Regents tapUniversity of Hawaii regents, as expected, today announced that Evan S. Dobelle, president of Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., would succeed Kenneth Mortimer as UH president on July 1.
Dobelle for UH
The Trinity College chief will
take over here July 1 for
$442,000 a year
Webcast of the announcement online
By Helen Altonn
Dobelle, 55, will be paid $442,000 annually under a contract that goes to June 30, 2008.
Asked why he would want to leave a comfortable job in Hartford, Dobelle said every job he's taken has been called "the hardest job in higher education."
As Mortimer looked on during a news conference at Bachman Hall this morning, Dobelle said he does not expect the UH presidency to be any different.
He said he could have taken a comfortable job, but "they were not interesting; there were no challenges."
Those who know Dobelle say it is a coup for the UH to have him as president.
However, friends and associates of the dynamic academic and civic leader see bigger things for him. Why, they ask, would he want to take over a troubled university in Hawaii?
UH faculty members, on the other hand, ask why the regents would appoint the head of a private college with 2,200 students to run an institution with 10 diverse campuses and more than 47,000 students spread across the islands.
The answers lie in Dobelle's experience, character and abilities.
People who have worked with him in Hartford and San Francisco say Dobelle is a vigorous and forthright leader.
They describe him as a bold visionary who builds on assets and turns around negative situations, a high-class guy, impeccable dresser, politically well-connected and able to relate to people on all levels and bring them together.
"He's been an unusually vigorous leader in an era where it's said leadership is lacking," said Eugene Leach, Trinity College history professor.
He said people believe Dobelle -- "a major talent" -- would have had a high national position if Democrat Al Gore had been elected president.
Some people are put off when they meet Dobelle, a very self-assured man, said Marilyn Rossetti, Hartford City Council member who met him six years ago.
"He's lofty in some ways but that's just his style. He's committed to any community he's in. He has vision and knows how to raise money.
"He has pizazz," she said. "He wears cufflinks. To me that kind of defines him. He's a wonderful dresser; he wears gorgeous shoes, but he gets things done."
He would adapt easily from New England's conservative ways to Hawaii's casual aloha lifestyle, she said. "If that's going to help get the job done, that will be part of it."
Rossetti, who worked with Dobelle and other residents to clean up the Trinity College neighborhood, said people are saying his departure would be a loss.
"But I never thought he'd stay here a long time. We'll miss him but he did his job."
Dobelle served twice as mayor of Pittsfield, Mass., and, at age 31, was President Jimmy Carter's U.S. chief of protocol for the White House and assistant secretary of state with rank of ambassador.
He was chancellor and president of the City College of San Francisco, with 10 campuses and 97,500 students, before going to Trinity about six years ago. Before that he was president of Middlesex Community College in Lowell, Mass., the largest such institution in New England.
Attorney Rodel Rodis, City College of San Francisco trustee, said it was surprising when Dobelle left for Trinity College. "The number of faculty at City College is equal to the number of students at Trinity."
But Dobelle liked the challenge, Rodis said, suggesting that he might be lured by the challenge of turning around the demoralized University of Hawaii.
"He certainly transformed Trinity College. ... It was almost like an iron gate inside a ghetto, a very depressed urban area. He had students work with people in the inner city so they would not be an isolated fortress.
"He received a great deal of national attention for efforts to integrate an Ivy League campus with an inner-city community."
Rodis said Dobelle took over City College during what was probably the most difficult period in its history, with a budget slashed by the governor. The entire system was reorganized and unified, and Dobelle brought in a lot of contributors, Rodis said.
"I look back now and say, 'Wow, we survived that period.' He was the helmsman. He provided leadership to steer us through a turbulent period."
Rodis said Dobelle enjoys analyzing political issues and "knows so many players personally. He just has immense knowledge of so many important people all over the country."
Still, he will have some detractors, Rodis said, noting some people at City College "feel very upset with him, even six years after (he left there)," because of positions eliminated, choice of administrators or other reasons.
Philip R. Day Jr., present chancellor of the City College of San Francisco, said, "I don't think you (Hawaii) could do any better than the guy you're getting."
Day and Dobelle were college presidents in Massachusetts at the same time, and both left when budget cuts began affecting students -- Dobelle going to San Francisco, and Day to Florida as Daytona Beach Community College president.
Day said Dobelle is "a consummate politician and diplomat. He's well connected, but he knows how to use the connections, and he knows how to maintain the type of political relationships you need to have in order to get the support required for what it is you want to do."
Day said he has followed UH's recent rocky history and he "can't think of anyone with more skill and diplomacy to gain support from the Legislature and governor to make a difference."
He said Dobelle is not a micromanager.
"Clearly, his priority is making sure that in the areas of academics, research, institutional advancement, student development and facilities, he's got the best people he can get to do those jobs, and he provides them with the opportunity to do it.
"I think that's what he does best: connecting with businesses and connecting with the private sector, trying to line up support."
Writing in the Hartford Courant, Tom Puleo called Dobelle "Donald Trump with a social conscience."
Puleo said Dobelle "simply sets the bar so high that failure isn't an option."
Professor Leach said Dobelle's accomplishments at Trinity are "really quite astonishing. I think he will be remembered as probably the most effective of Trinity's modern presidents."
When he arrived at Trinity College, Dobelle looked across the street from the campus at a ghetto area with crack houses, gangs and homicides.
"Within four years, he had offered the vision, assembled the funding and led the planning, then finally opened, along with others ... the set of schools called 'The Learning Corridor,'" Leach said.
Community, business and government groups joined Dobelle in a $250 million neighborhood revitalization. The urban blight was transformed with a complex of four schools and a Boys and Girls Club -- the first in America allied with a college.
Trinity also completed a $100 million capital campaign under Dobelle's administration, exceeding goals and ahead of schedule.
"We're hoping you don't take him and we keep him," Eddie Perez, former associate vice president for community relations at Trinity College and now president of an alliance of five nonprofit groups in the low-income urban Trinity neighborhood, said earlier.
Perez said he spent six months going with Dobelle to church basements, corporate boardrooms, state and city offices.
"Evan's able to take most constituents and get them to see what tomorrow could be if everybody works together, rather than how we're not moving," Perez said.
The New York Times in 1997 lauded him for setting out "to restore his community to health and his institution to preeminence."
Trinity was termed "College of the Year" in 1998 and 2000 editions of the Time/Princeton Review "The Best College for You" guide.
Dobelle, a professor of public policy and advocate for the liberal arts, was named New Englander of the Year in 1999 "for his outstanding contributions to the region's academic community, as well as the Hartford community through revitalization and economic development projects."
Last month, he received a distinguished-service award from the National Child Labor Committee for lifelong devotion to the social welfare of children.
His wife, Kit, worked as first lady Rosalyn Carter's chief of staff. She also serves on many boards. They have a son, Harry, 13.
Treena Shapiro of the Star-Bulletin contributed to this report.
Ka Leo O Hawaii
University of Hawaii