that it was obligated to apprise Dr. Dobelle of the basis for its 'for cause' decision, to allow him the opportunity to respond and to reconsider their decision thereafter if warranted."

Reconsider? Lee and Lagareta made a number of appearances in almost every conceivable venue after the firing of Dobelle to justify what they had wrought with a "If you only knew what we know" rationale. Not once did they say the decision was only tentative, and certainly Dobelle was never told it would be reconsidered.

After all, as Lingle's chief of staff Bob Awana wrote on June 24, it was a serious matter. "By all media accounts," he stated in a letter to this newspaper, "Dobelle was not terminated for being politically naive. The board officially stated that he was dismissed 'for cause' — a very serious matter under the law."

One of the attorneys hired by the regents, William McCorriston, wrote in this newspaper last week, "From the onset, the board believed mediation was the best option." He must have been counting only from when the regents discovered Dobelle might sue.

The board's retreat might be traced to their discovery that each regent might be held personally liable for what had been a wrongful and rushed termination without cause. The regents were in a hurry because new regents had been appointed, and a newly constituted Board of Regents might want to delay any action.

Lagareta herself provided a smoking gun as to the nature of the firing in an interview with KITV reporter Jill Kuramoto on June 18. Describing the events of the day, Lagareta noted things were hectic and they had tried to reach Dobelle. Then they determined to fire Dobelle, she said, but hadn't yet gotten around to a determination of cause.

Dobelle-haters found the settlement and historical revisionism unsettling. Joel Fischer, a professor in the School of Social Work at UH who published two widely circulated attacks on Dobelle, comments: "The settlement was a bitter pill to take." He adds, however: "I'm still basking in the joy of having gotten rid of Dobelle. I truly believe he's a sociopath, and it's important and for the greater good that he's gone."

• Think local, act provincial

There were attempts by Dobelle's critics to rally support against him by accusing him of racism and antipathy toward locals. Regent Ted Hong, a Lingle appointee for whom Lingle later tried but failed to deliver a judgeship, reported to the press in December 2003 that Dobelle in September had slurred local residents by using the phrase "you people."

Given that Hong waited three months before he reported the alleged incident, the response of the university may be accurate: "Ted Hong's statement about President Dobelle is not only false; it is a vicious and mean-spirited attempt to embarrass President Dobelle within the local community."

Others used the same tactic. Professor Meda Chesney-Lind, whose husband often employed his Web site blog to impugn Dobelle's motives, wrote to this newspaper on July 8: "One additional comment about the Dobelle legacy: I have never seen an administration that treated women and minorities so badly. ... Moreover, he made no secret of his disdain for the Asian women (and other women) from the previous administration."

Perhaps the most interesting use of localism as a blunt weapon was the telephone call by state Senate minority leader Fred Hemmings to an afternoon radio show on June 25. The guest was Dobelle. Hemmings called in while impersonating the stereotype of a local to ask embarrassing questions in Pidgin. Hemmings was caught red-handed by the call screener, but explained, "Evan Dobelle was very adroitly playing the 'I love Hawai'i local card,' so I wanted to call in as a local boy." Incidentally, Hemmings is a local boy.

• Suspect motivations

On July 6, 2003, four authors — Amy Agbayani of UH, Sen. Donna Kim, retired UH Professor Ralph Moberly and Rep. Mark Takai — published an op-ed piece, "Dangerous Equations," asserting that Dobelle had failed.

The motives of at least two of these authors deserved, but went without, comment.

Kim, the first time she met Dobelle, expressed her anger over his having attended a community meeting conducted by Mayor Jeremy Harris. She informed him — as if the pronouncement should carry a great deal of heft — that Harris was her enemy. She didn't appear to appreciate Dobelle's response that part of his job was to meet with whomever he thought appropriate.

Takai, as UH student body president in 1989, had attempted to undermine President Al Simone, which was, as Doris Ching of UH commented at the time, "totally inappropriate." More recently, before he helped to write the article declaring Dobelle a failure, Takai reportedly approached Dobelle for a job at UH. According to those close to Dobelle, Takai was informed he would have to acquire a Ph.D. Takai went away so upset that Dobelle had one of his aides call him to smooth things over.

Others who attacked Dobelle might have had motives other than the betterment of UH. Regent Walter Nunokawa was in the Dobelle camp up until Dobelle approved action that would have had a negative impact on the university careers of Nunokawa's wife and daughter.

• Piling on the cheap shots

When an individual is under attack in Hawai'i, we have a nasty habit of gratuitously piling on the cheap shots. For example, blogger Ian Lind once noted that Dobelle was doing his banking at First Hawaiian. This prompted Lind's question, pregnant with innuendo: "Is it a coincidence that FHB chief Walter Dods was on the selection committee that chose Dobelle for the job?"

Another cheap shot came from faculty union lobbyist John Radcliffe. In a speech to the UH Professional Assembly faculty forum on Feb. 21, Radcliffe rallied support by literally urging these doctors of philosophy to join him in telling Dobelle to go to hell. As far as we know, no one on the faculty objected. In fact, UHPA President Mary Tiles, upon learning the Dobelle settlement had named him a researcher in the urban planning department for two years, said the appointment "debases the concept of the faculty."

• Political patronage

Lingle, in her first State of the State address, intoned, "The old days of who you know being more important than what you know are pau." We didn't know then that by "what you know" she meant what you know about supporting her campaigns.

Eight of Lingle's key appointments went to four husband-wife teams that had worked on and contributed to her campaign. Among the regents appointed by Lingle, Lagareta, with her husband, gave more than $11,000 to the campaign in 2002. Alan Tanaka gave $3,000 at the end of 2001 and another $7,000 in 2002. James Haynes II, the president of Maui Petroleum Inc., contributed $10,750 in 2002.

Lingle also appointed Jane Tatibouet, former chair of the state Republican Party, as an interim regent. In Tatibouet's subsequent confirmation hearing before the Senate Education Committee, she said of Dobelle, "Sometimes teaching old dogs new tricks is very difficult. We're doing everything we can to retrain that person. Where it goes from here, time will tell." Only 60 days later, on June 15, Tatibouet voted to fire Dobelle.

It was these same regents who in their evaluation of Dobelle wrote, "Hiring your former contacts is widely viewed as 'cronyism' by the public."

What can be done?

In an ideal world, Lingle would have stepped in to tell the regents to work things out with Dobelle and to put the needs of the university first. She didn't do that, thereby condemning UH to more years of averageness.

The regents should resign. If they don't, Lingle should fire them, just as she proposed be done in 1999 under Gov. Cayetano.

There is another part of the community not yet heard from that must be served. Recently, an older woman approached attorney Mark Davis, one of the "Dream Team" representing Dobelle, to thank him. Said the woman, "Evan Dobelle was fighting my fight."

Indeed he was. Dobelle was fighting the ingrown political system of Hawai'i that resists change and rewards political hacks, that retaliates against independence and that is content to let Hawai'i fail for the sake of petty politics.

Correction: University of Hawai'i regent Byron Bender did not donate money to Linda Lingle’s gubernatorial campaigns in 1998 or 2002. A previous version of this story incorrectly said Bender had made contributions in each of those years.