Dobelle flunked 'Locals 101'
By Derrick DePledge and Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writers
Evan Dobelle brought energy and vision to the University of Hawai'i at a time when it seemed paralyzed by mediocrity, but his legacy as president will forever be marred by his inability to manage the relationships that mattered most to his survival.
The immediate effect on the day-to-day life of students and faculty will likely be minimal, several people at the university said, but the damage to the university's image and reputation could be more significant.
"It's lamentable that at a university that has such potential, the only message that gets out is one of turmoil," said William G. Tierney, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis, a research unit at the University of Southern California. "It created this national 'Wow, what's going on?' in education circles."
Tierney, along with several educators and policy-makers in Hawai'i, believes it might be more difficult for the university to recruit talent or raise money after such a spectacular implosion.
"What we've seen is a case study in mistakes made at all levels," Tierney said. "I don't have the information the board had to make their decision, but rarely are mistakes made only in a one-way direction. We have a president for less than three years. That the board would fire him in such a public manner is unprecedented."
Regents have still not announced why they fired Dobelle, although they have acknowledged concerns about his use of a protocol fund. Dobelle, who is returning to Hawai'i tomorrow from a family trip to the Mainland, has not said if he will legally challenge his dismissal.
But others are speculating about what went wrong in Manoa and what it could mean for one of Hawai'i's most valuable institutions.
Credit or blame
As in the political and corporate worlds, university presidents often receive disproportionate credit and blame for what happens under their leadership.
Dobelle undeniably brought fresh enthusiasm and a can-do spirit to UH three years ago when he replaced Kenneth Mortimer, a scholar and bureaucrat who fought for more autonomy but was harnessed by budget cuts.
Dobelle's reputation was of a leader who was sophisticated but grounded, someone at ease on the tightrope between academia and politics. He had the blessing of U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye, D-Hawai'i, and an impressive resume with stops as treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and chief of protocol to President Carter.
Regents made Dobelle the most highly compensated president in UH history, and his dreams seemed to match his big salary.
While he was president, UH broke ground on a new medical school in Kaka'ako and started raising money for a new cancer center. Research money surged by more than $89 million. A new film school opened. Student enrollment jumped by 9 percent.
In his first-year review, the regents praised him for changing attitudes in a place that some thought was stagnant, even stifling. "Some people can never really come up with the right things to say," said Jim Gaines, interim vice president for research at UH. "Evan does."
Many both inside and outside the university believe that the progress UH has made under Dobelle will continue under acting president David McClain and the leadership of other top-level administrators, from the medical school to athletics.
Chris Lee, the chairman of the new film school, the UH-Manoa Academy for Creative Media, said that Dobelle may have been an agent for change, but that many people were responsible for and will continue the university's success. "There is always the director," said Lee, a former executive with TriStar Pictures and Columbia Pictures. "But there is also a writer. There is also a cameraman."
Tierney, at USC, said the repudiation of a president could also throw into question his vision for the university. Even though McClain has endorsed Dobelle's strategic plan and cultural focus on Native Hawaiians, the upheaval could stall movement on that vision during the process to find a new president, something generally expected to take a year.
A new president would also likely want to put their own stamp on UH rather than follow the vision of Dobelle after he was so dramatically pushed out. "You're not only firing an individual, but repudiating much of the plan that he took forward," Tierney said.
The real effect of Dobelle's departure may not be on specific university programs, but in the uncertainty it has caused among some students and faculty and the potentially chilling effect it could have on the relationship between the next president and the regents.
Kawika Baker, chairman of the UH Student Caucus, said Dobelle took student leaders seriously and was more accessible than Mortimer. "He never came across as an arrogant person or someone who was talking down to us," he said. "He put money down on the table for us."
Ironically, for someone criticized for not fitting in with Hawai'i, the immediate campus outcry over his firing has come from Native Hawaiians who felt that Dobelle was a president who finally showed them respect.
"We've been so ignored and so oppressed in the university's ivory tower society," said Manu Ka'iama, director of the Native Hawaiian Leadership Project. "I worry that the person who replaces him won't deliver.
"Will he have the courage to fight the battle?"
Even early on, when the buzz around Dobelle was still contagious, some were taken aback by his style.
The $1 million in renovations to the College Hill president's home. The Porsche. The hefty salaries for top administrators. The Janet Jackson tickets for staff and donors. While Honolulu has long been as cosmopolitan as any large city on the Mainland, an intense localism still defines many social and business relationships, and Dobelle's East Coast confidence sometimes came across as arrogance.
Keith Kashiwada, who teaches speech at Kapi'olani Community College, jokes that newcomers do not get to take 'Locals 101.'
"It's hard to put your finger on it without sounding racist," he said. "It's that whole sense of humility and self-deprecation, the need to listen."
Ka'iama agreed. "He had that attitude," she said. "Quite frankly, I can see how local people could find it offensive, but he put his money where his mouth is. He kept his word."
Beyond the grumbling about his style, Dobelle quickly encountered important Democratic critics in the state Legislature who attacked his administrative salaries and were skeptical of his promises to raise private money for the College Hill home and the new cancer center. By the time of his second-year evaluation, several regents were openly questioning Dobelle's fiscal management, leading to a steadily deteriorating relationship with the board that he was never able to repair.
"This is like your parents fighting the people who are the key decision-makers not getting along," said Kitty Lagareta, the regents' vice chairwoman, a communications executive and close friend and adviser to Gov. Linda Lingle.
"The president, he's the CEO," she said. "If it's not working well between his employer and him, then it's hard on everybody."
Fujio Matsuda, the last locally born UH president, said the next president will need the experience, know-how and contacts as well as an appreciation of Hawai'i's distinct social and cultural life.
"You're not trying to make something happen in St. Louis. It's Hawai'i. They will have to understand the Hawai'i context," Matsuda said.
Several friends and supporters of Dobelle, and longtime observers of UH, believe that Dobelle's biggest mistake in judgment was endorsing Democrat Mazie Hirono for governor over Lingle in 2002.
The Republican governor, Lagareta and regents chairwoman Patricia Lee, appointed by former Gov. Ben Cayetano, a Democrat, have vigorously denied that politics played any role in Dobelle's dismissal. But his second-year evaluation criticized him for politicizing the university by endorsing Hirono, and Lingle appointed a majority of the regents who ultimately fired him.
Lenny Klompus, Lingle's senior adviser for communications, said any anger in the Lingle camp over the endorsement ended soon after the election. "Everybody moved on," he said.
Paul Costello, a Dobelle confidant who left UH in January for a job at Stanford University, said he believes that Lingle wanted to get rid of Dobelle. "Her fingerprints may not be on this," he said, "but that has been her goal and the board delivered."
The endorsement, in a television commercial in the last days of a close campaign, has been characterized as a stunning misstep from a man who was supposed to be a smart operator. Friends tried to talk him out of it at the time, and, last week, Dobelle said he regretted it in hindsight.
"People say: 'How can you make an endorsement?' My attitude is how can you not?" Dobelle said. "Can you think it's going to be a train wreck?"