UH's consensus builder steps down


POSTED: Friday, July 31, 2009

University of Hawaii President David McClain, a reluctant leader who never applied for the job, leaves office today after five years of guiding the state's 10-campus higher education system through a period of turmoil, growth, budget cutbacks and even a major flood.

In his office at Bachman Hall on the Manoa campus, shelves are cleared of more than 400 books, and only a few documents remain on the stand-up desk, a remnant kept by McClain from his predecessor, Evan Dobelle.

McClain, 62, started his term on the night of June 15, 2004, when the Board of Regents fired Dobelle. McClain, then second-in-command at UH, became acting president.

It is impossible not to compare Dobelle and McClain. Their leadership styles are so different, but their presidencies are intertwined.

Where Dobelle was brash and full of big ideas, McClain was a listener and consensus builder. Dobelle drove a Porsche convertible. McClain came to work in a Lexus sedan and now drives a fuel-efficient Mini Cooper convertible.

“;We owe a debt to Evan (Dobelle),”; McClain said earlier this week in an interview. “;Evan had a lot of good ideas ... but it's one thing to have vision and it's another to execute the vision.”;

Much of McClain's first two years in office were spent repairing damaged relationships between the UH administration, the regents, the public and the Legislature frayed by Dobelle's tenure and his abrupt departure.

“;A lot of it was just showing you could run the university in a much less dramatic way and still get results,”; McClain said.

McClain acknowledges that some of what he accomplished was started by Dobelle.

An example is the P-20 initiative. Dobelle came up with the idea to bring community and education officials from preschool through college together and the initial $500,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for the program to improve education.

But McClain and his administration implemented the idea and received a $10 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation.

McClain cites increases in native Hawaiian faculty and students and a Board of Regents policy affirming the university's commitment to native Hawaiians as among his accomplishments.

He also points to increases in funding: $336 million raised during the UH Foundation's Centennial Campaign; $150 million in state general fund moneys to UH over the last two biennium; an $85 million increase in research grants since 2004; and $80 million a year in increased tuition revenues.

Those increases in funding mean the university is in a better position to deal with the $155 million in general fund budget cuts over the next two years, McClain said.

Contract negotiations between UH and its public worker unions and the details of the budget cuts are still unfinished as McClain leaves office.

But he said he keeps in regular touch with incoming UH President M.R.C. Greenwood, and he is confident Vice President for Academic Planning Linda Johnsrud and Vice President for Community Colleges John Morton will be able to finish the contract.

The cool handling of crises, financial and otherwise, also marked McClain's time in office.

Only a few months after he became acting president, a flood ripped through the Manoa campus on Oct. 30, 2004, causing $83 million in damage.

In May 2005 protesters opposed to a Navy affiliated research center at UH-Manoa occupied McClain's office for a week.

McClain allowed them to stay as long as they did not damage anything. Then, months later, after marathon meetings, he approved the center, citing the academic freedom of researchers to work on projects.

“;I'm a child of the '60s,”; McClain, who was drafted and served a year in Vietnam, said about his decision not to evict the protesters from his office.

“;You have to make the situation not about you, but about what the issues are,”; he said.

McClain took himself out of the running in 2006 when the regents began a search for a permanent president.

But after search consultants told the board they should look again at McClain, regents offered him a three-year contract, which ends today.

The contract allows him to take a one-year sabbatical beginning tomorrow at his presidential salary of $372,6000.

But McClain will forgo the president's salary and take his faculty salary of $250,000. He said he will also take the same pay cut other faculty receive.

During his sabbatical, McClain and his wife, Wendie, plan to rent a house on Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts this fall, to be closer to two of their daughters and two grandchildren. An economist who received his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, McClain also plans to reconnect with former colleagues and prepare to return to teaching next fall.

He will draw on his experiences as UH president in his classes. After meetings this week with colleagues in the Shidler College of Business, McClain decided to lecture on leadership and do research on economic policy in periods of financial crisis.


» Joined UH-Manoa in 1991 as the College of Business Administration's Henry A. Walker Distinguished Professor of Business Enterprise.

» Appointed dean of the business college in 2000.

» Appointed UH interim vice president for research, a newly created position, in February 2003.

» Appointed UH vice president for academic affairs in July 2003.

» Became acting UH president June 14, 2004, after the Board of Regents fired Evan Dobelle. The regents later rescind Dobelle’s firing and he resigns as part of a $1.6 million out-of-court settlement.

» McClain becomes interim UH president on Oct. 22, 2004, at a salary of $325,000 a year.

» A flood causes $83 million to the UH-Manoa campus on Oct. 30, 2004.

» The Save UH/Stop UARC Coalition begins a weeklong occupation of the UH president’s office in May 2005 to protest a proposed Navy research center at UH-Manoa.

» The University of Hawaii Board of Regents approves a tuition increase at its May 2005 meeting that raises undergraduate resident tuition at UH-Manoa 140 percent over six years.

» UH-Manoa Chancellor Peter Englert’s contract is not renewed and expires in July 2005. Denise Konan is named interim chancellor.

» As the Board of Regents launches a search for a permanent UH president in November 2005, McClain issues a statement saying, “I do not intend to actively pursue the UH presidency.”

» The Board of Regents appoints McClain as UH president under a three-year contract in March 2006 after a task force concludes, without conducting a national search, that McClain is the best person for the job. McClain’s salary is set at $360,000 a year.

» McClain announces Centennial Scholarship initiative in November 2006 to provide $1,000 annual scholarships to any UH campus for Hawaii residents who graduate from a Hawaii high school with a 3.8 grade point average or 1800 or better SAT score.

» UH begins its “Second Decade Project” in February 2007 to come up with a strategic plan and goals for the university after 2010.

» The first class of the President’s Emerging Leaders Program is selected in the fall of 2007. The program is designed to develop future UH administrators.

» The UH-Manoa football team loses to Georgia in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1, 2008. A few days later, Coach June Jones leaves for Southern Methodist University, and McClain and new UH-Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw announce the dismissal of Athletic Director Herman Frazier for failing to sign Jones.

» McClain’s wife, Wendie McClain, begins “Rubber Slipper Tours” in the spring of 2008 to showcase good news at UH campuses.

»Ground Blessing held on Jan. 14, 2009, for new UH-West Oahu campus, although financing for the Kapolei campus is not yet completed.

» Board of Regents at a June 10, 2009, meeting selects M.R.C. Greenwood to become the first female UH president.

» David McClain steps down as UH president on July 30, 2009.