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University of Hawaii president absent 348 days in four years on the job

By   /   March 26, 2013  /   News  /   No Comments

University of Hawaii President MRC Greenwood

University of Hawaii President MRC Greenwood

By Malia Zimmerman | Hawaii Reporter

HONOLULU — MRC Greenwood has traveled for nearly one full year out of her four years as president of the University of Hawaii, according to records obtained by Watchdog.org.

Between June 2009 and February 2013, Greenwood was out of state for 238 days and traveling between islands for 68 days. She also took 42 days of vacation.

“It is vital to the university’s national and international reputation for the president — in many ways the face of the university — to be active external to the campus,” said university spokeswoman Lynne Waters. “The benefits of this investment of time and energy may not be measurable in the short run, but they certainly will in the long run.”

State Rep. K. Mark Takai, a University of Hawaii graduate and former editor of the student newspaper Ka Leo, disagreed. He called Greenwood’s extensive travel “clearly a concern.”

The University of Hawaii Foundation covered the vast majority of Greenwood’s travel costs, more than $133,000. Other organizations and associations of which Greenwood is a member paid between $500 and $7,000 for her travel to conferences and events on the mainland. The university itself sponsored just over $6,200 for travel costs, mainly Greenwood’s visits to neighbor island campuses or attendance at meetings of the university’s board of regents.

“We had this issue when UH President Evan Dobelle was around,” Takai said, referring to the university’s former university president. Dobelle  was asked to resign in 2004, in part because of what some regents believed were abuse of travel privileges and elaborate spending habits. Dobelle denied the allegations. When he threatened to sue the university, the regents folded: in return for his agreement to leave the university later, officials granted him a two-year teaching position and $1.6 million in cash, paid Dobelle’s legal fees, gave him a pension and insurance for life, and declared no wrongdoing on Dobelle’s part.

“The regents are the boss of the president and they have the oversight of the president. The university regents need to rein her in,” Takai said about Greenwood. “It seems to me that there is a lack of oversight of the president and her travels. Unless someone like you asks the questions, there is no one providing any oversight.”

Some of the president’s travel was not directly related to university business, school records show.

For example, because she was a Monterey Bay Aquarium board member, Greenwood traveled regularly to California to meet board obligations and the organization covered her expenses. Her staff said her participation with the premier aquarium on the West Coast was important to the university’s physical sciences programs. She also attended the president’s January inauguration, and while there met with Hawaii’s congressional delegation and made another presentation about the university.

“President MRC Greenwood is a nationally recognized and respected research scientist and higher education policy advisor. Her travel is an important aspect of her job as president of the University of Hawaii,” Waters said.

“Her responsibilities include maintaining the university’s reputation in Washington, D.C., and in national and international organizations and professional associations such as the National Academies, including the Institute of Medicine, the Association of Public Land Grant Universities, and others.”

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim

Some lawmakers have been critical, saying Greenwood’s frequent absences while the university is struggling with financial controversy is at least bad timing.

After the University lost $200,000 to con artists claiming they could bring Stevie Wonder to the University’s Manoa campus for a fundraising concert in the so called “Wonder Blunder,” and the FBI had to get involved, lawmakers drilled down into financial and management operations of Greenwood and her team.

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim chaired three hearings in her special investigative committee to examine management and fiscal practices at the university. In the process, senators criticized Greenwood for spending more than $1.2 million on outside lawyers and public relations personnel. They also wanted to know why tuition costs have escalated 141 percent over the last decade, making tuition unaffordable for some local students.

Takai said he hopes the regents, based on their commitment to the public and the legislature, reestablishes a policy that has Greenwood approve her travels, “otherwise there is no oversight.”

Ted Hong, who served as a regent from 2003 to 2004, said he is concerned that the University of Hawaii Foundation, established to improve the university, has become a “travel fund” for the school’s presidents.

“That is not why local people donate to our university.  Former President Dobelle was rightfully criticized for his out-of-state travel, and the question is whether the same standard is being applied to President Greenwood. You can’t phone in or Skype leadership,” Hong said.

Kitty Lagareta

Kitty Lagareta

Greenwood has avid defenders.

Former Regent Kitty Lagareta said she believes Greenwood is an effective president who should be expected to travel outside Hawaii — to fundraise, lobby and network — rather than sit behind her desk. Lagareta, who helped negotiate Dobelle’s departure, said she doesn’t believe Greenwood and Dobelle are anything alike, and that Greenwood is doing what she needs to do to keep the university thriving.

A Washington, D.C.-based higher education watchdog group didn’t take a position on Greenwood’s travel. “But I do know that college presidents are expected to travel in order to raise money and improve the recognition of their schools,” said Rita Kirshstein, director of the Delta Cost Project, a part of the American Institutes for Research.

University of Hawaii Manoa Campus

University of Hawaii Manoa Campus

The University of Hawaii Foundation, which funds the majority of Greenwood’s expenses, has reported bringing in between $41 million and $66 million annually since Greenwood took charge. Fiscal year totals include:

  • 2012 – $66,855,810;
  • 2011-  $46,703,382;
  • 2010 – $41,155,988 and
  • 2009 – $46,551,275

“President Greenwood would not presume to take responsibility or claim credit for increased revenue or donations realized by the University of Hawaii Foundation and its staff over the last few years. She does, however, endeavor to maximize her time away from the university on university business by frequently combining university business with development work on behalf of the UH Foundation,” Waters said.

The University also brought in grants to support research activities, pay salaries and patronize local vendors for goods and services, Waters said.

  • FY 12 – $436,000,000
  • FY 11 – $489,000,000
  • FY 10 – $452,000,000
  • FY 09 – $414,000,000
  • FY 08 – $368,000,000
  • FY 07 – $354,000,000
University of Hawaii's Cancer Research Center

University of Hawaii’s Cancer Research Center

“President Greenwood arrived in 2009. She will be the first to say she cannot take personal credit for the university’s advancements in these areas; but her extensive relationships have allowed her access to many more potential friends and benefactors for the university,” Waters said. “This is money that otherwise would not enter the Hawaii economy.”

Waters said there are other measures to show Greenwood’s effectiveness, including record high enrollment figures that have exceeded 60,000 students.

“University of Hawaii is awarding more degrees, better-serving underserved groups, and helping more students get their degrees paid for by other funding sources,” Waters said.

“Also, during a deep recession, the University of Hawaii was able to build and open the only National Cancer Institute designated Cancer Center in the Pacific after years of inactivity; build and open the new West Oahu campus after decades of languishing; and prepare to break ground on the Palamanui extension of Hawaii Community College to serve the west side of the island of Hawaii. This took determination, persistence, and creativity on the part of university leadership to execute.”

Takai said the rationale the university gives for Greenwood’s travel is she brings in money and fundraising, but that is not the only consideration.

“That (the fundraising) is great. However, what is missing is the considerable amount of support the university gets from state and taxpayers,” Takai said.

Greenwood should start to pay some attention to the legislature’s recommendations for the University and spend time at the capitol meeting with lawmakers, rather than traveling out of state so often and not appearing at hearings, Takai said.

“To my knowledge, she (Greenwood) has not spent too much time at the capitol visiting with legislators,” Takai said.

The sometimes rocky relationship with senators who are increasingly critical of her management does not excuse her from meeting with House members and freshman legislators, Takai said.

“I asked some of the freshman legislators and they said she has never stopped by,” Takai said.

“As a legislator, what I see is the attention she gives others outside the state – and hope she could balance that out by spending time here.”

Contact Malia Zimmerman at [email protected]


Malia formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.