Analysis: Who's in charge at UH? Can they be fired?

MANOA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It's impossible to fire members of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents who oversee the UH system and it could be difficult and extremely expensive to try to terminate UH President MRC Greenwood or other top UH executives, according to a Hawaii News Now review of university procedures, policies and employment agreements.  Some members of the public and UH faculty have called for the removal of top UH officials in the aftermath of the school's failed Stevie Wonder concert, a fiasco that has brought into question management decisions at Hawaii's largest educational institution.

The university's statewide facilities and programs are managed by the 15-member Board of Regents, an unpaid panel of community leaders responsible for making major policy decisions such as setting tuition, approving construction projects and starting new academic programs as well as hiring and firing top UH executives such as the president.

Regents now serve five-year terms, an increase from four-year terms they held before 2007.  As board vacancies occur, a Regents' Candidate Advisory Council submits a list of names of potential regents to the governor.  The governor then selects a nominee from the list and submits his or her name to the State Senate for confirmation.

The governor, state senator or any one else does not have the power to remove regents from their posts.  The only option for removal would be to ask a regent to step down, but the regent would have to do so voluntarily.  There is no legal mechanism in state law or UH policy to force any regent to resign for doing a bad job.

Regents can only be removed from the board if they fail to attend three meetings in a row without a valid excuse, according to the Board of Regents by-laws.  "The expiration of the member's term shall be effective immediately after the third consecutive unattended meeting and unexcused absence," the by-laws said.

The regents operate under the leadership of a chair and up to two vice chairs elected to one-year terms by the other members, usually at the July meeting, according to the UH Board of Regents reference guide. Regents chair Eric Martinson, elected to the post in May 2011, is limited to no more than two consecutive one-year terms, according to the regents' by-laws.  That means his time as chair expires in May 2013.

The UH president is appointed by the Board of Regents and serves as the chief executive officer of the university.

"The president is responsible for the educational leadership and administration of the entire ten-campus UH system, with all other administrators responsible to the president directly or through designated channels," according to the regents' reference guide.

Each campus is headed by a chancellor and the chancellors report to the president.  For instance, UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple's boss is UH President M.R.C. Greenwood.

In 2001, the university underwent a reorganization that separated the president's role from that of the UH Manoa chancellor.  Until then, one person had performed both duties.

Critics of that move said the creation of a chancellor for Manoa created millions of dollars in extra expenses for staff salaries and benefits, adding a new layer of bureaucracy without tangible benefits.

Greenwood has said there is plenty for a UH Manoa chancellor to do, overseeing a billion-dollar operation with 5,000 faculty and staff as well as 20,000 students on the system's main campus.

The UH athletics director reports to the UH chancellor.  Former AD Jim Donovan's direct boss was former UH Manoa Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw until Apple took over in late June 2012.  UH Manoa fields Division I sports teams in seven men's and 11 women's sports, in addition to co-ed sailing and cheerleading.

Greenwood's contract pays her an annual salary of $475,008 as well as a $5,000-a-month housing allowance and the use of an automobile or a car allowance of $326 a month.  For the past two years, Greenwood has voluntarily reduced her pay by 10 percent, while other UH executives voluntarily reduced their pay and unionized employees endured mandatory pay reductions.

Greenwood's employment agreement also gives her a free parking space and use of an annual protocol fund of $150,000.  Greenwood was also granted tenure as a UH professor, allowing her to land in a faculty job if she's terminated, steps down or if her contract is not renewed.

The regents hired Greenwood in August 2009 and extended her initial three-year contract for another three years in Jan. 2011, without any increase in pay.  But her contract allows the regents to "adjust Dr. Greenwood's compensation" for the fourth, fifth and sixth years, "to be determined by mutual agreement of the Board and Greenwood."  Theoretically, the board could increase or decrease her pay in those years.  But so far, her salary has remained the same.  Greenwood's contract expires July 31, 2015.

The agreement allows for termination of Greenwood for cause, including negligence or willful misconduct, conviction of a crime, prolonged absence, failure to comply with board directives or policies or with applicable laws. Apple and Donovan's employment agreements have similar clauses.

Greenwood's contract also says she can be fired for cause for damage to the university's reputation, which is described as "any act or failure to act by or attributable to Dr. Greenwood that in the board's reasonable determination subjects the university to undue criticism and embarrassment, damages the university's credibility and reputation, or otherwise portrays the university in an unfavorable light."

No one from the Board of Regents has publicly called for Greenwood's ouster.

"We want to first emphasize our strong support for the leadership of university President MRC Greenwood and UH Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple," Board of Regents Chair Eric Martinson said in a statement released to the media Aug. 22.

But the UH Manoa Faculty Senate is scheduled to take up a motion for a "no confidence" vote on Greenwood in the months ahead.  The legislative body of 86 senators, which represents 2,200 faculty at UH's flagship campus, could vote on the proposal as soon as November.

"Proving cause is always tough.  And it costs money," said Honolulu attorney Jim Bickerton, who has represented several professors in employment disputes with UH in recent years.

"It would have to be a serious violation of an established rule or policy," Bickerton said. "Mere bad judgment probably would not be considered a serious violation."

Greenwood's contract, like those of Apple and Donovan, says the university can terminate her for no reason or "without cause."  To do that, the school would have to give her two months written notice and then pay her for the remainder of her contract or 12 months base pay, whichever is lower.

If she is terminated without cause, the UH is obligated to offer her a tenured faculty position, according to her employment agreement, along with 60 days of housing allowance and reimbursement for moving expenses.

The bottom line: terminating a UH executive without cause could be very expensive and firing them with cause can be difficult to prove, possibly leading to a lawsuit and a costly fight in court. Even the threat of a lawsuit can prompt costly and lengthy mediation, as UH learned when it terminated a previous president eight years ago.

In June 2004, the UH Board of Regents fired then-UH President Evan Dobelle from his $442,000-a-year position for cause, meaning that he stood to lose $2.26 million in severance pay. After he threatened to sue, his lawyer and the university reached a settlement in which he agreed to resign, but received $1.05 million in severance pay and other benefits, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin reported at the time.  In exchange, the regents rescinded their "fired for cause" decision.

Documents released by the university showed Dobelle spent $1 million on renovations of the president's home at College Hill in 2001, a move that drew criticism from the public and regents.  The renovations' original price estimate was much lower, $170,000, the newspaper said.

Documents also showed he spent about $90,000 in nonprofit UH Foundation money under his control to pay for polls in 2001 and 2003.  The polls included questions measuring the public's attitudes about politicians including U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, then-U.S. Rep. Ed Case, then-Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris and then-Gov. Ben Cayetano, the Star-Bulletin reported.

At the time, Dobelle's attorney, Rick Fried, said, "There are no smoking guns here," claiming that the documents did not reveal any wrongdoing.

The regents never explained publicly what their cause was for trying to fire Dobelle, and as part of a mediated settlement, rescinded his termination.

The episode was costly for taxpayers and took nearly two months to resolve.  The regents fired Dobelle June 15, 2004, and after the UH hired lawyers to represent its case and agreed to Dobelle's million-dollar payout, both sides settled the dispute in early August, when he agreed to step down on Aug. 14 of that year.


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