Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, July 22, 1999

Mortimer compares well
with predecessors

AS I mull the travails of Kenneth P. Mortimer, president of the University of Hawaii since 1993, I have the perspective of having known 11 regular or interim predecessors since World War II.

Each was different. All were worthy. Mortimer stands up quite well. The times don't.

The alchemist for whom everything turned to gold -- until a bitter end -- was Thomas Hale Hamilton, 1963-68. His era coincided with the idealism of a new state, the egalitarian vision of a governor (Jack Burns) for greatness through education, the prosperity spurred by jet travel, and a Legislature willing to appropriate money to make UH tops.

Hamilton attracted stars, won increased research grants, raised expectations. He charmed just about all the university's diverse constituencies with self-deprecating wit and perceptiveness.

Hamilton seemed to be one in a million. He quit in disappointment, however, at the end of 1968 because the faculty wouldn't fully back him in a Vietnam War-related controversy.

It involved a newly tenured professor who made copies of a pamphlet telling troops to shoot their officers.

Earlier Hamilton told me he couldn't understand the demand of student war protesters for "relevant" courses until he substituted the word "easy."

It is the fate of Kenneth Mortimer, a man with his own droll humor, to head the university at an opposite time.

The economy has been stagnant all his six years here. The governor and Legislature have put UH in a financial vise in order to hold the line against tax increases. UH no longer is a favored offspring.

The hurt is great. Some stars have departed. Some programs must be trimmed. It is no great surprise that morale is low.

I see Mortimer coping as well as anyone could. He is easy to knock. He has to engage in so many different battles on so many fronts. A charge of inadequate communication is not surprising. Even Hamilton's charm might not have lubricated all these interfaces.

We are lucky to have Mortimer, well-recommended from Western Washington University, drawn in part by his wife's island upbringing. It's hard to imagine any quality choices aspiring to replace him at this point in time in one of the most politicized state university atmospheres in America.

Mortimer's predecessor, Albert Simone (1984-92), was able to launch a major building program and reach out for dozens of local and international involvements. He gave 24 hours a day every day to the university, would take calls and give expansive answers even when he was traveling or vacationing and even if they came in the middle of the night.

But Simone's enthusiasm left a lot of details to tidy up.

GIVEN a strong money flow, Mortimer, a very organized man, might have made it look easy. Instead we have the crunch in which Mortimer is trying to save the most important areas of excellence while cutting elsewhere.

Score one for him in breaking the salary line to hire a new medical dean for $400,000 a year.

It would help if more faculty and students would put first the overall good of UH. But faculties and students aren't like that. They can be very territorial and very angry if they lose an inch of turf.

The easy cure for the university would be more money. I don't see our present governor and Legislature granting it. I personally could swallow a tax increase if the money somehow could be rifle-shot to areas of greatest need.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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