early in tenure
The UH president counters
that most board members
were not qualified
University of Hawaii regents began having concerns about ousted UH President Evan Dobelle's leadership style on his first day in office, a former regent said.
Regents also began questioning Dobelle's travel spending and fund raising months before board members appointed by Gov. Linda Lingle took office last July, documents and interviews show.
When regent Michael Hartley resigned on Nov. 5, 2002, he cited Dobelle's public endorsement of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mazie Hirono as one of several incidents that led to his decision.
"To maintain credibility, it is incumbent on nonprofit institutions to be tough-minded on spending, just as the private sector has done," Hartley wrote in his resignation letter. "Lavish and unproductive spending ($30,000 to attend the BYU game, etc.) will discourage government grants and private donors."
Hartley also criticized what he saw as Dobelle's "lack of respect" for the board by not consulting with regents before sending a fax announcing his endorsement of Hirono.
Dobelle said last night that Hartley is wrong about his spending on the BYU game and that the former regent apologized to him about it.
Hartley, Dobelle said, "never showed a real interest of being on the board."
"I'm sure the opportunity to resign using the Hirono endorsement as an excuse was sent from heaven for him," Dobelle said.
Of his problems with the current and previous boards, Dobelle said, "Only a handful of the 25 regents (who served while Dobelle was president) were truly qualified, who understood higher education, who understood a billion-dollar enterprise, who understood faculty. ...
"I have never been in a situation where I knew more than the Board of Regents," he said.
In a May 8, 2003, memo to Dobelle, former Maui regent C. Everett Dowling asked the president to provide the board a summary of his expenses charged to the UH Foundation and of his travel, including costs for other people traveling with him. As part of last year's annual evaluation of the president, Dowling also asked for a summary of Dobelle's fund-raising efforts.
In an interview before Dobelle's firing on June 15, Dowling said that he had concerns about receipts and documentation from the UH Foundation protocol fund, which is provided to the UH president and his staff to advance the university.
But Dowling also said he believed that criticism of Dobelle's travel was "politically motivated criticism rather than of a fiduciary nature."
Dobelle needed to travel frequently to raise money for the university, Dowling said.
"You're not going to get that kind of money in the small state of Hawaii," he said.
Dowling did not return Star-Bulletin calls after Dobelle's firing.
Former board Chairman Bert Kobayashi followed up with another memo on June 17, 2003, repeating Dowling's request.
Dobelle responded with an August memo saying that after re-establishing relationships with donors, he suspected his travel would be "far less" in the next two years. Dobelle also noted that UH Foundation fund raising was up $4.3 million over the previous year.
In September the board, which now included six Lingle appointees, gave Dobelle a harshly worded evaluation criticizing, among other things, his "lavish spending" on travel.
While the June 15 firing of Dobelle has been criticized as politically motivated because of his endorsement of Lingle's opponent, regents expressed concerns about Dobelle before Lingle's appointments joined the board.
Former Cayetano-appointed regents gave testimony about Dobelle during last year's evaluation process and during this year's evaluation, but their names have not been publicly released.
During the last several weeks, the Star-Bulletin has attempted to talk with former regents, but only one, Billy Bergin, agreed to talk at length on the record.
Bergin, who left the board in June 2002, said his concern with the former president began on Dobelle's first day on the job.
At a press conference announcing his hiring, Dobelle, with the regents standing behind him, announced several high-level personnel appointments.
Board members were stunned because personnel appointments have to be approved by the board, and no one had been given advance notice, Bergin said.
"It's like the stallion got out of the barn," said Bergin, a Big Island veterinarian. "The faster you retrieve that animal and get him under control, the fewer problems you have."
Dobelle said that he did inform board Chairman Kobayashi ahead of time.
He said when Bergin told him that "'regents need to put bridles on presidents,' I said, 'You're a good fellow, Billy, but you and I don't have the same sense of how to provide leadership.'"
Bergin said that in another incident he was sitting in an audience in Kona listening to Dobelle speak, when the former president spoke about his plans for a four-year college in West Hawaii.
Bergin, the regent who represented the area, said he was again shocked that Dobelle would not let him and the board know about his plans before making public announcements.
"Billy's concern was that he had a different site in mind for it (UH-West Hawaii). That's just local politics, which I don't have patience for," Dobelle said.
Bergin said the board's concerns do not take away from Dobelle's accomplishments.
"I think Evan, by his assertive nature, by his enthusiastic nature, by his industrious nature, made the regents feel very good about the possibilities of very significant contributions that he could make," Bergin said.
Bergin said the former president was hired both for change and for fund raising.
Even one of the former president's biggest supporters on the board -- former Chairman Kobayashi -- mentioned his concerns in a memo used as part of last year's evaluation.
While praising Dobelle's "remarkable vision, coupled with his boundless energy and a courageous willingness to defy the norm and status quo," Kobayashi stressed the need for Dobelle to work with the board.
"One would be less than forthright by claiming that the board and the president has seen eye-to-eye on all issues," he wrote. "He will need to strengthen his relationship with the board by developing a more genuine appreciation of the board's role, its responsibility to the public and its constitutionally mandated obligation to govern this university."
Since the board fired Dobelle on June 15, Kobayashi has not returned Star-Bulletin calls.
Dobelle said struggles with boards are not unusual in Hawaii and that he is a victim of trying to change things for the better. "The boards at the University of Hawaii have always tried to dominate the presidents and mostly succeeded, and I fought back," he said.