EXCLUSIVE: Former governor, business leaders say UH needs outside interim leader

Published: Jun. 6, 2013 at 9:50 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 7, 2013 at 1:25 AM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Several business leaders, including a former governor and a former University of Hawaii regent, are urging the UH Board of Regents to hire an interim UH president from outside the university system who can make changes before a permanent president is hired.

UH President MRC Greenwood is stepping down on Aug. 31, and the Regents Thursday said they expect to choose a temporary replacement for her in July.  A more permanent president would most likely be chosen months later.

At a special meeting to discuss the selection process held at the UH John A. Burns School of Medicine Thursday, regents offered all kinds of opinions about the kind of president the school needs.

"We're going to need someone who's tough enough and strong enough to say 'no' once in a while. And lead us in those areas that we think we can excel at," said Regent Chuck Gee, the retired head of UH's travel management school.

"We are not in a good place right now, with the public," said Regent Coralie Matayoshi, an attorney and CEO of the Red Cross in Hawaii, referring to the aftermath of the canceled Stevie Wonder concert. "In order to move forward with any of our goals, we're going to need someone who can instill confidence in the university and restore the trust that we really need."

Regents heard from business leaders who said UH needs to bring in an interim president from outside the university, someone who can clean house and make major changes before a permanent president is hired. They said a temporary UH leader should be someone from Hawaii or familiar with the islands.

"Please consider maximizing the opportunities of this transition period by engaging an experienced interim executive," said Dennis Hirota, who served as a regent from 2008 to 2012.  "This executive would prepare the organization for a successful executive transition," he told regents Thursday.

Hirota is president of Sam O. Hirota, Inc., a Honolulu engineering and surveying firm, and is a booster of UH's engineering department and cancer center.

Former Governor George Ariyoshi agreed and wrote regents a letter that said, "If you can find someone who can come in on a temporary basis to fix our problems, right the university, I believe you should consider that." Ariyoshi, a UH alumnus, served as governor from 1973 to 1986.

Asked if the regents would rule out bringing in an interim president from outside UH, John Holzman, the head of the regents search committee, said, "No, we do not rule that out.  But the first place we'll look is probably internally 'cause like I say, this idea of continuity.  Keep the classes open. Keep the kids coming to school. Keep the researchers researching. Keep the teachers teaching."

Internal candidates know how the UH system works, Holzman said. "The primary focus will be to look internally, because that makes the most sense.  But I would hate to exclude the rest of the world."

UH chief academic officer Linda Johnsrud is considered by many people to be a leading contender to become the interim president, since she's second in line to the president now.  She became the school's vice president for academic affairs and provost sin 2005 and has worked in the UH system for nearly 25 years.

Even though Johnsrud is a respected administrator who many lawmakers felt has done a good job handling their questions and representing the university, some business leaders said an insider cannot make the changes that need to be made at UH.

Regents received written testimony from retired U.S. Army Brigadier General Clarence Agena, that said, "The Stevie Wonder fiasco appears to simply symptomatic of what is wrong with how Manoa is being governed."

"In order to achieve structural soundness throughout the university system, an impartial arbiter must first be retained to repair the parts that are broken," said Agena, a UH Manoa graduate. "The arbiter must be empowered to make the necessary alterations and modifications without fear of offending others, some in high positions, to bring about the necessary changes.  This being the case, we may need an outsider to take on the task."

Holzman, a retired diplomat, heads both the search committee for the permanent president and the task group that will forward two or three names of interim candidates to the regents.

Asked if the interim UH president should 'clean house,' Holzman said, ""I think we're going to have to talk to whoever's the next president about that.  Any institution can improve.  And we want to improve too, and we will. So, let's just leave it at that."

The regents are expected to vote to choose an interim UH leader from a list of two or three finalists at a special meeting July 1. The regents spent more than one hour in executive session behind closed doors Thursday discussing potential interim candidates, Holzman said.

He said the regents most likely will not consider the interim president for the permanent job.

"I think the sense of the board at this point is that it's not one of the best practices to have the interim apply.  The interim is the interim," Holzman added.

Finding someone from outside UH -- particularly someone in Hawaii -- to head the 10-campus system temporarily and make potentially controversial changes in preparation for a permanent CEO will be a challenge, business leaders said.

Some former regents tried to convince respected Honolulu businesswoman Diane Plotts to apply for the interim job, sources said.  An accountant by training, Plotts is a former UH regent and Kamehameha Schools trustee who worked for Hemmeter Investment in Honolulu and served as a longtime director of Hawaiian Electric Industries. Plotts, who's in her 70s, declined the requests to apply for the UH position, sources said.

Regent Saedene Ota, a graphic artist and owner of a Maui clothing company who serves on the regents' presidential selection task group, said the next UH president must be someone who can make difficult decisions.

"It's going to be tough, obviously, because we are so large and we have so many constituents, but one that can guide us and make those hard choices as well, too," Ota said.

The regents' selection process when Greenwood was chosen in 2009 lasted seven to eight months.  Holzman could not offer a time estimate for this search process.

"We're going to do it as expeditiously as we possibly can, because that's what the people of this state want and that's what we want to accomplish too," Holzman said.

"We're looking for people who know Hawaii, who love Hawaii, who are passionate about our university.  Who are passionate about education in our state," he added. "We're talking about commitment, we're talking about passion.  We're talking about a love for our university and that's what we want."

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