Dobelle debacle forewarns of UARC misjudgment
READERS in Hawaii and college towns sprinkled around the country now know that former University of Hawaii President Evan Dobelle has turned in the research paper for which he was paid $250,000 over two years.
"That's $625 per page," calculated the prestigious Chronicle of Higher Education. And each page was triple-spaced. "Folks in Hawaii aren't exactly thrilled to have footed the hefty bill for the 400-page study," the Chronicle stated without citing sources. But, it said, the 25 universities that Dobelle cited as outstanding for uplifting their communities "were thrilled."
Indiana University-Purdue University, for example, bubbled forth that Dobelle's "Saviors of Our Cities" report praising its institution for strengthening the economy and quality of life in Indianapolis was researched by "a higher education expert and four-time university president," without noting that Dobelle had been unceremoniously dumped by UH's Board of Regents. UH didn't make Dobelle's list of 25 praiseworthy institutions.
That report was probably "the last chapter" of work by Dobelle for UH, the Associated Press reported, and UH Board of Regents Chairwoman Kitty Lagareta agreed, although he will continue to draw $1,666-a-month UH pension for the rest of his life.
In the history of the university, set to celebrate its centennial next year, this pricey last chapter finishes off a pricey episode of Board of Regents' misjudgments that resulted in big payouts and negative public relations, nationally and even globally.
The episode began in the spring and summer of 2001 with a series of secret meetings by Board of Regents members in which they negotiated a contract paying Dobelle $442,000 a year, thought to be a record for a public-university president and four times more than that paid to Hawaii's governor. Several side deals also were negotiated between then-Board of Regents Chairwoman Lily Yao and Dobelle, but these were kept secret even from other Regents and not revealed to them or the public until years later.
On July 1, 2001, 72 days before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, Dobelle was formally hired, with a seven-year contract that gave him a full salary and bonus if he were fired without cause.
Three years later, he was fired "for cause." On June 15, in a 12-hour, largely closed-door meeting while Dobelle was on the mainland, the Board of Regents fired him but declined to specify the cause. His contract permitted his dismissal only for a felony conviction, mental instability or "moral turpitude."
Dobelle hired a lawyer, who assembled what he called a "dream team" of other prominent lawyers and threatened to sue for defamation of character and contract violations. Instead of going to court, a mediated settlement was negotiated that rescinded UH's firing, allowed Dobelle to resign and paid him $1.6 million plus $250,000 for two years of the research that he has just concluded and another $1 million in fees to various attorneys.
Recounting this secretive hiring and blotched firing of Dobelle serves to warn of the pending misjudgment the board might again make about a far more momentous decision now hovering before it -- approval of a contract with the Navy to establish at UH a first-of-its-kind University Affiliated Research Center.
Only months after the Dobelle debacle, the flagship campus at Manoa was embroiled in a controversy about whether UH should enter into a contract with the Navy to establish a UARC.
UH officials originally said the proposed contract would pull in $50 million over five years, but that contract now is being renegotiated. The UARC drew strong opposition on campus and in the community, especially from Hawaiians and even from the interim chancellor at Manoa, where, she said, military research would crimp an already cramped and under- resourced campus. The controversy climaxed in May 2005 when protesters stormed UH's Bachman Hall, seized the president's office and staged a six-day sit-in, again garnering UH national and global news coverage.
Dobelle's successor, President David McClain, has voiced approval of a UARC contract with certain new conditions, and one now is being negotiated. It would have to be approved by the Board of Regents and the Navy.
The ouster of Dobelle was an in-house personality spat, done in a surprise blow in June, when most students and faculty were off campus and unaware of the intensity of the friction among UH's decision-makers. In contrast, the controversy about the UARC has engulfed the campus and the community.
As the nation remembers the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the subsequent policy misjudgments resulting in the Iraq war, the Board of Regents could well reflect on the secretive beginnings and botched ouster of Dobelle. The kinds of misjudgments that led to the hiring and firing of Dobelle should be avoided if the Board of Regents decides to vote on establishing a Navy research center.
If voted upon, the board should reject establishing a Navy research center. It would curb the free flow of information and discussion needed for discovering and disseminating knowledge, a mission for which UH was founded 99 years ago.
Beverly Ann Deepe Keever, a University of Hawaii professor of journalism, was a correspondent who covered the Vietnam War for seven years and is the author of "News Zero: The New York Times and The Bomb." The thoughts expressed in this column are her personal views.