Hoping To Avoid Another Dobelle

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - May 20, 2009
| Del.icio.us

Marcy Greenwood

Poor Marcy Greenwood. Poor Robert Jones. They’re the last two presidential candidates still standing from a group of 14 finalists in the University of Hawaii’s search for a successor to David McClain.

Early this month Greenwood and Jones paraded around the Islands, undergoing questioning by faculty, students and university personnel. Greenwood took a licking from press and questioners for conflicts of interest that occurred during her eight-tenure as chancellor of the University of California-Santa Cruz.

Both suffered knife wounds - or perhaps wind burn - from University of Hawaii Professional Assembly executive director J.N. Musto. Said Musto: “I’m not blown away” by the finalists.

History warns us here. A half-dozen years ago the search committee (of which I was a guilty member), the UH Board of Regents and almost every group in town was blown away by the selection of Trinity College president Evan Dobelle to succeed Ken Mortimer.

Three years later, Dobelle was gone, fired by the BOR - justifiably, in my opinion.

Dobelle’s UH tenure was on the short side. Nationally the average shelf life of a university president is three to five years. It stretches to seven if all four-year institutions are considered.

It’s a tough, tough job. He or she who holds a university presidency must weather student demonstrations, faculty votes of no confidence, football fans’ unhappiness with the team’s losing record, alumni who refuse to give to their alma mater, major contributors who do, but want a say in how the money is spent, secretarial gossip, legislators who want to balance the state budget at the university’s expense, and ... well, the list goes on.

Thus, the presidential search process gets much attention. The one in which I participated in 2001 drew criticism as too closed, and closed it was - right up to the moment the board announced Dobelle’s name to the public. The advantage of that approach is that more candidates will apply knowing that their search for a new job will not endanger their old one.

Robert Jones

This time around, the search committee kept things closed through the selection of a final three: Greenwood, Jones and a candidate who dropped out at the last moment because he - or she (I include the “she” because one persistent rumor holds that it was former KHET honcho Mary Bitterman) - did not want to undergo the public questioning that Greenwood and Jones have just completed.

Greenwood would come to us from California; Jones from Minnesota. Neither has Hawaii ties, and that - in the eyes of many - is a problem with which I concur.

Hawaii remains one of the country’s last true subcultures, and whoever assumes the university’s presidency better know how to live and operate in it. Yet those who understand it best - educators within the university system - are at a disadvantage in the selection process.

Early in the 2001 presidential search the names of 50 or 60 people who were either nominated or who had applied for the job were put up on a board. The list included several UH administrators. All found a critic or critics in the room who were convincing enough to remove their names from the list.

One of those nominees was David McClain, then dean of the college of business. He has presided over the university with great distinction for the past five years.

The problem for the local administrator is that, in any academic career, he or she will anger someone. “Familiarity breeds contempt” - particularly on a university campus teeming with professional critics.

The man or woman from Minnesota or California or Connecticut or wherever else who applies for the job has their campus critics as well - in Minnesota, California, or Connecticut. But selection committees seldom hear from them - or they speak too softly for those committees to hear.

The job of the well-paid search firm is to lead the search committee to all the relevant facts about the candidates. In the two instances in which I’ve worked with academic search firms, in one instance the firm performed wonderfully. In the other, see above.

The selection of a university president is a crapshoot. You just hope you don’t come up with snake eyes.

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