UH Problems Bigger Than 1 Person

Searching for a donkey upon which to pin the tail of responsibility for the University of Hawaii’s errors wasn’t a problem at the recent Senate hearings.

No matter the speaker nor questions unanswered, it was clear that the university’s long history of choking bureaucracy is alive and deadly. That’s why, even after doing nothing to instill confidence in her administration, the sacking of president M.R.C. Greenwood, which many have called for, would do little to improve the overall performance of the university.

Yes, Greenwood is in charge of the UH system and must be held responsible for what has happened. But she is not the cause of all the problems.

She’s a symptom. During her sometimes combative testimony, Greenwood, who repeated several times her disfavor about speaking publicly about public issues, discussed the political pressure put on her by the state’s highest-ranking public officials.

That may not have been a bad thing if the conversations with Gov. Neil Abercrombie, Senate President Shan Tsutsui and Speaker of the House Calvin Say were over budgets or academic progress. But no. The conversations dealt with the employment status of an athletic director and, likely, who determines hiring and firing decisions.

In a strange way, such actions may be fitting, as Greenwood and the Board of Regents acted in a similar way, stepping on the toes of the Manoa chancellor who was supposedly free to run the university as she saw fit.

Donovan testified that he had conversations with two former Board of Regents chairs, who pressed him to fire three coaches. Two of the coaches were eventually terminated, but Donovan failed to mention whether the decisions were based on the regents overstepping their area of authority or on performance.

Perhaps Greenwood was right when she said the hiring and firing of a football coach is too important a job for the AD to decide. She sure hit the nail on the head when she testified that athletics represents a large burden on research institutions as it takes away resources and attention from other, more important issues.

The actions by Greenwood, the board and public officials clearly violate not just the autonomy agreement between the university and the Legislature, but the autonomy the board supposedly champions throughout the UH system.

The Western Association of Schools and Colleges, which provides accreditation for colleges and universities, highlighted the university’s separation of powers as a key component in the positive review it awarded UH.

Even if the powers-that-are-never-seen determine to rid the university of its current target of ire — which history indicates would require a large, lump sum payment — no real changes will occur unless those in power give up power and UH overpays for someone who refuses to play the game.

I’m not talking about bringing in a jerk who is too smart to listen to anyone, but someone brave enough to tell elected officials and unelected power-brokers that, while assistance is appreciated, anyone acting in a way that compromises autonomy will be shown the door.

Finding such an untouchable administrator, if one exists, would take considerable effort, perhaps more than anyone is willing to invest. But if the goal is to make a good university great, it’s a step that must be taken.

It also would be nice if the new hire would not spend state funds on a public relations campaign that targets business leaders to pressure the legislators into killing an investigation into university activities.