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False Prophet?
Evan Dobelle, president of the University of Hawaii, has some big promises to keep

By Kathy Witkowsky

Evan Dobelle began his public life as the 27-year-old self-described "kid mayor" of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and later served as White House chief of protocol under President Jimmy Carter, so it's not surprising that he frames university presidencies in political terms. "Presidencies are like campaigns without elections," said Dobelle, who had been at the helm of three different institutions of higher education before taking on his current presidency at the University of Hawaii. "You're one point ahead but there's two weeks to go."

That is a pretty apt description of Dobelle's situation these days. Hawaii may look like a paradise in travel brochures, but the educational and political landscape there is a minefield. And Dobelle-whom supporters consider an unorthodox visionary, and whom detractors suspect is nothing more than a smooth-talking politician-has not been treading lightly. Few people dispute his intellect or eloquence, but his unfulfilled fund-raising promises, his spending and hiring practices, and his impatient, arguably arrogant, nature have alienated some legislators and others in the community, and have put him on shaky ground with the board of regents.

Two years ago, Dobelle resigned his successful presidency at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he spearheaded a much-lauded urban renewal project that made him a local hero, and took over as president of the ailing University of Hawaii system. His $442,000 annual salary-one of the highest of any U.S. college or university president, and more than double that of his predecessor-raised eyebrows and expectations at a time when the chronically underfunded university was suffering from the emotional and financial fallout of a weak economy, a 13-day faculty strike, and the threat of losing accreditation at its flagship Manoa campus in Honolulu. Dobelle, who is fond of saying that he throws his figurative hat over the wall just to motivate himself to climb over and get it, wasted no time raising those eyebrows further with his signature bold, idealistic statements and ambitious, imaginative goals.

"The time has come to say that at the University of Hawaii mediocrity is not acceptable and average not good enough," Dobelle said in a speech to the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii in July 2001, 11 days after taking office. "As we go forward, there will be only one standard of measurement at the University of Hawaii, and that standard will be excellence."

The new president proceeded to tick off a lengthy list of things he wanted to accomplish in his first year and a half, including realigning and re-accrediting the ten-campus system; strengthening the university's commitment to the Native Hawaiian community; moving forward on construction of a new medical school and biotechnology park in Honolulu, and on a new community college campus and academic programs in West Oahu, west of Honolulu; developing a strategy to increase the university's international education and presence; planning for a U.S.-China Center at the University of Hilo; improving the university's athletic and academic programs; developing a college town adjacent to the flagship Manoa campus in Honolulu; and obtaining a union contract for university faculty and staff that included adequate compensation.

Today, wherever he goes, Dobelle does not hesitate to pronounce himself successful in turning the university 180 degrees. And in fact, he has accomplished, or at least made progress on, most of the goals he enumerated in that speech, with the notable exception of obtaining an increase in faculty salaries, which the governor refused to consider.

He also has presided over a major reorganization of the entire university system that aimed to put all the campuses on equal footing, and the development of new strategic plans for all of those schools, including one at Manoa that drew input from 1,400 people. The Manoa campus, which had been granted only a three-year accreditation in 1999, received a generally positive report from the accrediting commission's team when it revisited this year, and accordingly the accreditation was extended. In addition, Dobelle proudly notes increasing enrollment and research dollars, which are up ten and 53 percent, respectively, since his arrival.

"I've always raised expectations," said Dobelle, 58, who rarely appears anything less than supremely confident. "And I've always exceeded them."

Photo by Cindy Ellen Russell,
Black Star, for CrossTalk

That is exactly what happened at Trinity College, said Thomas Johnson, a member of the college's board of trustees who was board chair during Dobelle's administration. Dobelle "absolutely turned the place upside down, and in a positive direction, and we are still enjoying the momentum from it," said Johnson.

But Hawaii is 5,000 miles, and a world away, from the situation Dobelle dealt with in Hartford. While Trinity is a small, private wealthy school surrounded by a ghetto, the University of Hawaii is a collection of poor, public commuter schools surrounded by wealth. Its ten campuses, including seven community colleges, are spread out across four islands, and its massive bureaucracy serves more than 50,000 students, nearly 20,000 of whom are enrolled at UH-Manoa, in Honolulu.

Although the Manoa campus has some respected departments, including the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, the university system as a whole has a national reputation as academically lightweight. Often it is even eschewed by upper-middle class Hawaiian families, who generally send their children to mainland colleges.

With an isolated population of just 1.2 million, about a third of whom live in Honolulu, Hawaii is often described as a big small town, where degrees of separation are small, but where the political power and class structure historically has been firmly entrenched.

Since the state has no professional sports teams, the University of Hawaii football team takes center stage, and in a sense, so does the university itself. "Politics is like big-time sports here," said Karl Kim, interim vice chancellor for academic affairs, and a longtime faculty member at UH-Manoa.

And like big-time sports, those politics can get vicious. In a recent commentary for the Honolulu Advertiser, one of the city's two daily newspapers, Hawaiian public radio and television talk show host Robert Rees actually compared Hawaiians to the townsfolk in Shirley Jackson's short story, "The Lottery." Like them, he wrote, Hawaiians "enjoy gathering periodically to stone to death one of our citizens."

And Dobelle, he warned, could be next.

That may be overly dramatic, but it is safe to say that the warm spirit of aloha that initially greeted Dobelle has cooled, and that not everyone agrees with his upbeat assessment of his tenure.

Dobelle is now facing some vocal critics who feel betrayed and angry that he has not yet come through on his fundraising promises. Among those critics are a couple of legislators, a university administrator, and a retired university professor, who detailed their concerns in a 4,000-word essay, titled "Dangerous Equations," published in July in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the city's other daily newspaper.

They point to Dobelle's as yet unfulfilled pledge to raise $150 million to match a $150 million bond issue the legislature approved to pay for the new biomedical complex, and his offer to seek private donations to cover $1 million in renovations to the president's mansion. So far, he has come up with only a small fraction of either. At the same time, they complain, he has hired a team of administrators-two of whom he knew previously and recruited from the mainland-at salaries of $200,000 or more. Those salaries are far higher-in several cases double-what their predecessors were earning. And in several cases, these are newly created positions.

Dobelle said two of those top positions were originally offered to Hawaiian women of Asian descent, who turned them down. And the Dobelle administration defends the salaries on the basis that they are in line with those at peer institutions on the mainland.

Meanwhile, despite Dobelle's commitment to increase faculty salaries, they remain in the bottom third of peer institutions, according to a survey commissioned by the faculty union, said J.N. Musto, the union director. Dobelle has been unable to persuade the governor or legislature to approve any increases for faculty salaries, nor has he come up with the money from other sources.

"Everyone likes the visionary part. But where's the beef?" asked Amy Agbayani, director of student equity, excellence and diversity at the main Manoa campus in Honolulu, and a co-author of "Dangerous Equations."

Dobelle dismisses the essay as a desperate attempt to derail change, and maintains that it is the sort of resistance he anticipated at this stage-a stage, he predicted, that eventually will be forgotten when his tenure is "romanticized" after he achieves his agenda. The president acknowledged that his efforts to raise money for the house renovations have not gone as planned, partly due to economic conditions after the September 11, 2001 attacks and the SARS scare, but reiterated his belief that the university and its foundation will raise the money for the biomedical center, which is a much higher priority.

"It's not there today as we speak," acknowledged Sam Callejo, Dobelle's new chief of staff and a veteran of Hawaii politics. "But to be fair, it's not like we need it all today." Construction on the medical school is currently underway, but it will be a couple of years before the university's share of the money for the rest of the project is needed, he said. Asked about charges that the administration is being too optimistic, Callejo, a recent hire who is widely respected, responded with a sigh and a smile. "Evan doesn't think so."

The week after "Dangerous Equations" appeared, Dobelle responded in a similarly lengthy essay he titled, "Embracing Hope," also published in the Star-Bulletin. Dobelle's self-congratulatory tone and his optimistic outlook for the university's future stood in stark contrast to the bleak situation described in "Dangerous Equations."

"This is a time of high energy and rising morale throughout UH on all our islands. I am enthusiastic that we can accomplish out goals because we are 180 degrees from where we started in terms of morale, momentum and enthusiasm," Dobelle wrote.

Neither "Dangerous Equations" nor two other essays penned by a longtime professor at the university, which accuse Dobelle of being nothing more than a "flimflam man," and which have circulated informally, appear to have generated much public outcry. But they have provided fodder for the so-called "coconut wireless," the Hawaiian gossip mill which has perpetuated many rumors of Dobelle's impending exit.

A far more ominous indicator of the challenges facing Dobelle appeared in early September in the form of a strongly worded letter to the editor of the Star-Bulletin. Written by Patricia Lee, chair of the university's board of regents, the letter was in response to an erroneous headline accompanying a story about Dobelle's most recent annual performance review.

"Regents Give Glowing Review of Dobelle," read the headline. The story said nothing of the sort. Lee took the unusual step of publicly correcting any misimpression the headline may have created. She wrote, "'Glowing' is not a word that correctly describes the evaluation, the discussion or the feelings expressed. 'Direct' and 'honest' would be more accurate."

In an interview, Lee and the board's vice chair, Kitty Lagareta, expressed considerable frustration with Dobelle's penchant for charging ahead without keeping the board informed. Despite repeated requests for detailed, long-range plans for hiring and fundraising, they say he has never given them one. And they say he has made new, expensive administrative appointments-and raised salaries of others-in a piecemeal fashion, leaving them few alternatives but to approve. "We have a real concern that there's not enough consideration for the fiscal realities of this institution and this state," Lagareta said.

There also is a sense among board members that Dobelle is not always completely forthcoming in his responses. Said Lee, "He's very articulate, very bright, very good at formulating a picture for people. But if you can poke your finger through the picture, there are questions." For instance, when it comes to finances, he provides "different numbers at different times," she said.

Lagareta said she is hearing from a growing number of people in the business and academic community who tell her, "It's time to pull the plug." She is resisting, she said, because firing Dobelle at this point not only would be potentially expensive, since he is just two years into a seven-year contract, but also would be unfortunate for everyone concerned. However, Dobelle and his team had better start delivering, Lagareta warned, or she could change her mind about letting him go.

"I'm not there yet," she said. "And I hope we don't get there."

Dobelle's supporters say losing him would be a tragedy.

"I think he's the best thing that's happened to [Native] Hawaiians since the university was founded nearly 100 years ago," said Lilikala Kame'elehihiwa, director of the Center for Hawaiian Studies at the Manoa campus. Not only did Dobelle come up with $1.5 million for Hawaiian education, which the Center then used to leverage an additional $1.5 million from the state's Office of Hawaiian Affairs, but he speaks repeatedly-in public-about the need to repair the relationship with Hawaii's native people. This fall, he participated, along with thousands of others, in a march for justice for Hawaiians.

"That's worth more than any amount of money," said Kame'elehihiwa.

Dobelle also has reached out to Hawaii's troubled public school system, 64 percent of whose institutions fail to meet new federal academic guidelines. Dobelle helped design a P-20 program aimed at creating a seamless education, from preschool through college and graduate school. That has garnered the respect of Hawaii Superintendent of Schools Pat Hamamoto. "I think people are listening to him, but in the context and framework of what is," Hamamoto said. "And Evan is talking about what could be."

Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris, a progressive Democrat and University of Hawaii graduate, also counts himself among the president's biggest fans.

"The whole history of the university is one of missed opportunities," said Harris. "We've never had anyone willing to take risks, to reach out and make the university what it can be."

Under Dobelle, Harris said, the university has become much more of a resource for the entire community.

But Harris is not in the least surprised by the criticism Dobelle is enduring. "Our community is very change-averse," said Harris. So much so that, within minutes of meeting him for the first time, Harris said he warned Dobelle that he should be prepared to run into some buzz saws.

Those buzz saws have even some of Dobelle's most ardent supporters holding their collective breath, hoping he will be able to pull off what he has started.

"If [Dobelle] has a weakness, it's a tendency to over-promise," said Walter Dods, chairman and CEO of First Hawaiian Bank, and a member of the advisory committee that overwhelmingly recommended Dobelle for the job of president. But, continued Dods, "a lot of great leaders do that so that they can raise people's expectations. And it's amazing how, after a while, they can accomplish the things that everyone said they can't accomplish."

Dods, himself a UH graduate and longtime supporter of the university, is not terribly concerned about the apparent lack of fundraising progress.

"You have to create the community enthusiasm first, and the money will follow," said Dods. Dobelle generally has a very good relationship with the business community of Honolulu, Dods said. In addition, he said, finding funds for the biomedical center is a high priority for U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye, whose campaigns Dods has chaired for the past 20 years.

"Has he done everything right? No. Has he stepped on some toes? Yes," said Dods. "But overall, is he taking the university in the right direction? I'd say an emphatic yes."

One set of toes Dobelle has stepped on belongs to Republican Governor Linda Lingle. In the final days of the 2002 gubernatorial campaign, Dobelle, against the strong advice of both Dods and Paul Costello, vice president for external affairs, appeared in a television commercial endorsing Lingle's Democratic opponent. Lingle reportedly hung up on Dobelle when he made a courtesy call informing her of what he had done. Dobelle, who believes "education isn't political enough," said in an interview that the endorsement was "a calculated risk," that came from the heart.

But it was a risk that backfired, and many people, Dods among them, consider it Dobelle's biggest misstep. One board of regents member resigned in protest.

Since being sworn into office, Lingle has appointed seven new members to the 12-member board of regents. Among her appointees is vice chair Lagareta, a public relations and marketing consultant who was an unofficial advisor to Lingle's gubernatorial campaign.

Dobelle said he and the governor have put the incident behind them, and they recently exchanged a brief kiss of greeting at a well-attended fundraiser for one of the university's community colleges. But privately, people suspect Governor Lingle has not forgiven him.

There have been other controversies as well. Democrat Brian Taniguchi, chair of the state Senate Ways and Means Committee, called for an audit of the University Foundation, after it was revealed that Dobelle used $1,625 from the president's discretionary fund to take donors and staff members to a Janet Jackson concert instead of treating them to a more typical black-tie event.

And there was so much talk about Dobelle's spending that in December of last year, his administration opened the books to reporters, saying there was nothing to hide. According to a report that followed in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Dobelle spent nearly $11,000 to fly Paul Costello, his wife and child to Hawaii for a job interview and put them up at a luxury resort. According to the same article, another recruitment trip, this one for his executive assistant, included a $2,600 bill at the same resort, as well as a $465 dinner. And according to a story in the Honolulu Advertiser, he also spent $42,000 in airline ticket upgrades, a perk stipulated in his contract.

All of that, Dobelle's critics say, adds up to insensitivity and arrogance, neither of which play well in this heavily Asian-influenced culture. He was smart enough to pack away his cufflinks and tailored suits when he moved from Connecticut, but his new wardrobe of flowered Hawaiian shirts and dress slacks does not completely cover up his mainland ways, they say.

"I think Dobelle...sees humility as a weakness," said Amy Agbayani. But in Hawaii, she said, it is better to "promise less and deliver more."

Senator Taniguchi agreed, saying that while he was committed to higher education and the university, he remained "suspicious" of Dobelle. "I have a hard time deciphering whether what he's doing is just cheerleading or whether there's some substance to it," Taniguchi said.

Taniguchi said he and his senate colleagues were put off when Dobelle, under questioning by a legislator, refused to consider what might happen if he failed to raise $150 million to match the $150 million bond issue for the biomedical complex. Replying that he didn't "think that way," Dobelle said that it was not a question he would even allow his staff to ask.

"Everybody was kind of taken aback," said Taniguchi. "They were turned off by that kind of style."

"I think a lot of this is style. And that's not an insignificant thing when you're president of the university," said Democrat Brian Schatz, the majority whip of the Hawaii House of Representatives. "There is a respect that we tend to have for the mover and shaker whose name is not well-known."

That is certainly not Dobelle.

He has given so many speeches, radio, television and newspaper interviews that he is something of a celebrity in Hawaii, and is often recognized by strangers, whom he invariably engages in conversation about his latest projects. He has traveled extensively since taking office, to Asia and the mainland as well as within the Hawaiian islands, in an attempt to create new academic opportunities and to raise money. This year, Dobelle was named Salesperson of the Year by the Sales and Marketing Executives of Honolulu, an award given each year to the person who has done the most to promote the state of Hawaii.

Watching him in action, you can see why.

During a recent chance encounter at a coffee shop in the Honolulu airport, he started chatting with a producer for The History Channel; within minutes, he was asking about internships for students in the university's new Creative Media and Digital Arts program. Once off the plane, on the Big Island of Hawaii, he met a businessman on the shuttle to the car rental and was off and running about his idea to develop an East-West medical program that would tap into interest in alternative medicines and plants endemic to Hawaii. The businessman gave Dobelle the name of a Hawaiian doctor he thought would be interested in the project.

Shortly afterward, Dobelle was chatting with a local reporter about everything from the future of the university football team-Dobelle eventually wants to broadcast its games into Japan-to a project he's developing in conjunction with the discount broker Charles Schwab & Company to create a unique residential/retail village that also will house community college classrooms on the west side of the Big Island. He spoke about his desire to capitalize on Hawaii's location to make the university a bridge between East and West, a place where every educated American needs to spend at least a year.

Then it was on to a speech to the local Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club, where he suggested that the university should offer cultural and natural history tours and courses-even symphony performances-catering to the wealthy homeowners who are flocking to the Big Island. He talked about developing a culinary arts and hotel management program to fill local employment needs. He suggested that the university could offer a PGA-sanctioned golf management course, given the popularity of the sport in the islands, and proposed a cooperative distance learning program to train more nurses.

"There is so much we can do together," Dobelle told the audience, "but the key is communicating and working cooperatively in a spirit of entrepreneurship. Because if we do, there is nothing we cannot accomplish."

And there is certainly much to accomplish. While Dobelle proudly said in a recent speech that the accrediting team from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) said the Manoa campus had "dramatically changed" for the better since 1999, he failed to mention that WASC also has issued a formal notice of concern to UH-West Oahu about its institutional integrity, fiscal stability, lack of academic planning and organizational structure. If these problems are not addressed in the next few months, WASC might take steps toward ending West Oahu's accreditation.

Another WASC team looked at the systemwide reorganization, where it found serious flaws in the budget process, and considerable confusion about some of the changes. It also urged the board of regents and the president to keep partisan politics out of the university system.

Politics is one potential problem; money is another. By one estimate, UH remains underfunded by $82 million. Faculty members, who have been thrilled to hear Dobelle advocate for them, are starting to lose patience as they look to him to deliver an across-the-board pay raise. The community college administrators want to know where they're going to get nearly $1 million to cover gaps in the new faculty contract, which reduced the teaching load without consulting them about the fiscal consequences.

The economic forecast for Hawaii does appear to be improving, which might free up some more money from the legislature. But it will not make up for all the shortfalls. So Dobelle and his team are exploring various potential sources of additional funding, including more overhead from research grants, revenues from expanded auxiliary services and enrollment and tuition increases. "It's time to put up or shut up," said Sam Callejo.

Back in his Honolulu office, Dobelle keeps a bucket of plastic crabs that he has purposely tipped over. That, he said, is what he's determined to do in Hawaii-to stop people from pulling each other back down into the bucket.

"This is all about justice, the capacity to dream dreams and make dreams come true," Dobelle said. "And that's what I do."

Dobelle definitely has people dreaming dreams. But will those dreams come to fruition? "There are a lot of us who want him to succeed. I don't know if he can," said Karl Kim, the interim vice chancellor for academic affairs. "Because people just don't get it, and they focus on stuff that doesn't matter."

Ramsey Pedersen, chancellor of Honolulu Community College and an expert in Pacific Island cultures, said he sees unfortunate parallels between Dobelle's situation and that of the prophets who emerged in the "cargo cults" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When ships laden with previously unknown goods first reached the Melanesian islands, the islanders saw what they had been missing, and these prophets raised their hopes and expectations. Do as I say, they'd tell the islanders, and you, too, will attain these goods. And so the islanders obeyed, following rituals designed to purge the old traditions and make way for the new. They built roads and docks, and they waited for the cargo to show up, as the prophet had promised. And when it did not, they felt terribly betrayed, and all their expectations metamorphosed into rage.

In the end, said Pedersen, the islanders invariably turned on the prophet, and killed him.

Kathy Witkowsky is a freelance reporter in Missoula, Montana, and a frequent contributor to National Public Radio.

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