When Evan Dobelle replaced Kenneth Mortimer as University of Hawaii president in early July 2001, he arrived on the heels of a 13-day strike by Hawaiian public school educators and university professors. The higher ed share of that action was set in motion on April 5 of that year, under the auspices of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, or UHPA, which has been the exclusive bargaining agent for the faculties of UH and community colleges of Hawaii since 1974. (The organization has a direct affiliation with the NEA.) The strike action included such issues as: too many classes taught by adjunct faculty instead of tenured professors, heavy course loads, and inequities relating to pay. After the strike ended, UHPA professors were given across-the-board raises of $2,325, with a 6 percent hike promised for the following year.
Even with the increases, as of April 2002, UH Manoa professors rank in the bottom half of the wage scale for university professors across the nation. Professors at other UH campuses earn close to the median or higher. About 60 to 80 percent of U.S. professors still earn more money than professors at UH Manoa. But professors at UH campuses say they are anticipating merit raises this year--something that was more of a rarity under Mortimer's administration. Mortimer--in office from March 1993 to June 2001--was, however, instrumental in convincing legislators to grant more fiscal autonomy to UH, such as retaining monies raised from tuition and allowing UH to decide who receives tuition waivers. The university was authorized to retain tuition dollars, as opposed to turning the money over to the state general fund. It was also was exempted from provisions of the state procurement code, and was granted relief in statute from other state regulations. Eventually, in 2000, voters approved an amendment to the state constitution, granting the university the right to govern its own affairs, except for matters of "statewide concern."
Nevertheless, morale at the university was at an all-time low during 2001--the year of the strike, and the year of Dobelle's arrival on campus. Since Dobelle assumed the presidency, morale at the university has significantly improved, say onlookers, validating the reputation he had earned as an agent of dynamic change when he was president at Trinity College in Connecticut. Dobelle, in fact, is no stranger to working with non-profit employees: He has served as chancellor and president of the City College of San Francisco; president of Middlesex Community College in Lowell, MA; mayor of Pittsfield MA; and U.S. chief of protocol at the White House.
UNIVERSITY BUSINESS: Can you describe what you encountered at UH, when you arrived?
DOBELLE: I arrived on campus in March 2001, right after I was chosen for the post. Never in my 15 years as a college president had I seen a worse morale problem: The faculty was just about to go on strike. About a month later, they did walk out, and 13 days later, the strike was settled. I took over as president July 2.
The University of Hawaii faculty was not only paid at the 20th-percentile level of colleges on the mainland, but here we're dealing with the most expensive city in the country in which to live. Not only were faculty getting far less than their colleagues, but it costs them much more to live here.
My first impression of the situation was that people didn't feel any sense of inclusion. Now, there's not always `high energy' in academic institutions: Thought, conversation, and reflection can sometimes be mistaken for low morale. But this was clearly a situation in which people were angry. They were angry with their leadership. They wanted to vent. They had no sense of validation, and no sense of direction. It was an extraordinary situation that compelled the professors to strike. In a decade, there had been no movement [on the issues] at the university. …