A Quirky Candidate For Quirky UH

Neal Smatresk, president of University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has local ties | UNLV photo

Can the next University of Hawaii president be a proven CEO without also offering almost-peerless academic credentials? I think a case can be made that the answer is yes, definitely.

I say that because it is the reputation of the university not the bona fides of its chief executive officer that draws in top-flight outside scholars as faculty and researchers.

Our university has been doing very well as a research institution attracting major grants. Getting the major scholars has been problematic only because we can’t always offer the kind of salary and facilities they demand. But then again, look at our excellent medical school and cancer research center.

The president is the operator of a 12-campus octopus. So it’s a bit like running The Boeing Company. You have plants all over the place, plus parts suppliers, lobbying with lawmakers, schmoozing with military procurers and satisfying regulators. You don’t have to be one of the planet’s most brilliant aviation physicists. You hire those.

The president hires brilliant (we hope) chancellors and vice chancellors. And those should hire and appoint brilliant deans. The latter are the people running the purely academic side of things.

Look back at Fujio Matsuda’s tenure as UH president. He had a Ph.D. in civil engineering and basically had been a state highways and airports administrator. Not a Nobel Prize candidate. Yet he ran one of UH’s best periods of peace, quiet and excellence.

I agree that giving ever-better education to students is UH’s main mission – not turning out green lab mice. But that’s where the chancellors come in.

Several people have suggested that the next president should have a familiarity with Hawaii. I strongly agree and that’s why, if it were up to me, I’d be out there hustling Dr. Neal Smatresk, president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and former vice chancellor for academic affairs here.

We are a little quirky out here. Our Legislature is definitely a little quirky. The attitude of Manoa’s undergraduate students is a little quirky. So the president must deal with the quirkiness. Helps if he/she is just a tad quirky him/herself.

Everybody says a UH president must be into sports. I’d say yes, if that means knowing when to pull the plug on what we can’t afford. We can’t afford to play with the big boys and girls. We can’t attract the big athletes from the Mainland. We just are not NCAA top-division material. But our quirky fans refuse to accept that. A UH president has to be tough about laying out the facts. We can be a Harvard, Yale or Columbia. We can’t be an Alabama, Oregon or Notre Dame.

So I’d be looking for a strong manager who’s been around us, knows quirky and isn’t intimidated by the Na Koa Football Club or the guys at the Saint Louis Clubhouse.

OK, so he/she needs a doctorate for show-and-tell.

But I wouldn’t care if it’s in rocket physics or fermentation sciences.

Quirky is probably better.