University of Hawaii President Kenneth Mortimer's call this week for a "common vision" at the university was thoughtful and welcome. The question is whether he -- or anybody else -- can make it happen. UH is one of our troubled state's most dysfunctional families.
Blurred vision at UH
Everybody agrees that a thriving university is key to the state's future, but its crumbling foundation needs attention before we can even think about reaching the next level.
Short-sighted politicians have reduced the university's share of state funding by 25 percent in the 1990s, forcing program cuts that threaten its long-term accreditation. Embarrassing missteps in its most visible programs, such as athletics, have fed public doubts about competency at Manoa.
The university has divided into battling factions unwilling to look beyond their narrow interests to the big picture. Small advocacy groups control student organizations and the faculty's foolish foray into political endorsements has left professors at war with the governor.
Lately, the university is all but paralyzed by what is at most a minor side issue: administration of public health education.
Recent autonomy notwithstanding, there are still too many fingers in the university pie. Mortimer must answer to some degree to the Board of Regents, the governor, the Legislature, the Hawaii congressional delegation, the alumni, organized labor and the business community. It's difficult to lead in a system that puts you in a choke collar with powerful interests yanking from every direction.
With tight resources, the university needs to get focused. It must identify programs that are most important to the state's future, as well as programs in which UH can excel because of Hawaii's geography and culture. Resources must be concentrated there, with programs of lesser priority bearing the cuts.
Every program has a constituency that will fight cuts. But if UH leaders are inclusive and straightforward in making decisions, the inevitable protests won't cripple the university.
The fight over the School of Public Health is a lesson on the wrong way to achieve common vision. If Mortimer and the regents had consulted interested parties, plainly stated their intention to fold public health into the medical school and then just done it, the protests would have been over long ago.
Instead, they just let the school languish until it couldn't be accredited, setting off hunger strikes, pickets who stalk Mortimer wherever he goes and angry outcries from meddling politicians. Then came the obligatory study committee to second-guess Mortimer's decision. Now the regents are proceeding to eliminate the school despite the committee's recommendation to save it, making everybody angrier than ever.
With a little consultation, straight talk and decisive leadership, the public health dispute needn't have dragged on pointlessly and risen to the top of an agenda crowded with far more important issues.
If common vision proves impossible, leaders must develop their own clear vision after all appropriate consultation and see it through the political minefields.
Students activists and the faculty will be rambunctious. It's their nature and that's fine. But let's remember that the university belongs to the community -- not the latest crop of students and faculty -- and must devote itself to long-term community needs for education and research.
For the politicians, it boils down to this: If they have confidence in Mortimer and the regents, give them resources and get out of their way. If they lack the confidence, replace them with people in whom they can be confident and get on with it.
David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previous Volcanic Ash columns