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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 6, 2006

UH deserves to have a search for its new president

By Sen. Clayton Hee

As a former faculty member of UH-Manoa, Windward and Maui Community College who earned three degrees from UH-Manoa, I am passionately committed to the University of Hawai'i becoming first rate. The most important component to achieving this goal is the president.

I along with many others urged the UH Board of Regents to conduct a search to hire the best. The regents' mystifying and incomprehensible rush to hire Dr. David McClain will end tomorrow, a mere seven days since they terminated a search.

The UH student president has publicly advocated that a search be conducted. Faculty members have called me encouraging a search. If the student president and faculty members the two most important stakeholders at UH have questioned this process, why the rush?

Harvard professor Richard Chait said all universities want the best person in the nation to be their leader, not the best person in the institution. He said a search is a cost-efficient way for an institution to import prestige. It can attract a new president from a more prestigious institution.

In November, The Honolulu Advertiser reported McClain said, "The regents considered appointing me ... without a search. I advised them that the preference of the university I know, and particularly my colleagues on the faculty, that any permanent president . . be chosen via a search."

On Nov. 30, David Shapiro wrote, "The regents were so pleased ... that they considered skipping the customary nationwide search ... and offering McClain the job. McClain was among those advising the regents it would be a mistake and he was exactly right. That's just the kind of corner-cutting that for decades has kept UH from becoming a first-class university we all wish it to be."

That same day, The Advertiser wrote, "The task facing the Board of Regents is enormous. It must launch a national, indeed international, search. As a system, the University of Hawai'i is a jewel that demands world-class leadership."

What's difficult to understand is why the rush? McClain notified the regents 30 days ago. He has not imposed any deadline to leave UH and in fact has said he would return to teaching.

The regents said that McClain is the best person for the job and that a search would not guarantee anyone better. How do they know that?

Ivy League universities Harvard, Yale, Brown, Dartmouth, Columbia, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania all conducted national presidential searches. What do UH regents know that Ivy League regents don't?

Of the nine Pac 10 schools my staff contacted, 90 percent conducted a search, including UC-Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA and USC. Of the Big 10 schools, 91 percent searched, including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State and Purdue. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, from January 2005 to July 15, 2005, no fewer than 105 of 123 university presidents were hired after searches. That's 85 percent.

Interestingly, "stability" has been the word used most often to defend the decision to hire McClain and forgo a search. It's like, "If we don't hire him now, we may lose him." But then again, he said he isn't going anywhere. So conducting a search doesn't "destabilize" anything.

The students, the faculty and staff of the University of Hawai'i system and indeed the people of this state deserve and are entitled to the best person we can afford.

Is Dr. McClain the best? We'll never know, and we'll always wonder unless we make the effort to seek out and search for the best. The people of Hawai'i deserve nothing less.

Clayton Hee is Senate majority floor leader and chairman of the Higher Education Committee. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.