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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Having just one choice is no choice at all

By David Shapiro

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

M.R.C. Greenwood speaks at the public forum at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. She remains the likely pick and now the lone contender for the university's top post.


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As University of Hawai'i regents appear poised to appoint M.R.C. Greenwood to replace David McClain as UH president, possibly as soon as today, a question rings around the state: Is this really the best we can do?

Greenwood has many fine qualities as an academic; she's a nationally respected scientist in obesity and diabetes studies and has held high positions in the University of California system.

The problem is that she comes weighted down with baggage.

Greenwood never held the top job in a university system and has been out of administration since 2005, when she resigned as provost of the University of California a position she held only two years after an ethics controversy over her role in promoting a friend and business partner to a high-paying university job.

UH regents and their selection committee have minimized the ethics scrap, but The Chronicle of Higher Education put it this way in taking note of the controversy surrounding her possible appointment here: "She played a prominent role in a wide-ranging executive-compensation scandal that rocked the system."

Yet, Greenwood stands as the lone finalist in a $100,000 search that started with 78 applicants.

Two other finalists dropped out before the regents rendered a verdict; an unidentified candidate withdrew rather than go through the public vetting process and Robert J. Jones from the University of Minnesota bailed out after he and Greenwood both drew lukewarm receptions at a series of community appearances.

One choice is no choice at all, and the two dropouts provide good reason for the regents to cast a wider net without insulting the work of their selection committee, but they seem determined to anoint Greenwood without bringing other names into the mix.

Regent Chairman Al Landon said UH is fortunate to have one acceptable choice. "One right candidate is all we need."

Really? UH president is one of the most prestigious and best compensated jobs we have to offer, with a salary of up to $550,000, a mansion on the hill and a generous expense allowance.

In the entire academic universe, there's only one choice? That one choice is a person who has no track record as the head of a university system and whose tarnished reputation needs rehabilitation?

Regents should be applauded for bringing in the public on the selection process, but if they're going to trot applicants around town for approval, you'd think they'd take notice of the thud with which their candidates land.

Ideally, you make a key hire like this by looking at your strategic plan (they do have one, don't they?), prioritizing your needs and looking for somebody who has successfully done what you need somewhere else.

Looking at it this way, it's difficult to see how Greenwood fits. At 66, she's at the twilight of her career older than the retiring McClain and would be taking her first crack at the top job.

If she's somehow uniquely qualified to lead UH into the future, her supporters have done a poor job of connecting the dots. Most of the defenses of Greenwood have looked more like defenses of the selection committee.

And if Greenwood is truly the most qualified person who applied, it's only because top-tier talent including the most qualified locals shy away because of UH's reputation as a snake pit of political interference and backbiting where ambitious new players are often sent home in body bags.

I once had an editor who asked when a story was proposed, "Why this, why now?" That's exactly the question regents have failed to answer convincingly as they press ahead with Greenwood: Why her, why now?