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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Labor discord tests new UH leadership


By David Shapiro

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

M.R.C. Greenwood

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When University of Hawaii President M.R.C. Greenwood visited Jeanne Mariani-Belding's "The Hot Seat" last week, she was asked about her qualifications to lead UH and spoke about her 30 years of experience at universities big and small plus some time in Washington.

In other words, she's been around and seen a lot.

Here's hoping she's seen something along the way especially relevant to guiding UH through the most challenging financial crisis of its history with a rebellious faculty, a fed up public and an opinionated and potentially meddlesome Legislature.

There's a lot to like about how Greenwood has handled herself in her first three months.

She's been visible at campuses throughout the UH system as well as in the general community, preaching a message of stabilizing the current fiscal crunch so the university can move on to bigger and better things.

Mostly, she seems to be doing more listening than talking, which is the smart way to go when you're new to a situation so incendiary.

Greenwood has maintained a calm and businesslike tone in the budget ruckus going on around her, which is the only chance of eventually getting the battling UH constituencies on a common path.

She's kept a sharp focus on addressing the immediate budget crisis in terms of the university's long-term strategic plan, although it would be nice if at some point she refreshes our memory of what the strategic plan entails and gets more specific about her vision of where the plan will take us.

Her first order of business, though, and likely the most difficult, is reaching a contract settlement with the faculty union.

UH has had its budget cut 14 percent like other state departments and like everybody else badly needs savings in labor costs to balance the books without taking too heavy an ax to services for students.

But the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly has a unique "evergreen" clause that keeps the old contract in force indefinitely while a new agreement is negotiated, which gives the professors leverage other state unions don't have in fending off a new contract that includes pay cuts.

Faculty members overwhelmingly voted down the university's so-called final and best offer, which called for a 5 percent pay cut and other concessions, and Greenwood says the union's counteroffer since then puts the two sides farther apart rather than closer.

She still hopes for a settlement by the end of the year, and it would be a feather in her cap if she achieves it. But if it doesn't come through, she's going to have to move into a Plan B for balancing the budget that will likely involve getting tough with the professors.

Either way, we'll start to get a very clear picture of what she's made of.

All parties should keep in mind that in soliciting public support and state funding, the university administrators and professors alike has always traded heavily on the vital leadership role higher education plays in the economic life of the community.

But the clear public perception is that the learned folks at UH have contributed very little leadership in this time of some of the greatest community need since statehood, with an economic storm that has brought tourism to its knees, wiped out the last vestiges of sugar on Kauai and pineapple on Maui and driven venerable institutions like the Honolulu Symphony into bankruptcy.

While the community struggles to cope, the university is seen as mired in dysfunction with squabbling parties consumed with protecting their own interests and indifferent to the problems of the broader population.

That isn't the way to earn the community respect or material support UH seeks.

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawaii journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog, Volcanic Ash, at http://volcanicash.honadvblogs.com.