EXCLUSIVE: Donovan to testify about 'take-it-or-leave-it' offer from UH

EXCLUSIVE: Donovan to testify about 'take-it-or-leave-it' offer from UH
Published: Sep. 23, 2012 at 3:16 PM HST|Updated: Sep. 24, 2012 at 5:37 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Former University of Hawaii Athletics Director Jim Donovan plans to testify before state lawmakers Monday that UH offered him a "take it or leave it" deal for his controversial new job, sources said.

Donovan is scheduled to speak before a special State Senate committee investigating the canceled Stevie Wonder concert at UH, a fiasco that some see as an example of management problems at the university.

As head of the UH Athletics Department, Donovan presided over planning for the failed concert.

A UH investigation found while he exercised little oversight of the event in which UH lost a $200,000 deposit, he committed no criminal wrongdoing.

After the university placed Donovan on leave July 11 to investigate the canceled concert, his lawyer threatened to sue UH, claiming the public suspension defamed him and ruined his reputation.

Donovan will tell lawmakers Monday that UH officials offered him a take-it-or-leave-it deal to settle his lawsuit threat, sources said.

Donovan plans to testify that UH said he either needed to sue the university or step down as athletics director and take a newly created communications job in the office of Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple.  On Aug. 11, Donovan accepted the chancellor's office position that will pay him $211,000 a year for three years, about $30,000 less annually than his AD job. He will continue being paid his AD salary of $240,000 a year until his AD contract runs out in March of 2013. As part of the settlement, UH agreed to pay $30,000 in Donovan's lawyer's fees as part of the settlement.

A letter obtained by Hawaii News Now shows Donovan's attorney, David Simons, proposed a higher-paid deal on Aug. 9.

"Our proposal is to resolve this matter is that the University of Hawaii buy out Jim's Athletic Director's contract (approximately 7 months at $19,000 per month), pay his attorney's fees of $40,000 and give him a 5 year contract as Vice Chancellor at UH Manoa, reporting to Chancellor Apple at $240,000 per year (subject to a temporary voluntary reduction of 5%)," said Simon in a letter to lawyer Mark Bennett, the former state attorney general who has handling negotiations for UH.

"I think this deal would make Jim whole, and will be in the University's best interest.  Jim's reputation has been damaged and he is losing a job he loves.  As you told me, this is a negotiation, so this not a take it or leave it offer, but is one that is fair and should be approved," Simon wrote. In the end, both sides agreed to the lower-paid deal.

Donovan is also expected to tell state senators about meddling by UH Regents in athletics department affairs.

Donovan has confided in others that former UH Regents Chair Howard Karr told him to fire at least one coach in recent years, moves Donovan sometimes rejected. Karr now serves as chair of the search advisory committee that's helping UH search for a new athletics director.

UH President MRC Greenwood turned down two requests to extend Donovan's five-year contract and she has said UH had already decided to bring in a new AD before the Stevie Wonder concert debacle.

An outside consultant hired for an operational review of the UH athletics department in 2009 – one year after Donovan became athletics director – found he was "very skilled" and the right person for the job.

"He is well liked by the external constituency, university personnel and the employees of the Athletics Department," consultant Gary Cunningham wrote in the only report by an outside expert that reviewed Donovan's performance.

"There was a hostile environment when he [Donovan] joined the athletics staff," Cunningham concluded. "He changed the leadership team and created a very positive culture.  His leadership style empowers employees to do their job without close scrutiny."

"The Athletics Department is doing everything possible to generate money, cut costs and maintain a competitive program," Cunningham said in his report three years ago.

Cunningham is a former athletics director at University of California, Santa Barbara, Fresno State University and the University of Wyoming.

Sources said top UH officials felt Donovan made bad management choices more recently, such as wanting to extend the contract of former UH Head Football Coach Greg McMackin for three years.

Other UH officials overruled Donovan on that decision and on Donovan's initial proposal to pay McMackin the full $1.1 million remaining on his contract which still had a year before expiring.  Instead, the UH paid McMackin nearly half that amount--$600,000—to buyout his contract.

The UH replaced McMackin with Norm Chow, a choice sources said Donovan was not entirely happy with.

An April 2012 report by UH Faculty Athletics Representative Peter Nicholson raised concerns about the regents and Greenwood taking unprecedented roles in major decisions affecting the athletics department.  Nicholson, an English professor, turned the report in to the UH Manoa Faculty Senate.

"When the decision was made to leave the Western Athletics Conference and move to the Big West and the Mountain West, the system office took on an unprecedented role in what might normally be considered a campus matter, Nicholson wrote.

Nicholson said "the president [Greenwood] assumed the responsibility of representing the institution at meetings of the Mountain West (our new football conference), though not the Big West (our new conference for most of our other sports)."

An NCAA peer-review team "noted the oddness of this arrangement," he said, and recommended that "your institution be represented by your campus head at all athletics conferences as soon as possible."

In response, the university provided a letter from Greenwood that said she was directed by the regents to represent UH Manoa during the transition period that the Manoa campus was leaving the WAC and joining the Mountain West and Big West conferences.

"The UHM Chancellor will assume responsibility for representation of UHM in the Mountain West Conference after the completion of the transition," Greenwood wrote.

Nicholson's report said, "Another situation arose this year that raises a similar concern.  All normal procedures were again set aside in the hiring of the new football coach [Norm Chow]."

Normally at least one faculty member serves on the search committee to find a new coach at UH Manoa, Nicholson said, noting he has served on at least two such committees.

"But for the football search, the composition was determined by the system [president and regents] office. It contained no educators and no one from the Manoa campus, and there was no apparent attempt to bring together the full diversity of expertise that goes into the understanding of a coach's role at a public university," Nicholson added.

Nicholson said he had "absolutely no quarrel" with the choice of Chow as head football coach, a man with whom Nicholson said he has a "very good relationship."  But Nicholson said larger issues are at stake.

"At a time when the NCAA is taking bold new initiatives to raise academic standards, to inhibit professionalization, and to keep the 'student' in student athlete, I have seen the University of Hawaii take two steps that have the potential to lead us in exactly the opposite direction," he added. 

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