The Chronicle of Evan S. Dobelle

The Chronicle of Higher Education has a comprehensive and fairly balanced report by Julianne Basinger on the firing of University of Hawai‘i President Evan S. Dobelle entitled Wipeout in Hawaii: A president is toppled amid claims of arrogance, cronyism, and misspending. If the link should become unavailable, the compilation at The Firing of Evan Dobelle covers much of the story. The following are a few tidbits from the Chronicle story that weren’t covered earlier.

“While it looks like it’s just been a one-year situation of difficulty, it’s been a three-year situation,” says Patricia Y. Lee, a regent who has been on the board for three years and chairwoman for the past year. “At his [Dobelle’s] first-year review, he stalked out of the room and said, ‘You can’t fire me.’ So you can see it’s not a comfortable relationship.” …

Lilikala Kame‘eleihiwa, a professor of Hawaiian studies on the Manoa campus, believes Mr. Dobelle’s endorsement of Ms. Hirono [the Democratic Party’s candidate for state governor in 2002] led regents appointed by [Republican] Governor Lingle to seek his ouster. Mr. Dobelle won the professor’s support after he gave $1.5-million from a discretionary fund for a new Hawaiian-studies center. “Evan Dobelle to me represented our champion,” she says. “I was extremely saddened that he should be fired.” But other faculty members, regents, lawmakers, and even Mr. Dobelle himself say that tensions with the board and questions about his spending existed before his endorsement.

The Chronicle also includes the following timeline entitled Steps Toward an Exit

  • JULY 2001 – Evan S. Dobelle becomes president of the University of Hawaii System.
  • FEBRUARY 2002 – Mr. Dobelle takes 25 donors and staff members to a Janet Jackson concert, paying for the tickets through a presidential discretionary fund of the University of Hawaii Foundation, the system’s private fund-raising arm. His action prompts public outcry, and by April a state legislator calls for a state audit of whether foundation money is being used appropriately.
  • SEPTEMBER-NOVEMBER 2002 – The president judges the Miss America pageant in September, despite criticism from some faculty members who say doing so is sexist and inappropriate for a college leader. In November Mr. Dobelle endorses the Democratic candidate for governor in a television commercial, and a member of the university’s Board of Regents resigns in protest.
  • MARCH 2003 – A state audit of the university’s foundation finds “a number of questionable foundation expenditures made under the guise of fund raising.”
  • OCTOBER 2003 – Amid increasing criticism from lawmakers and some faculty and staff members over his spending, particularly on travel, Mr. Dobelle receives a negative performance review from the regents, which he hotly disputes, both for its content and for the board’s procedure in evaluating him. The review accuses him of a lack of accountability to the board, including murky reporting on finances.
  • APRIL-MAY 2004 – A second state audit of the foundation again finds “questionable, even abusive, expenditures from donated funds.” The state legislature passes a bill requiring the foundation to disclose more financial records to lawmakers.
  • JUNE 2004 – After an evaluation that includes an outside consultant and a financial review of the president’s spending of foundation money, the regents unanimously vote to fire Mr. Dobelle “for cause,” but they decline to disclose what the “cause” is. He threatens to sue, and the two sides and their lawyers begin mediation. The university’s accreditors criticize the board and the university for their poor relationship.

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported on 15 July 2004 that Dobelle allocated $90,000 out of his annual protocol fund of $200,000 on a political poll.

Documents in the draft audit of the protocol fund also show that even though the poll was commissioned in November 2002, Opinion Dynamics was not paid its $45,000 fee for the January poll until last October. The protocol fund began to run out of money toward the end of its fiscal year in June 2003, according to the draft audit. However, it was not clear if that was a factor in the late payment.

The contract with Opinion Dynamics was for $90,000 plus expenses for two polls — with a second poll to be conducted in June 2003. In a handwritten note on the contract, Dobelle wrote, “no more than $99,999 for both surveys.”

Under university procurement policies, all consultant contracts in excess of $100,000 require prior Board of Regents approval.

The June 2003 survey was never conducted, Dobelle said.

A special to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on 25 July 2004 by University of Hawai‘i journalism professor Beverly Ann Deepe Keever headlined The Dobelle Debacle notes “The secrecy surrounding Evan Dobelle’s interrupted tenure as UH president has done great harm to Hawaii’s public university.”

The spiral of secrecy that augured the Dobelle debacle began in early 2001 [before the current Republican governor was elected] when the UH Board of Regents met in a series of unannounced, closed-door meetings and agreed to a lucrative contract with Dobelle.

On March 9, 2001, Lily Yao, then-chairwoman of the Board of Regents, signed Dobelle to a contract paying him at least $3 million over seven years and giving him residency in the state-owned mansion near the Manoa campus, use of a state car and a number of other perks.

His first-year salary of $442,000 was more than double that of outgoing President Kenneth Mortimer and four times that of the governor. This multimillion-dollar commitment was agreed to just as the board was raising student tuition and Gov. Ben Cayetano was arguing that the state was too impoverished to increase faculty pay enough to forestall a strike that eventually did occur.

Contesting the secret negotiations that led to such an expenditure of taxpayer monies were graduate student Mamo Kim and the Hawaii chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), who filed a lawsuit in Hawaii’s First Circuit Court. They argued that this secrecy violated Hawaii’s “Sunshine Law” requiring open meetings of public agencies, except in specific cases permitting closure. This “Sunshine Law” was passed by the Legislature in 1975 in the wake of the Watergate scandal so that opening up closed doors of government would allow in sunshine that acts as a disinfectant to reduce mismanagement and even illegal or unethical decisions.

Unfortunately, graduate student Kim and SPJ lost the case. Circuit Court Judge Virginia Crandall OK’d the board’s practice of recessing one closed-door meeting in order to hold another unannounced closed-door meeting without the public and the news media even being aware that the board was meeting or what it was meeting about.

Also unfortunate, the board’s secret decision-making on Dobelle’s high-priced and lengthy contract sent the wrong signal to the incoming president that money was no object at UH. Dobelle assumed the presidency on July 1, 2001, just 72 days before the spectacular attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon sent Hawaii’s struggling tourist-based economy into an even steeper nose dive.

The rest is history — and a lot of news stories. Dobelle brought in his own management team from the East Coast, paying members up to twice the salaries of the veterans they replaced. He recommended — and the board agreed — to pay double his own salary to UH’s head football coach June Jones. And Dobelle racked up a tremendous cost overrun in refurbishing his state-owned residence.

Dobelle’s public aura of extravagance was magnified by his driving around campus in his pricey Porsche, rather than the state car, and buying a million-dollar-plus home while he was living rent-free in the president’s mansion, College Hill. The governor is the only other state official granted the privilege of a state residence — and hers is now considerably less impressive than the university president’s.

UPDATE, 30 July: Dobelle and the Regents reached a settlement while Dobelle was away (yet again) at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.

In the settlement announced yesterday, the regents will pay ousted UH President Evan Dobelle and his attorneys $1.6 million, plus payments to an insurance policy. He agreed to give up about $496,000 from a UH Foundation incentive fund. Dobelle’s deal includes:

  • $1.05 million payment.
  • A nontenured researcher position at UH-Manoa for two years at $125,000 a year plus collective bargaining raises.
  • $290,000 for his attorneys.
  • $40,000-a-year payments on a $2 million whole life insurance policy for the next six years. UH will be reimbursed for its payments to the insurance company when Dobelle’s heirs cash in the policy.

Nonmonetary highlights of the UH-Evan Dobelle settlement include:

  • Regents rescind firing for cause.
  • Dobelle resigns on Aug. 14.
  • Both sides resolve the dispute without finding wrongdoing by Dobelle or the board and agree not to pursue further legal claims.
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