Sunday, June 20, 2004

Flanked by Barry Raleigh, left, and Joyce Tsunoda, UH President Evan Dobelle entertains questions during a press conference.

Spending habits,
poor relations soured
Dobelle’s tenure at UH

Conflicts with regents and
state officials overshadowed
many of his early promises

Expert criticizes firing

It was March 6, 2001, when Evan Dobelle, then president of Trinity College in Connecticut, surfaced publicly as a finalist in the search for a new president for the University of Hawaii.

Dobelle was known for expanding programs offered at the small liberal arts college in Connecticut during his six years there. He also was a former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, looking for work in a state then run by Democrats.

Six days later, Dobelle had a contract to head Hawaii's 10-campus, 45,000-student system from July 2, 2001, to June 30, 2008, at an annual salary of $442,000, four times that earned by the governor. It made him one of the highest paid college presidents in the nation.

He joined a university troubled with sliding national rankings, budget cutbacks, native Hawaiian issues and a threatened strike by the faculty. Dobelle didn't see trouble, he saw "a system that simply needs to understand and comprehend how good it is."

Now, four years before his contract was to run out, Dobelle is out of a job, fired by the Board of Regents "for cause" and engaged in a long-distance fuss via the news media with board leaders over who's not taking whose telephone calls.

Dobelle, who is expected to return to Honolulu from Chicago tomorrow or Tuesday, said none of the regents contacted him to explain why he was fired last Tuesday. The regents said Dobelle wasn't taking their calls, yet seemed easily reachable by the Hawaii news media. They said he should have been at the meeting.

Either way, the reason or reasons behind the board's decision remain locked behind the state's "Sunshine Law," which deems Dobelle's evaluation and employment to be a "personnel matter," which is confidential unless Dobelle agrees to make it public.

Board Chairwoman Patricia Lee and Vice Chairwoman Kitty Lagareta both say Dobelle's mixed official and personal use of money from a fund-raising slush fund was one issue given serious consideration in the board's deliberations.

This has led to days of speculation and no official word on the "cause" that would justify the regents withholding a $2.2 million early severance provision in Dobelle's contract, which also assures him a tenured professorship at the university.

Soon after he took the job in 2001, Dobelle was making news: stalling plans for a touted new medical school; calling for a PAC-10-sized football stadium at a new West Oahu campus in Kapolei; calling for a four-year school in film and television production; changing names of campuses, buildings and mountain tops; winning the hearts of Hawaiians with $1.5 million for Hawaiian programs; and proposing a $700 million construction program.

From day one, his $442,000 salary and perks have been an issue, including spending $1 million on renovations to his residence, the UH's College Hill mansion and guest house. It was three times the amount that had been planned.

Dobelle hadn't been on the job for a year when his spending habits caught the eye of Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian Taniguchi (D, Moiliili-Manoa). He called for an audit of University of Hawaii Foundation money being used by Dobelle to take two dozen donors and staff members to a Janet Jackson concert at Aloha Stadium.

Despite such questions, the regents in their first year evaluation of Dobelle praised him for initiating progress and changing attitudes in the university system.

Things ran smoothly until November 2002, when in the closing days of the heated campaign for governor, Dobelle appeared in a television ad to endorse Democrat Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono over Republican Linda Lingle, who ended up winning.

Out of courtesy, Dobelle called Lingle to tell her the TV spot of his endorsement would be running. She hung up on him, she said.

Some see that as the root of the move to get Dobelle fired as Lingle began making appointments to the Board of Regents.

However, it was Democratic lawmakers who began pressing the point on Dobelle's spending, including personal use of University of Hawaii Foundation funds and his hiring of highly paid assistants.

On July 6, 2003, House Higher Education Committee Chairman K. Mark Takai (D, Newtown-Pearl City), Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Halawa), retired professor Ralph Moberly and UH official Amy Agbayani, a veteran Democratic Party insider, co-authored an article highly critical of the UH president.

"In Dobelle's two years, we see an institution where student tuition is being raised while administrative salaries are boosted by more than $4 million, where substance and services take a back seat to marketing and public relations, and where a globe-trotting president fails to bring home the money he promised," the article said.

Takai said he initiated a search for Dobelle's spending and travel records after the president and his top aides didn't show up at a House Higher Education Committee meeting on April 16, 2003, to answer questions about the $200,000 President's Protocol and Support Fund at the University of Hawaii Foundation, the legally separate nonprofit organization that raises funds for the school. It's to be spent on things that the president feels will advance the university.

Dobelle had notified the committee he would be at a mainland conference that day, but Takai said his staff checked with conference officials and determined Dobelle did not attend.

The lawmaker, who once headed the UH student body government and Manoa campus student newspaper, said a check of travel documents showed Dobelle was on Oahu that day.

"So in effect, he lied to us," said Takai, who added that the Dobelle spending and travel records obtained by the committee were turned over to the Board of Regents and likely prompted a private audit ordered by the regents. The report on that audit has yet to be made public.

State Auditor Marion Higa got into the act last November, threatening to use subpoenas to get financial documents from the University of Hawaii Foundation.

Higa's pursuit of the documents followed an audit report she released in March 2003 questioning some uses of the university's Tuition and Fees Special Fund under the foundation's $2.35 million 2002 contract with the school.

Relations between Dobelle and a Board of Regents, whose membership was becoming dominated by Lingle appointees, went south last fall when he objected to the way his 2003 evaluation was being handled, demanding that the proceedings be kept private.

Several regents, speaking at the time on condition of anonymity, said at one closed-door meeting Dobelle threatened to sue the board if they insisted on making the evaluation public.

In December, the board voted not to renew the contract of J.R.W. "Wick" Sloane, the university's chief financial officer who was part of Dobelle's imported management team and whose wife headed the University of Hawaii Foundation.

By January, state lawmakers were pressing Dobelle on his promise that he would raise $150 million in private money to match the state's $150 million to build the now nearly completed university medical school in Kakaako. He said he had finalized a fund-raising plan but had not yet approached anyone.

In February, the board began a new evaluation of Dobelle, headed up by Lagareta, a Lingle confidante and key Lingle campaign official in the 2002 governor's race.

The tone for the new evaluation no doubt was set in April, when the previously confidential and highly critical report on Dobelle's 2003 evaluation was made public at the direction of the state Office of Information Practices.

That report chided Dobelle's "lavish spending," "wholesale escalation of executive salaries" and the hiring of former Dobelle colleagues, which it said was widely viewed as cronyism.

Dobelle called the report "somewhat unprofessional" and said it contained "an enormous amount of misinformation, misstatements, mischaracterizations that do concern me."

The timing of the release of the 2004 evaluation that led to Dobelle's dismissal apparently is in the hands of the regents' lawyer.


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