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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Having a Hawaiian heart should count

By David Shapiro

When the legendary Gabby Pahinui recorded a slack-key album with Mainland guitar prodigy Ry Cooder, offended local musicians questioned why he worked with an outsider instead of a capable Hawaiian guitarist.

"Because the haole plays better," Pahinui reportedly said.

The old master's logic may hold an answer to the admissions dilemma at Kamehameha Schools.

The school's admission of a non-Hawaiian student at its Maui campus set off a wave of outrage in the Hawaiian community, where sentiment is strong for preserving Kamehameha Schools for Hawaiians only.

Trustees are conciliatory, but they still face the probability that race-based admissions ultimately will cost the school its federal tax exemption — and a large chunk of the endowment and income used to educate thousands of Hawaiian children.

Kamehameha Schools could eliminate race as an issue, and still keep Bernice Pauahi Bishop's legacy firmly in Hawaiian hands, if it took a lesson from Pahinui and made a subtle shift from ethnic ancestry to cultural affinity in deciding admissions.

Instead of asking applicants to prove they have Hawaiian blood, trustees could require applicants to demonstrate compelling interest, understanding and commitment to the Hawaiian culture and a special ability to perpetuate the culture in some aspect — art, history, language, music, dance.

Native Hawaiian children obviously would have an enormous advantage in meeting such standards, fulfilling Pauahi's wish that strong preference be given to children of Hawaiian ancestry.

In rare instances where non-Hawaiians make the cut in fair competition, do what Pahinui did with Cooder: Let them in.

Students with such commitment to the Hawaiian culture could only be an asset to the school — just as Pahinui realized that collaborating with a gifted and simpatico guitarist from another culture could only enrich his own musical expression.

Discrimination on the basis of aptitude is legally defensible. New York's famous High School for the Performing Arts, for instance, favors students who are artistically gifted and discriminates against those with tin ears.

There's no reason Kamehameha Schools couldn't admit only students who are unusually motivated and gifted in Hawaiian studies, and exclude those who lack compelling aptitude for furthering the school's mission.

It would require a small compromise on Hawaiians-only admissions, but with a clear and rational basis and natural controls to prevent the initial crack in the door from becoming a gaping hole to the detriment of Hawaiians.

Creative solutions are worth considering because the tax exemption is worth saving.

Loss of the exemption would cost Kamehameha Schools $1 billion of its endowment and 40 percent of its operating income, destroying aggressive efforts to expand services to Hawaiian children.

Giving up a small percentage of Kamehameha's slots to a few uniquely compatible non-Hawaiians might be preferable to losing 40 percent of the resource to federal taxes.

Some Hawaiians vehemently oppose any compromise on Hawaiians-only admissions, and many non-Hawaiians would respect their wish to give up the tax exemption to keep Kamehameha Schools all-Hawaiian.

But it's not that simple. While Kamehameha trustees are respectful of the views of the Hawaiian community, they ultimately answer to the state probate court — the same court that removed the previous board of trustees for breaches of fiduciary trust that included jeopardizing the federal tax exemption.

The court could still reject throwing away the tax exemption, even at the behest of the Hawaiian beneficiaries, as imprudent management of trust assets.

Trustees will soon begin a series of meetings with the Kamehameha 'ohana to air this high-stakes issue. Open minds and open dialogue could yield surprisingly creative results.

Reach David Shapiro at dave@volcanicash.net