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Lifting of UH veil reveals more questions

By Warren Iwasa

LAST UPDATED: 8:34 p.m. HST, Oct 29, 2012

Six hours of feisty presidential and vice presidential debates made for good television. But they were nothing like the two recent televised hearings, totaling 131⁄2 hours, that were held by the Senate Special Committee on Accountability. The committee sought to learn how $200,000 was so easily scammed from the University of Hawaii. Those hearings were riveting. (The videos can still be seen at:

The first hearing, which lasted six hours, featured testimony from President M.R.C. Greenwood. Greenwood has an exceptional academic background in biology: a bachelor of arts degree from Vassar College (summa cum laude); a Ph.D. from Rockefeller University; and postdoctoral study at Columbia University. She is, as UH-Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple reminded the senators at the second hearing, a member of the distinguished Institute of Medicine. She is a member of the country's scientific elite. Her salary as president of UH is $475,008. 

At the hearing, her main interrogator was Sen. Donna Mercado Kim. Kim attended UH for two years and got her degree from Washington State University. Hawaii senators make $48,708 a year.

President Greenwood referred to the Wonder Blunder fiasco as a "perfect storm." The term was misleading. The fiasco was not a storm, an event occurring in nature. It was an outcome that was almost foreordained given the university's history of clumsy administration. The fiasco consisted of bad decisions made by people occupying well-compensated positions. 

Watching the often tense interchange between the president and the senator, I wondered: Why did the handsomely compensated UH president bother to wheedle from the Board of Regents an extra $5,000 a month for housing after she decided not to live in College Hill? 

Science does not tell us much about hubris, greed and notions of entitlement. The lessons of experience are taught in the part of the university that concerns itself with literature, history and philosophy.

Lessons of experience tell us not to regard the hearings as legislative interference. More than anything, the hearings were part of our American system of checks and balances. The university has autonomy, but autonomy has not improved the university. The Board of Regents is empowered to act. Its failure to act invited legislative oversight.

Sen. Kim lifted the veil on how the university is run. She now needs to follow up at the next legislative session. It's time to put the big questions on the table:

>> Has UH misused autonomy, and should it be temporarily withdrawn? 

>> What is the proper role of athletics at UH-Manoa? 

>> Is UH's research agenda — hiring 50 new high-profile faculty members, for example — being carried out at the expense of quality undergraduate education? 

>> As UH tuition and fees are raised, how will the baccalaureate experience be improved? 

>> Have generous administration salaries resulted in measurable benefits for UH students?

I wonder if others who viewed the Senate hearings felt, as I did, that well-prepared, clear-headed, no-nonsense Sen. Kim threw a touchdown pass on behalf of higher-education reform in Hawaii.

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