Raising Cane

Rob Perez

Commission tells
Dobelle where not
to stick his nose

When a newspaper columnist makes a stink about a University of Hawaii issue, UH President Evan Dobelle can easily dismiss such criticisms as the ramblings of someone who has no sway on campus.

But when the commission that accredits the university raises a similar issue, Dobelle must take heed, especially when his bosses are dragged into the controversy.

That's why I was heartened to read that the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, in a recent report on UH's systemwide operations, made an issue of political endorsements by UH representatives.

The accreditation team's comments were largely in response to Dobelle's ill-advised endorsement last year of then-Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat, in her bid to win the governorship against challenger Linda Lingle, the Republican candidate and eventual winner.

I criticized Dobelle, a long-time Democratic loyalist, for producing a prime-time television commercial endorsing Hirono, mainly because it was such an overtly political and high-profile act virtually unprecedented in the world of academia.

Public universities, by their nature, are supposed to serve all residents and shouldn't show leanings of political partisanship.

Even though Dobelle in the commercial stressed that he was speaking as an individual, it was designed to capitalize on his popularity as UH president at a time when the gubernatorial race was too close to call.

The accreditation team's report didn't specifically mention the Dobelle endorsement, but it was clear that his prime-time political pitch was the driving force behind their comments.

Here is part of what they wrote:

"While some actions relating to political endorsements were permitted by the Board of Regents policy in the past, the WASC team felt that the board should be encouraged to create a stronger and clearer policy on political endorsements and other partisan involvements on the part of university employees.

"Wherever there is the appearance of partisanship by university representatives or, for that matter, regents when it involves university affairs, the university may suffer. Clearer guidance is needed to avoid political partisanship in the affairs of the university and even the appearance of such."

The accreditation team mentioned the endorsement issue in the broader context of encouraging the regents to do all in its powers to depoliticize the affairs of the university. It also urged the board to foster a bipartisan coalition of UH supporters and to continue pursuing greater autonomy.

Given the "history of overreaching political involvement" in university matters, the WASC team said, the new regents must be "independent actors who see their roles as helping to guide UH and its president without regard to partisanship or personal agendas."

Eight of the 12 regents will be new this year.

Ralph Wolff, executive director of WASC's senior college commission, said the organization's intent in raising the endorsement issue wasn't to judge what happened in the past but to help advise the university about its future.

"This is an area the regents are going to have to address," Wolff said, referring to the endorsement policy and the overall politicization issue.

WASC representatives are scheduled to follow up with the university in March on those and other matters mentioned in the report.

A university president publicly endorsing a political candidate for state office is so rare that educators and others in academia I talked to couldn't recall another example of this happening.

In the 20-plus years Wolff has been with WASC, he said he can't recall the commission raising an endorsement issue in an accreditation report, although it has raised concerns about the broader issue of politicization at other universities besides UH.

Dobelle privately has told associates he regrets doing the commercial and in retrospect considered it a mistake.

The president didn't respond to a request for comment, but a spokesman told me that Dobelle thinks the commission's recommendation to address the overall politicization issue is sound.

The commission is rightly putting the endorsement issue squarely in the laps of the regents, who decide policy matters. Given the controversy that Dobelle's endorsement was likely to generate, I wonder whether Dobelle informed the board before he did the commercial and, if so, why the board didn't rein him in. The fact that the regents at the time were appointees of then-Gov. Ben Cayetano, a Democrat, undoubtedly had something to do with it.

The board didn't respond to my request for comment.

In the past, Dobelle defended his endorsement action by noting that former UH President Albert Simone publicly supported John Waihee in both Waihee's successful bids for governor.

But Simone, now president of Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, told me in a phone interview that he didn't do anything that would be considered an official endorsement of Waihee, such as cut a commercial, publish an ad, or host a fund-raiser for him.

Those type of activities, he said, would cross the line for a university president even at a private institution, which Rochester is. "Even though you say you speak for yourself, you can't disassociate yourself from the position," he said.

On the other hand, Simone said, he attended Waihee fund-raisers and, when asked, wasn't bashful about telling people why he intended to vote for Waihee.

"Doggone it, I didn't give up my rights as an American citizen to serve as university president," Simone said. "It's my right and obligation to vote and speak up."

Dobelle has those same rights.

He just needs to recognize that that doesn't cover speaking up in an endorsement commercial -- at least not while he is UH's top executive.

And now that the accrediting panel has weighed in on the issue, Dobelle isn't likely to do anything as bone-headed when the next campaign season rolls around.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:


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