Wednesday, September 26, 2012
The Legislature can’t fix University of Hawaii governance problems
by Larry Geller
The media and our state legislature seem to be approaching the current administrative difficulties at the University of Hawaii as though it were a management failure. It isn’t, and moreover, the Legislature is not equipped to make meaningful changes.
The Star-Advertiser is correct in pointing out today that Hawaii has no professional sports, so everyone is getting steamed about UH sports. Let’s face it—sports is our national religion.
The University, however, is an institution of higher learning. Sports, or athletics as they call it, is supposedly but one part of the goal—producing graduates of sound mind and body. One thing UH is not is a business run according to familiar lines of corporate governance.
Is the University of Hawaii (or any other university) a school run by business people, a business run by educators, or a sports conglomerate run by both? No. Or yes. The confusion itself suggests that the proposed remedy, if one develops, will not cure the patient because the doctor doesn’t understand the disease.
The newspaper is presently chronicling Senate hearings at which, it appears, we are supposed to accept that the university ought to be run by politicians who are neither educators nor business executives.
What is wrong with this picture? Plenty. In fact, everything.
It reinforces that the governance model of UH is itself at fault.
Today’s scandal, which is not so much the loss of $200,000 to a concert scam as the UH’s reaction to it, demonstrates one thing clearly—the organizational model that runs the school is inadequate. The current scandal is just one of series of governance failures.
So who should be working on this? Not state legislators, and not highly-paid administrators. What we’re seeing is simply how misguided hearings, apparently intent on placing blame, can be used to inflame a public that just wants a few “wins” on the sports field and probably couldn’t care less how the UH athletic department delivers them.
Organizational problems require organizational professionals
Organization development is an ongoing, systematic process of implementing effective organizational change. Organization development is known as both a field of applied behavioral science focused on understanding and managing organizational change and as a field of scientific study and inquiry. It is interdisciplinary in nature and draws on sociology, psychology, and theories of motivation, learning, and personality.
I’ve written before about the “garbage can” model that can be used to describe how many universities are operated. Please check the link for recent articles related to the current UH sports scandal.
The Legislature, and perhaps the news media as well, seem to be measuring the university as though it were a business. It isn’t, even though it has a highly-paid leader at the top. The top of what? Not of a hierarchy, as would be the case in a corporation. We saw that the president couldn’t even fire the athletic director. In fact, it’s not clear that the athletic director was properly evaluated before the current “job shift” was implemented. And he’s now occupying a job slot that not only didn’t exist, it’s unnecessary.
That’s not how a corporation behaves.
Further, any university has to deal with tenure. It can’t be a “business” if its employees can’t be fired.
The interference of the Legislature every so often also calls into question whether a business can be guided successfully when it’s not clear who is in charge or what they expect.
As an educational institution, its product might be described as “learning.” But it is being measured at how well its sports teams perform, and how well they are managed. Where are legislative hearings on the quality of UH education?
That’s why the term “garbage can model” seems to fit.
[UH] is supposed to be an academic institution, a place of higher learning. It’s not General Electric or Hewlett-Packard. So the fact that UH athletic director Jim Donovan was re-assigned to a non-athletic position shouldn’t be confused with good management. It was whatever they fished out of the garbage can. In GE or HP the lines of responsibility would likely be very clear and failure would be evaluated and possibly dealt with in a “businesslike” way. Expecting UH management to do that is a mistake. UH is not a business.
To change the model will take a team of organization professionals, not a gaggle of state legislators. Passing laws changing the autonomy of UH will be of no use either. Firing the UH president will also make no difference in the long run.
The UH needs real change, and perhaps the fallout from the athletic scandal is an opportunity to begin the process.
I would think that after another dismal defeat on Saturday, that ending the UHM football program at the end of this season would be appropriate.