During her first Christmas season at the University of Hawaii in 2009, President M.R.C. Greenwood sent out slightly more than 1,000 holiday cards to UH supporters, donors and friends.
The tab: $1,750, including envelopes and postage.
About a month later, despite having a staff of writers and public relations specialists, Greenwood hired a freelancer for $2,000 to help with her first “state of the university” speech. The writer, who had worked with Greenwood for years at previous jobs in California, lives in Michigan. She did almost all her work via email.
Those were among the dozens of expenses totaling roughly $130,000 that Greenwood covered in her first 11 months using a special fund administered by the UH Foundation, a nonprofit that helps raise private money for the university.
The expenditures for the so-called President Support Fund were detailed in foundation documents obtained by the Star-Advertiser last week through a public records request.
Many of the costs covered goods and services that one would expect from the chief executive of a $1 billion educational institution, particularly one whose duties include spearheading an annual campaign to raise tens of millions of dollars from private donors.
There were dining costs. Entertainment. Gift buying. Travel to education conferences. Support for community events. Hosting education meetings. All have to be linked to furthering UH’s mission, according to the foundation guidelines.
But even though the fund does not include taxpayer dollars, the way Greenwood has used it in a time of widespread budget cuts, lagging campus maintenance, dramatic tuition increases and reduced class offerings has raised the ire of students and faculty.
Paying for meals at high-priced restaurants, $500-plus monthly dues at the Waialae Country Club, $1,700 on Christmas cards and other such expenditures, although permitted, sends the wrong message in a time of austerity, critics say.
UH presidents historically have been honorary members at Waialae, Oahu’s most exclusive private golf course.
SUPPORT FUND EXPENSES
Here is a sampling from the dozens of expenses charged to University of Hawaii President M.R.C. Greenwood’s support fund during her first 11 months in office. The fund is administered by the UH?Foundation, but does not include taxpayer dollars:
>> $1,347, May 2010, reimbursement for travel expenses to Washington, D.C., for UH representative arranging national media appearances for Greenwood.
>> $249, April 2010, reimbursement for beverage charges for President’s Advisory Council on Hawaii Innovation and Technology Advancement meeting at Morton’s Steakhouse.
>> $315, March 2010, monthly dues for Greenwood’s Pacific Club membership.
>> $17,500, February 2010, travel and consulting costs for Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges official to conduct training.
>> $432, January 2010, postage for Greenwood’s holiday cards.
>> $55, November 2009, floral basket for UH donor recovering from knee surgery.
>> $770, October 2009, monthly honorary dues and other costs for Greenwood’s Waialae Country Club membership.
>> $1,800, October 2009, deposit for UH?holiday reception at Pacific Club for business executives.
>> $1,052, October 2009, Greenwood’s airfare to Washington, D.C., to meet with Hawaii’s congressional delegation, higher-education associates and UH alumni association there.
>> $1,760, September 2009, registration for 10 people to attend Women’s Leadership Conference in Waikiki.
Source: UH Foundation documents
“It’s excessive,” said Jane Dornemann, 29, a UH graduate student. “This administration doesn’t really feel like it needs to be accountable.”
But Greenwood and the Board of Regents defended the way the fund is being used, noting an extensive review process that involves other UH administrators, regents and foundation officials before expenses are approved. An annual audit by an outside accountant also is performed. None of Greenwood’s expenses have been denied to date, according to the university.
“I think it’s easy to think, ‘Oh, this is just a slush fund. It’s not related to anything else,’” Greenwood said. “That’s just not true. It’s a purposeful decision by the foundation to support the necessary work of the president in cultivating people, in supporting things.
“I think we’ve been very, very conservative about how we have used these funds,” she said.
The fund, which was established years ago to help the UH president advance the school’s mission, has been the subject of controversy in the past.
The University of Hawaii Board of Regents voted to fire President Evan Dobelle in 2004 but eventually rescinded the firing as part of a mediated settlement with Dobelle, who agreed to resign. Though the termination vote was based partly on regents’ concerns about how Dobelle spent a protocol fund, the settlement stipulated that no wrongdoing was found.
Dobelle had been mayor of the same city where the sheriff worked. Regents cited Dobelle’s “cronyism” in using the fund, and they subsequently established more stringent oversight procedures.
According to the Star-Advertiser’s review of the foundation documents, none of Greenwood’s expenses seems to raise the type of questions that besieged Dobelle.
But students and faculty, when they learned how she has used the money, were critical nonetheless, contrasting her spending with the severe economic hits that have affected the school.
While, for instance, she used $1,000 to cover the cost of 10 guests attending a Sheraton Waikiki dinner in 2009 honoring the centennial anniversary of UH football, or $600 to cover a dinner meeting at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, buildings at Manoa were — and still are — in disrepair and students have struggled to keep pace with tuition and fee increases, they said.
“It’s unimaginable in my mind how she can spend money like this,” said Emanuel Drechsel, an interdisciplinary studies professor at the Manoa campus. “It sets a bad tone, it’s demoralizing and it certainly will discourage faculty and students to commit themselves further to the institution.”
Ethnic studies professor Noel Kent added: “It’s absolutely outrageous. The message we’re getting is she’s using this as her private bank.”
Greenwood said many people don’t understand that the university has to spend money to raise the millions it does each year, and that sometimes means taking potential donors to an expensive eatery.
“Could I take people to cheaper restaurants? Yes, and I do,” Greenwood said. “Sometimes we have box lunches. Sometimes the occasion calls for a more, if you will, different setting.”
Law professor Randy Roth said a CEO who is tasked with raising money for a major institution at times needs to go to an exclusive country club or expensive restaurant to talk to potential donors.
“If one of your job requirements is to help raise money, it’s nice that you can hang out with rich people,” Roth said.
About $150,000 annually is available through the foundation fund, which is bankrolled from income, fees and donations generated by the nonprofit. Greenwood noted that the amount is less than 1 percent of what UH raises in donations each year. Last year, the foundation raised $41 million. Its goal this year is $45 million.
In 2009, Greenwood spent $1,500 from the fund to purchase and deliver cards announcing her appointment as president — another expense questioned by critics.
But such practices are an important part of fundraising, reminding people that they are part of the UH ohana, according to Greenwood.
“This is not like you sending out your Christmas cards. This is the University of Hawaii, supported by its foundation, sending out what is a contact, maybe even a soft solicitation, to our donor and friend base.”
The cards frequently are followed with a phone solicitation, Greenwood said.
As for hiring a Michigan resident to help with her first “state of the university” speech to legislators, Greenwood said the freelancer, Leslie Sunell, wrote many speeches for her in the past and was familiar with the “voice” and general themes that Greenwood tended to favor in formal talks. While the president relied on local staffers to provide the content for the speech, none had worked with her before because she was so new to the job, and they struggled to develop that voice, Greenwood said.
Sunell also was paid $1,500 through the support fund in October 2009 to help the president with other writing tasks, according to foundation records.
Asked what a Michigan resident might know about UH, Greenwood said Sunell lived here for years in the 1960s and ’70s, met her husband here and is a frequent visitor. “She’s very familiar with Hawaii and very sensitive to the deep roots of the Hawaiian culture.”
Greenwood said Sunell’s services have not been used since last year’s speech.
Board of Regents Chairman Howard Karr said in a written statement that they have asked the president to accomplish some formidable tasks critical to the long-term growth of the state’s most important educational institution.
“She needs to have the proper resources to meet our expectations,” Karr said. “The foundation’s support funds provide this valuable resource. We are in full support of her use of these funds as a very important tool in reaching these goals and advancing the university.”
CORRECTION: The University of Hawaii Board of Regents voted to fire President Evan Dobelle in 2004 but eventually rescinded the firing as part of a mediated settlement with Dobelle, who agreed to resign. Though the termination vote was based partly on regents’ concerns about how Dobelle spent a protocol fund, the settlement stipulated that no wrongdoing was found. A previous article said the regents fired Dobelle in part because of the way he spent the protocol fund.