The Firing of Evan Dobelle

The summary dismissal for cause last week of University of Hawai‘i President Evan Dobelle made the news on CNN, MSNBC, and even the Guardian. The best coverage seems to be that of AP correspondent Bruce Dunford, whose 20 June 2004 report in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin seems to me the most comprehensive and fairest summation to date.

From day one, his $442,000 salary and perks have been an issue, including spending $1 million on renovations to his residence, the UH’s College Hill mansion and guest house. It was three times the amount that had been planned.

Dobelle hadn’t been on the job for a year when his spending habits caught the eye of Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian Taniguchi (D, Moiliili-Manoa). He called for an audit of University of Hawaii Foundation money being used by Dobelle to take two dozen donors and staff members to a Janet Jackson concert at Aloha Stadium [a concert free of any “wardrobe malfunction”].

Despite such questions, the regents in their first year evaluation of Dobelle praised him for initiating progress and changing attitudes in the university system.

Things ran smoothly until November 2002, when in the closing days of the heated campaign for governor, Dobelle appeared in a television ad to endorse Democrat Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono over Republican Linda Lingle, who ended up winning….

Some see that as the root of the move to get Dobelle fired as Lingle began making appointments to the Board of Regents.

However, it was Democratic lawmakers who began pressing the point on Dobelle’s spending, including personal use of University of Hawaii Foundation funds and his hiring of highly paid assistants [including his old buddy “Wick” Sloane as the university’s CFO and Sloane’s wife as head of the UH Foundation].

On July 6, 2003, House Higher Education Committee Chairman K. Mark Takai (D, Newtown-Pearl City), Sen. Donna Mercado Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Halawa), retired professor Ralph Moberly and UH official Amy Agbayani, a veteran Democratic Party insider, co-authored an article highly critical of the UH president.

“In Dobelle’s two years, we see an institution where student tuition is being raised while administrative salaries are boosted by more than $4 million, where substance and services take a back seat to marketing and public relations, and where a globe-trotting president fails to bring home the money he promised,” the article said.

Takai said he initiated a search for Dobelle’s spending and travel records after the president and his top aides didn’t show up at a House Higher Education Committee meeting on April 16, 2003, to answer questions about the $200,000 President’s Protocol and Support Fund at the University of Hawaii Foundation, the legally separate nonprofit organization that raises funds for the school. It’s to be spent on things that the president feels will advance the university.

Dobelle had notified the committee he would be at a mainland conference that day, but Takai said his staff checked with conference officials and determined Dobelle did not attend.

The lawmaker, who once headed the UH student body government and Manoa campus student newspaper, said a check of travel documents showed Dobelle was on Oahu that day.

“So in effect, he lied to us,” said Takai, who added that the Dobelle spending and travel records obtained by the committee were turned over to the Board of Regents and likely prompted a private audit ordered by the regents. The report on that audit has yet to be made public….

In February, the board began a new evaluation of Dobelle, headed up by [Kitty] Lagareta, a Lingle confidante and key Lingle campaign official in the 2002 governor’s race.

The tone for the new evaluation no doubt was set in April, when the previously confidential and highly critical report on Dobelle’s 2003 evaluation was made public at the direction of the state Office of Information Practices.

The UH Board of Regents are in a tough spot. When they gave Dobelle a negative evaluation earlier in the year, he threatened to sue if they made it public. Now they’re taking a lot of flack for not spelling out the grounds for Dobelle’s dismissal, even though they risk lawsuits if they breach confidentiality in personnel matters. Both Dobelle and the Regents have hired lawyers.

Here are a few more background items from various sources.

Pacific Business News reported that Dobelle apparently knew something was up, suggesting he perhaps deliberately made himself hard to reach.

Two members of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents say the regents warned Evan Dobelle he should attend their meeting this week, and when he didn’t they tried repeatedly to reach him by phone to tell him what happened….

Board of Regents Chairwoman Patricia Lee replies that the meeting was not kept secret from Dobelle, who asked if he should be there for it and was told he should. She also says the regents made several attempts to reach Dobelle by phone, but never got a callback, and still haven’t.

“Evidently the president chooses not to communicate with the board,” Lee said Friday. “He has communicated with counsel.”

Dobelle was rumored to have been job-hunting ever since he ran afoul of the legislature last year. Perhaps his prominent placement (cover and lead article) in the Winter 2004 issue of The Presidency was part of that effort.

“The American Council on Education’s flagship magazine, The Presidency focuses on college and university presidents and chancellors.”

Dobelle appears to be a master of PC PR, managing in 2002 to wangle a position judging the decidedly un-PC Miss America pageant and helping give it a PC spin (as reported by Jake Tapper of Salon).

“This selection validates an opportunity for young women who never would have considered entering this competition,” says judge Evan S. Dobelle — the president of the University of Hawaii and the White House chief of protocol during the Carter administration — when it’s all done. “By picking a multiracial, Phi Beta Kappa, Harvard Law School woman who’s articulate and personable and was selected, in my opinion, because she was the smartest — that is antithetical to the perception historically of the pageant.”

Early in his tenure, Dobelle managed to “tread on dangerous ground politically when he handed out more than 200 termination notices to deans, directors and top managers” around Christmas 2002. “Even though most of the notices weren’t acted upon, they left bad feelings, sentiment that reverberated all the way to the Legislature.” The recipients never received follow-up letters whether each would be rehired or let go at the end of the year. Instead, clarifications were issued through press releases. UH administrators often had to read the local papers to find out what was happening at the university. In that respect, the manner in which Dobelle was fired gives him a taste of his own medicine.

I don’t know. Dobelle seems to be someone a Texan might describe as “all hat, and somebody else’s cattle” (rather than “all hat, no cattle”). The Regents who appointed him and gave him such a rich, long-term, iron-clad contract have as much to answer for as the ones who fired him.

UPDATE: More background information is coming out about Dobelle’s dismissal. First, concerns about accreditation seem to have been a factor.

The dysfunctional relationship between University of Hawaii President Evan Dobelle and the Board of Regents threatened the accreditation of three UH campuses, according to a strongly worded report that appears to have been a factor in Dobelle’s firing.

A team from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges — the accrediting body for UH-Manoa, UH-Hilo and UH-West Oahu — told the university last month that the “severe difficulties” between the regents and the president do not meet standards of accreditation for leadership of a university.

Dobelle’s response was to send the regents for training. It was all their fault.

He described the board as “inexperienced” and said he set aside $50,000 for regents to get training from the Association of Governing Boards — another recommendation in the report.

“It’s a learning curve that they chose not to take,” Dobelle said. “I wish we could work it out. They chose not to.”

Next, a legislative fiscal hawk expresses concern about Dobelle’s inability to deliver on his fund-raising promises.

Donna Mercado Kim, state Senate vice president, a longtime critic of Dobelle, said she doubts that Dobelle was fired because of his political support for Gov. Linda Lingle’s opponent, former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono.

“As a Democrat, I’d like nothing better than to point the finger to Lingle and say it was all politics and that she orchestrated it,” Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Halawa) said in an interview. “I know she is denying her involvement and I tend to believe it. I was talking to one of the regents. They said they wouldn’t fire him unless the evidence was clear.” …

“I spoke to regents who left the board prematurely, and they said they did so because of Evan Dobelle and (they) were ones appointed by Cayetano [the previous governor, a Democrat].

“They said they couldn’t stomach it any longer, so it was only a matter of time.”

Kim recalled that she was impressed with Dobelle when he came to Hawaii in 2001, but after failing to get him to explain what he would do if he were unable to raise the $150 million for the medical school, she became frustrated.

“Time went by and he was making these promises, but he didn’t have anything to show for it,” Kim said.

Long-time UH faculty member Meda Chesney-Lind adds her perspective.

By way of introduction, I’ve been in the UH system since 1969, and in my time I’ve known and worked with five presidents [Harlan Cleveland, Fujio Matsuda, Al Simone, Ken Mortimer, and Dobelle]. Obviously, I worked with some more closely than others, but I was on the Senate Executive Committee of the UHM Faculty Senate when President Dobelle was first on the campus. I recall the excitement and all the hope that we had about his presidency.

I also recall the deep disappointment that began, for me, some months into his tenure. I’ll spare you the details, except to say that after saying he was a “bottom up,” “faculty driven” administrator, we hardly ever saw him again; his talks announcing major new University initiatives were all off campus. Ultimately, he barely avoided being censured by our senate (and that was avoided only because he threatened to make Deane Neubauer resign if we went through with it). After the first year, filled with cronyistic hiring, excessive and expensive foreign and domestic travel, and grand schemes, he sort of disappeared. Candidly, most of us felt that he was phoning in his performance for much of the last year.

Finally, Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter Cynthia Oi editorializes under the headline Dobelle’s team of outsiders acted as their own insiders:

No one has dared to say outright that he was seen as an uppity mainland haole [Caucasian] who snubbed local sensitivities, but undertones of the viewpoint were audible beneath careful remarks of politicians, faculty, community leaders and others.

There have been many times, private and public, when localism seeped into conflict and life in these islands. Slippery to define, the characteristic fuses values and attitude, social and economic standing, birthplace and ethnicity. It can be precious asset or parochial contaminant.

But in Dobelle’s case, I don’t think it can be marked as the overpowering toxin that produced this unseemly mess. It isn’t an “only in Hawaii” situation. Disrespect knows no boundaries of ocean or land. It is not one-sided or singular….

Dobelle and his crew were their own dazzling insiders. As intelligent and experienced, as sophisticated and charming, as motivated and passionate about doing good, they seemed deaf and blind to the importance of engaging the community. Not just perfunctorily, not through “howzits” and other words, but through deeds, through showing up.

Dobelle may be unaware that he was cut a lot of slack. He made big shoulders about raising money, but the flash didn’t match the cash. Give him time, was the initial reaction. But extravagances overshadowed fund raising, talk subbed for progress, and evasion and snubs became the norm….

Disrespect yields the same.

25-28 June 2004 UPDATE: Former regents appointed by Democratic Governor Ben Cayetano have begun to speak out.

University of Hawaii regents began having concerns about ousted UH President Evan Dobelle’s leadership style on his first day in office, a former regent said.

Regents also began questioning Dobelle’s travel spending and fund raising months before board members appointed by Gov. Linda Lingle took office last July, documents and interviews show.

When regent Michael Hartley resigned on Nov. 5, 2002, he cited Dobelle’s public endorsement of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mazie Hirono as one of several incidents that led to his decision….

Hartley also criticized what he saw as Dobelle’s “lack of respect” for the board by not consulting with regents before sending a fax announcing his endorsement of Hirono….

In a May 8, 2003, memo to Dobelle, former Maui regent C. Everett Dowling asked the president to provide the board a summary of his expenses charged to the UH Foundation and of his travel, including costs for other people traveling with him. As part of last year’s annual evaluation of the president, Dowling also asked for a summary of Dobelle’s fund-raising efforts….

Former board Chairman Bert Kobayashi followed up with another memo on June 17, 2003, repeating Dowling’s request. [Former regent Bert Kobayashi is to former governor Ben Cayetano as current regent Kitty Lagareta is to current governor Linda Lingle–strong political allies in both cases.] …

At a press conference announcing his hiring, Dobelle, with the regents standing behind him, announced several high-level personnel appointments.

Board members were stunned because personnel appointments have to be approved by the board, and no one had been given advance notice.

The business community seems far more stunned at Dobelle’s firing than the university community does. The former have probably been drooling over all the promises of new campus construction projects. In October 2002, Hawaii Business magazine named Dobelle one of “The 10 most influential people in Hawaii” (in #3 position after First Hawaiian Bank CEO Walter Dods and U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, both of whom were said to be among Dobelle’s strongest backers; Dods was on the selection committee). In January 2003, Pacific Business News reported, “Evan Dobelle, president of the University of Hawaii, has been named as the 2002 Sales Person of the Year by the Sales and Marketing Executives of Honolulu.”

Two MidWeek magazine columnists weigh in on opposite sides. Dan Boylan, a Democratic Party insider who served on the committee that selected Dobelle and writes a column called “Mostly Politics,” manages in the 23 June 2004 issue to blame the whole affair on partisan politics, while explicitly acknowledging that Dobelle was a compulsively partisan political hack [which was very likely a feature, not a bug, for the selection committee].

Dobelle let his partisanship blind him to his responsibility to the university he led. [One could say the same for the selection committee!] Dobelle, the former treasurer of the Democratic National Committee and protocol officer for Democratic President Jimmy Carter, couldn’t rise above his party loyalty.

The other columnist, veteran newsman Bob Jones, is much harsher in the 30 June 2004 issue.

Three observations from one of the regents: 1) Six of the ten regents who voted for the firing are card-carrying democrats. 2) If the public knew the mountain of data we have they’d be asking why we didn’t fire him earlier. 3) The BOR attorney said he felt they had a strong case for showing moral turpitude.

Jones’s column on 23 June 2004 ends off on an equally harsh note.

We may find that the vice president who’s now acting president and who previously ran the UH Business School, David McClain, is the right man at the right time.

I sure wouldn’t want to go back to the same old search committee that brought us Trinity College’s leftover [and his hapless predecessor].

A year ago, on 4 July 2003, long-time Hawai‘i muckraking reporter Ian Lind blogged a harbinger of Dobelle’s problems:

Both Honolulu papers this morning report on the resignation of Maui developer Everett Dowling from the University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents. Both focus on the flap over Dowling’s potential conflict of interest in a proposed land deal. But Dowling also been one of President Evan Dobelle’s key backers on the board, and his departure could signal rockier relations between the president and the board.

For decades, Hawai‘i’s dominant Democrats have seen the University as primarily a construction site, not an instruction site. Dobelle certainly fit the bill in that regard.

Perhaps Dobelle thought Hawai‘i operated the way Connecticut operated under now disgraced Republican Gov. John G. Rowland (due to resign on 1 July), with whom he cooperated on urban renewal projects.

UPDATE (13 July 2004): KITV investigative reporter Keoki Kerr adds several new details about ongoing investigation of Dobelle’s finances:

UH regents are investigating whether Dobelle’s wife attended a college reunion instead of going to an official conference on a trip paid for by the UH Foundation, sources told KITV 4 News. An audit revealed the foundation spent $4,100 to send his wife, Kit, to a conference at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, representing her husband. However, investigators want to know how she attended a UM Amherst class reunion at the same time.

Another issue under investigation is why a UH fiscal officer who raised questions about pricey renovations to the president’s College Hill mansion was forced out on administrative leave. In 2001, renovations there soared from an initial $170,000 to $1.2 million, including $500 for a birdcage….

[T]he regents are also looking into about $70,000 in renovations to Dobelle’s office at Bachman Hall on the UH Manoa campus.

The Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii lent the president’s office [$70,000] for the work in 2001 and Dobelle’s office didn’t pay the money back for nearly three years, until May of this year, sources said.

That raised eyebrows because RCUH’s mission is research and training, not office renovations for the president….

Dobelle knew his job was in jeopardy months before he was fired. Sources said at least one regent told Dobelle to start looking for another job as far back as January of this year, six months before he was fired.

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