Trustees | Trusteeship

UH regents seem neutered by ‘culture of deference’

STAR ADVERTISER   |  December 14, 2012 by Armand B. Alacbay

The University of Hawaii expected to get Stevie Wonder. Instead, it became the victim of a scam—to the tune of $200,000, “signed, sealed, delivered” to an alleged fraudster now in federal custody.

Earlier this year, a local entertainment promoter approached UH officials about the possibility of booking the R&B star for a benefit concert for the university’s athletic department. After UH wired a $200,000 deposit to the promoter’s supposed booking agent—without doing any due diligence—the real agents for Stevie Wonder contacted the school officials and told them that they had, in fact, been talking to the wrong people.

Now, a scathing report by the Hawaii Senate Special Committee on Accountability estimates the total cost to the university and taxpayers at $1.1 million—bolstered up from $200,000 due to legal fees, investigations and the creation of a new position for the employee who oversaw the botched transaction.

The kerfuffle surely raises concerns that the UH Board of Regents is doing a poor job of demanding accountability.

It also begs the fundamental million-dollar question: Who exactly is in charge?

The board—which holds a paltry 17 percent public approval rating, according to The Hawaii Poll in October—doesn’t seem to know. Despite the board’s responsibility to ask the necessary questions to ensure that the university acts in the public interest, the regents remained silent while the university administration made major policy decisions.

For example, the board learned only one day before the news went public that the university had rehired the former athletic director responsible for overseeing the failed concert, to a newly created, $211,000-per-year marketing position as part of a settlement agreement.

One regent testified that she felt that the board “had no choice but to support the agreement after the fact” and had no legal authority to do otherwise. Other regents reported that they were advised by university counsel that the settlement agreement didn’t require their approval—despite the Hawaii attorney general’s finding otherwise.

This board culture goes well beyond the Wonder concert fiasco. One regent testified that the board once approved a chancellor’s request for 10 months’ paid leave—a move that itself violated the board’s own policies—after the president advised that the university would be sued if the board failed to do so.

No wonder the Senate committee has “serious questions concerning the BOR’s independence from the president.”

One might ask whether UH’s culture is one in which the board “defers to the president as a high-ranking colleague when, instead, the board should be overseeing the president as an employee.”

If that last sentence raises some concern, it should—it is lifted straight from the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s report on problems with governance at Penn State.

Unfortunately, a lack of proper board engagement prevails at many institutions of higher education—a culture often reinforced by Hawaii’s accreditors, the Western Association of Colleges and Universities, and trade associations like the Association of Governing Boards, of which the university is a member.

This culture of deference undermines a governing board’s very purpose of providing accountability.

If our universities are to be well managed, we need trustees who ask tough, challenging questions, and realize that boards are more than booster clubs.

Sadly, what is happening in Hawaii is representative of a governance crisis nationwide. Whether it’s Penn State or the University of Hawaii, governing boards are under increasing criticism for failing to keep higher education affordable, accessible and accountable.

The importance of quality education has never been greater, and effective and engaged trustees are a crucial component in this effort.


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