The University of Hawaii is in the thick of another presidential search and much to the surprise of everyone, it has devolved into a fiasco.

Who would have predicted this?

The source of this malcontent is multifaceted. For one, there is a belief that the list of applicants is too narrow. The Board of Regents promised us five candidates, yet we only see two.

In addition — and once again — there are accusations of lack of a transparency on the part of the Board of Regents which, in part, stem from not letting the public know who was on the short list.

Never mind that the shortlist did have five candidates but several dropped out and that some of them requested to remain anonymous.

Amid this fracas, many points have gone unnoticed by the public and unsaid by the punditry.

First, when many in the public insisted on a “locals only” search, they made a thin applicant pool a fait accompli.

The simple fact is that there just are not that many people in a state of just over 1 million people who are qualified to run a billion dollar institution. This is not a statement about Hawaii, in particular, but rather a general statement that would apply to any state-funded R1 research university.

Personally, many of my colleagues and I would have preferred a national search using a search firm to broaden the pool.

My sense is that in an ideal world many members of the Board of Regents would have as well.

However, the current climate is less than ideal and a national search most likely would have failed.

Indeed, given the lambasting that the Legislature doled out to top university administrators last year over executive salaries that they perceived as too high, it is not too hard to imagine the outcry that would ensue if the Board of Regents made an offer to an outsider at even a competitive wage.

As an aside, I often have to laugh when I am at a party and somebody obliquely criticizes UH bloat and then subsequently talks about their child who is attending someplace like NYU or USC.

At least UH is expanding in underserved parts of our islands, not Abu Dhabi.

I agree that there may be a bubble in higher education, but not in Hawaii.

Finally and most importantly, who would want this job?

I understand that being a public university president will, in part, be a political position, but in Hawaii, we really take it to the next level.

Not only does the president need to do all of the things that a university president does, but they need to do so much more.

For one, they need to field inquiries from Senate President Donna Mercado Kim about her son’s application to law school. I get it – she was just a concerned mom.

In addition, they have to entertain advice about internal personnel decisions from Gov. Neil Abercrombie and, of course, if they do not abide by it, they can explain why before the Legislature.

The political establishment in the state insists that its interventions are solely intended to make the university more transparent and accountable, but actions such as these belie this assertion.

This meddling continues with former Gov. Ben Cayetano criticizing the Board of Regents for not considering a woman who served in his cabinet to be the next university president. I understand that she is the dean of the School of Social Work at Columbia and is certainly a smart and very competent person, yet I cannot fault the Board of Regents for wanting to keep people with close political ties at arm’s length.

But then again, she never applied for the job so all of this really should be moot.

At the end of the day, we find ourselves in a situation that few find acceptable yet it is entirely of our own making.

Moving forward, I hope that the Board of Regents sticks to their guns and puts a permanent president in place for the coming academic year and, hopefully, this president can usher in many years of stability so that the university can regain its footing and get on with its business of educating people and conducting research.

I also hope that whoever serves as the next president will have the wisdom to maintain good relations with the community but also the fortitude to do what is best for the university, even if it happens to be unpopular with the political establishment.

About the author: Tim Halliday is an associate professor of economics at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


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