Neal Milner: Cultural Competence Helps, But It Doesn't Get The Job Done - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

The emphasis on playing The Culture Card is misguided and counterproductive.

Local sportscaster Kanoa Leahey’s first question regarding Craig Angelos’s hire as the new University of Hawaii athletic director, was, “Is there a direct tie to Hawaii?”

So typical. Here we go again with The Culture Card. Is the person being hired sensitive to Hawaii’s culture? Will he fit in? Does he understand how special a place Hawaii is?  

The Culture Card dominates every time a major leader is hired. This stress on culture is dysfunctional and misleading. It’s overblown in what it stresses and underwhelming in what it explains. 

First, the record shows that whether a leader “fits in” here or not does not have much to do with his or her ultimate success.

Second, many challenges a public sector leader confronts over and over have almost nothing to do with culture. They are political and economic factors over which she has minimal control.

Third, The Culture Card stresses the need to fit in and not to be pushy because, well, that’s just not the way we do things in Hawaii. In fact, being pushy and assertive as well as trying to change cultures are good things. 

It’s Not About Cultural Competence. It’s About General Competence

Todd Graham, UH’s previous football coach, was a disaster. Graham took a lot of heat because he was insensitive to Hawaii’s culture. That he was for sure, but the basic problem was that he was an incompetent coach who had lost his job at Arizona State University. He was in effect damaged goods that UH probably got on the cheap because it couldn’t afford better.

Graham was a total disaster, not just a cultural disaster. Had he just been a cultural disaster, things may have turned out differently. Who knows? In any case, his cultural insensitivity weakened what was already a vulnerable choice. 

College athletics is a money-losing endeavor. Football is the only sport that keeps collegiate sports from losing even more money.  (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2010)

When June Jones coached here, he had a different history. An outsider, he became a hero, and the community loved him. He fit it, but it was his football competence, not his cultural competence that made him so popular. He was no saint, but Sugar Bowl, baby!

On the other hand, another UH coach Norm Chow, a local boy, got fired anyway because his teams had such awful records. Excellent cultural creds, awful coach. Aloha, Norm.

Current coach Timmy Chang is a Saint Louis grad and UH star, but how long will fans want him as a coach if he continues to lose? 

Stan Sheriff made his bones at a medium-sized college in northern Iowa before he really made his bones as an enormously successful athletic director at UH. 

In athletics, what helps you here is cultural competence. What keeps you here are the scores.

The same is true in other fields. The problem that the various rail execs who got hired from the mainland to build HART was not that they were culturally insensitive, “my way or the highway” people.

Todd Graham, former UH football head coach, took a lot of heat for being insensitive to Hawaii’s culture, but the main problem was that he was an incompetent coach who had lost his job at ASU. (Hawaii News Now)

It was that they were no good at the non-culturally related part of their jobs. They could not get the damn thing built! 

They could not develop a plan that the feds accepted, and they regularly evaded, exaggerated and lied.

The present director Lori Kahikina has been relatively successful, not because she was from here and knew how to work the culture, but rather because, with the help of the mayor, she was able to pull off a crucial twofer: a shortened route plus the big federal money.

As for the Department of Education and Hawaii’s state school superintendents, local or not local, it’s pretty much a wash. Schools have not changed dramatically for the better or worse whether our superintendents have been from here or the mainland. 

The school situation is a good segue into another problem with looking through culture’s narrow lens.

The Bigger Picture Shows How Little A Difference Culture Makes

A school superintendent’s impact is limited because so many factors that affect a student’s academic success are beyond the superintendent’s control.  

The fundamental fact is that socioeconomic status is the strongest predictor of school success. Poor kids do worse in school than other students do.

Lori Kahikina, executive director and CEO of HART, has been relatively successful not just because she knows the culture but she was able to pull off a crucial twofer. (David Croxford/Civl Beat/2023)

Principals can make a difference. Teachers, too. But they can only pick at the margins because income inequality and its consequences are such basic problems.  

Hawaii’s present superintendent Keith Hayashi who had been a very successful Waipahu High School principal is not likely to do better changing this pattern than his mainland predecessor.

Now, consider athletics in the bigger picture. If we just focus on culture, it’s easy to forget the problems UH Athletics, particularly football, faces that go far beyond having coaches who know how to live properly in Hawaii.  

College athletics is a money-losing endeavor. Football is the only sport that keeps collegiate sports from losing even more money.  

Angelos may turn out to be a smooth operator. He does have experience building a stadium. The big stadium decisions yet to made, however, are about big money, big development and big politics.

Culture may affect this in some ways, but the big-picture issues for Angelos, as they have been for years, are political and economic. A little about culture, a lot about the money.

Angelos could be a culture whisperer yet still not be able to get a stadium built or be able to get a fairer share of NCAA television money.

Finally, when it comes to big-time hiring, The Culture Card comes with the same old Bogey Man: The dreaded, ominous Mister My Way or the Highway.

What’s With All This Hoopla About Wanting Someone Who Fits In?

Oh, my stars! What if the new athletic director gets – I shake with fear as I write these words – assertive? 

In fact, that’s what people here ask for all the time. When folks complain about how state or city government is run, they typically say they want leaders who will kick a little ass and get government workers to shape up. 

The construction of a new stadium to replace the former UH football team’s home Aloha Stadium has been long delayed. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Change the culture of the DOE, Department of Health, Honolulu’s Department of Permitting and Planning.

Whew, it wasn’t as hard to use the c-word this way as I thought it would be.

When it comes to UH athletics, though, our culture-critic beliefs fail us. We worry that the person in charge will be too forceful, too pushy.

“Fitting in” is a status quo argument that privileges those who already have power and influence, especially in Hawaii where cultural appropriateness is so linked to being polite, quiet, considerate and accepting.  

According to the same KHON story quoting Leahey, some people on the UH campus worry that Angelos will bring this “my way or the highway” approach with him. Heaven forbid that he should take on the people who have for years made it hard for the University.

There is a vast middle ground between “my way” and simply fitting in.  

You better hope that Angelos has an approach that avoids both heavy-handedness and kowtowing to the usual suspects, whether they’re donors, politicians or bureaucrats. That middle ground is what leadership is all about.

Appreciate the culture, but don’t let it get to you.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Most county and state level departmental executive positions in Hawaii require Hawaii residence. With about one half of one percent of the nation’s population living in Hawaii, that’s means that 99.5% of the population of the country as a whole are ineligible for those positions. Not exactly the way to select the best and brightest for leadership. It’s no wonder state and county organizations are so poorly run. Why hasn’t someone challenged this obvious discrimination in court?

Big_B · 3 months ago

A whole lot less cultural sensitivity and a whole lot more job competence would be good across the State.

CatManapua · 3 months ago

We all would love to have that special Aloha Cultural icon in all jobs that possess the charisma of Duke Kahanamoku and talent/bravery of Sen Inouye. But, Culture card? If one looks at Hawaii today especially at Rail (a boondoggle of international scale), Honolulu Police, Local Prosecutors, Kamehameha school behaviors, Planning and permitting, homeless, house prices etc. AND a Lege more intent on rule making for the sake of rule making and NOT to improve the overall lives of the people. Hawaii highest taxes, worst roads, schools and business environment. But, we do have a beach and ukulele.All, all brought on by culturally aware and immersed and local power folks.They may have the C card, but forgot the regular Tutuwahines, Keikis and the regular folks as inefficiencies, favoritism or flat out pilau action was the result.The vast majority of our island's folks are hardworking, honest and respectful. What happens to so many when put in charge is a mystery.Sen Inouye turns in his grave as his and other 442 legacies combined with so many other altruistic and service-minded folks are blown to bits by folks that forgot the regular good folks.Sacrifice and service.

Fairhouser · 3 months ago

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